Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sunday in the Octave of Christmas
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (C)
From Hiding Places to Holy Portals

Readings: 1Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; Psalm 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

Dear sisters and brothers, are you familiar with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? As you know, the movie adaptation of this book by C.S. Lewis begins with the bombing of London during the Second World War, and the evacuation of the four Pevensie children to a house in the country. One day, little Lucy Pevensie is playing hide-and-seek with her three siblings, Edmund, Susan and Peter. She discovers a room where she finds a large wardrobe filled with winter coats. But the wardrobe is more than just a dusty old storage space. It is also a portal, a doorway to another world. Stumbling into it in search of a hiding place, Lucy finds herself in the magical land of Narnia, a wonderful but also perilous place, where animals speak, and where little children become kings and queens and mighty warriors.

Strangely enough this story of a wardrobe that is more a doorway to danger and adventure than a safe hiding place is what comes to mind today as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. For there are those among us who say that we live in a time when the family is increasingly coming under threat. And they are probably right. Aren’t divorces becoming ever more common? Aren’t we in danger of losing our children to various bad influences, ranging from drugs and alcohol to gang violence and Internet pornography? And are we not also hearing ever-louder cries for the acknowledgment of so-called alternative life-styles, whatever the forms these might take? All these developments can seem like so many deadly bombs falling upon our fragile families. Faced with such a lethal barrage, some of us choose to respond by emphasizing the importance of the nuclear family, consisting of father, mother and children. In the nuclear family, we seek something not unlike what Lucy thought she had found in the wardrobe: a safe hiding place, in an isolated room, out in the country, far from every possible danger. But how realistic is this approach? Is this really all there is to family life? Are holy families necessarily nuclear? Or might things be a little more complicated than that? What about those families who don’t quite fit the mold of a nuclear family?

Consider, for example, the two families that our readings present to us today. Neither of them would seem to conform to strict ideas of what a nuclear family should look like and how it should act. In the gospel, as we know, although Jesus is the son of Mary, Joseph is not his father. And, in the first reading, Hannah is actually only one of two wives of Elkanah. The other wife, Peninah, had children, but Hannah did not. And when God finally answers Hannah’s prayers by blessing her with a son, instead of keeping and raising him in her husband’s household, Hannah gives him to the priest Eli.

Not only is the stereotypical nuclear structure of the family missing, but there also seems to be more going on here than simply providing a safe hiding place. And yet both these families are models of holiness. In what does their holiness consist? The answer is found in a striking feature that they both share. Each family is closely associated with the House of God. Not only do they make an annual pilgrimage to worship at the temple, they also conduct themselves in such a way that, through them, their children are ushered into the service of God. I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request, says Hannah to Eli. Now I, in turn, give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD.

We see something similar in the experience of Jesus too. In reply to the questions of his anxious parents, Jesus tells them that he must be in his Father’s house. And yet, soon after that, he returns with them to Nazareth. Clearly, his Father’s house is not just the Temple in Jerusalem, but wherever his heavenly Father wants him to be. Whether it be in a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth, or in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, or on a Cross on Calvary, in all these places, Jesus remains in the house of his Father’s will. And his family plays a crucial role in ushering him there.

Even though they are not strictly nuclear, each of the families in our readings today is holy because, like the wardrobe in the movie, they act as portals, doorways through which people are led into the House of the Lord. And not only that, but both Samuel and Jesus also themselves become portals ushering others into the service of God. Samuel grows up to be the great prophet who anoints first Saul, and then David, king. And, as we are told in the second reading, those who keep Jesus’ great commandment of love remain in him, and he in them, and so may be called the children of God, members of the Father's household.

If all this is true, then, for a family to be holy, it seems less important that it fit some predetermined structure, than that it somehow manage to usher people into the House of the Lord. I’m reminded, for example, of Agnes Awori, a 53 year-old widow living in a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kenya, whose story is told in yesterday’s issue of the LA Times. Agnes’ family is far from nuclear. She lives in a shack with 12 children, the oldest of whom is 15. Only four of these kids are hers. Seven are the children of her dead sister. And the last one is a baby that Agnes picked up 16 months ago while on her way to market. It had been abandoned in a plastic bag on the railway track, with its umbilical cord still attached. Although ridiculed by onlookers, Agnes chose to save the baby. She named him Moses. Now Agnes makes about $2.65 a day and has accumulated about $132 in debts. Still, as she rocks Moses in her arms, she is able to say: I'm happy in my life. I'll bring him up well, like these other orphans. Everyone has their own talents in life.

Of course, whatever Agnes may say, these are far from ideal conditions in which to bring up a child, let alone 12. But then we might say the same about being born in a manger and then having to flee by night into Egypt. Of course, it’s important to stress that more needs to be done to help people like Agnes. That, after all, is the aim of the newspaper article. Still, perhaps it’s worth remembering that what we are celebrating today is not the Feast of the Ideal Family, but that of the Holy Family.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that families come in different shapes and sizes? But whatever may be the shapes and sizes of our families today, how might we make them better portals leading others into the House of the Lord?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)
Between Potholes and Reunions

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

Dear sisters and brothers, have you seen that commercial with the talking pothole? A stylish grey sports car goes over a pothole, bursts a tire, and comes to a standstill. Oh no! Did I do that? The pothole asks, in a charming southern accent. Let me get my cellular out and call you a wrecker. Oh shoot, I don’t have a phone. I’m a pothole! So… 'K, bye! Funny commercial. But not if you’re the driver of the sports car. Can you imagine how you must feel? Not only has the pothole damaged your precious car, even worse, it has kept you from reaching your destination. Maybe you were rushing home for dinner, or to meet some friends for a drink, or to the hospital where your wife’s in labor. The pothole has kept you from being reunited with the people you love.

And speaking of reunions, I’m reminded of a YouTube video about Hilda Schlick, a grandmother in Israel, who was recently reunited with her long lost brother, Simon. Hilda is a survivor of the Holocaust. After WWII, she had ended up in Israel, thinking that the rest of her family had been killed. Except that they hadn’t. Years later, using her maiden name, Hilda's grownup grandson makes a search on the internet, and discovers that Hilda’s parents and brothers had survived the Holocaust and settled in Canada, where one of her brothers still lives, along with many nephews and nieces and their children – a big family. Thanks to the efforts of Hilda's grandson, the terrible pothole of war and genocide, which had broken her family apart, was finally filled in. After 65 long years, Hilda and Simon enjoyed an emotional reunion in an airport in Israel.

Potholes and reunions: Aren’t these the things that our Mass readings invite us to reflect upon on this 2nd Sunday of Advent?  For what do we find in the first reading, if not a disruptive pothole and a promised reunion? As a result of war, the city of Jerusalem has been separated from her children. They have been deported to a foreign land. But all is not lost. Through the prophet Baruch, God tells Jerusalem not to give up hope. For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that all the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God. Although her family has been broken apart by exile and war, God promises Jerusalem that God will fill in the pothole, that God will smooth out the road, and bring the exiles home. God will work to bring about a joyful reunion.

And what about us? Isn’t this piece of good news also addressed to us too? Aren’t there potholes among us today as well, obstacles that keep families apart? We may think immediately, of course, of the brave young women and men serving in our Armed Forces, who continue to have to leave their families in order to keep their country safe. But shouldn’t we think also of the countless nameless faces, the mothers and fathers, who have to separate themselves from their children in order to find work in a foreign land? Shouldn’t we think also of the terrible temptations that many of our young people have to face on a daily basis: the temptations of drink and drugs, of sex and violence? In our world today, isn’t it true that, among many other things, poverty as well as other social evils can be as disruptive of family life as war? Face with potholes such as these, we can often feel terribly helpless. We can even be tempted to give in to depression and despair. Even so, in this season of Advent, through our readings, God reminds us not to give up, but to keep on hoping. For although, on our own, we may not be able to fill in all the potholes on the highway of life, there is still something we can do.

We can start by taking care of another highway, by attending to that interior road that connects us to God. Isn’t this the message of John the Baptist in the gospel? A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” To even begin to see and to repair the many potholes on the highway of life, we must first patch up the ruptures in our relationship with God. It is only when we begin to fill in the holes in our hearts that we can receive the wisdom to see what needs to be done in our world, as well as the strength and courage to do it. Isn’t this also what the prophet tells Jerusalem in the first reading? How is she to regain her hope? She must first take off her robe of mourning and misery and put on the splendor of glory from God forever. She must first stand upon the heights and look to the east, to the rising sun, to see her children gathered from the east and the west. Isn’t this also what we are being asked to do in this season of Advent, to take off all the things that keep us from God and to put on Christ, to look to the rising Son of God?

And isn’t this also why, in addition to being a time of preparation, Advent is also a season of joy? Only this is a curious kind of joy. It’s the joy that children sometimes experience when you promise them a lollipop. They haven’t received it yet, but already they are happy. They are happy even while they wait, because they trust that their parents will not lie. For them, a promise is as good as its fulfillment. This is not unlike the joy that Paul talks about in the second reading. Although it’s not clear in the reading, because the relevant verse (v.7) has been left out, Paul finds himself in a pothole. He is writing from prison, separated from the community to whom he addresses his letter. And yet, Paul writes about joy. I pray always with joy in my very prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel…. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. Although kept apart from the people for whom he longs with the affection of Christ Jesus, Paul experiences joy when he prays for them, because he has confidence that God will continue to bless them. Although the pothole of prison prevents him from meeting them, his prayer enables him to enjoy a spiritual reunion with them in the Lord. And he writes to share with them this fruit of his prayer, his joy in the Lord.

Potholes and reunions: Isn't this what Advent is about? In the midst of our everyday busyness, aren’t we being called to allow God to fill in our potholes, to salvage the wreckages of our lives and our world, so that more of us might experience the joy of reunion, the same joy that is the gift of Christ at Christmas? If all this is true, then perhaps potholes can talk after all.

Sisters and brothers, what are your potholes saying to you today?