Sunday, January 23, 2011

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Of Light and Space
Picture: cc apdk

Sisters and brothers, have you ever had an argument with someone over space? Perhaps it was over a bedroom, or an office, a parking lot, or even the restroom...

The story is told of a king who wanted to see which of his three sons was wise enough to succeed him. So he called them to his throne room to test them. To each one he handed a bag of silver, telling them to use the money to buy something that could fill the whole room. The eldest son returned leading wagons laden with stones. But these were not enough to fill the room. The second son came back with cartloads of sticks. But these too were not enough to fill the room. When it was the youngest son’s turn, the king was surprised to see that he came in empty-handed. The prince reached into his robe and pulled out a candle. He placed the candle in the middle of the room, lit it with a match, and stepped back to watch, as the candlelight easily filled the entire space.

What we find in this story, sisters and brothers, is a reminder that there is more than one way to fill a space. There is the way chosen by each of the two elder princes, the more obvious way of sticks and stones. But there is also the way of the youngest prince, the way of light. And what makes the second way so amazing, and so different from the first, is that, unlike sticks and stones, light can fill a space without excluding other things from it. When I switch on the light in my room, I don’t have to leave to make space for the light. Light fills, and even improves upon, a space without itself taking up space. 

It is useful to keep this in mind today, because our readings are all about light and space. Both the first reading and the gospel speak of how a people sitting in a very dark space have seen a great light. But what does this mean? One possible meaning is, of course, the political one. In both readings, the territory of the people of Israel has been conquered by foreigners. In the first reading it is the Assyrians who have occupied the land. And, in the gospel, it is the Romans who have done so. Faced with this political darkness, it is tempting to to think that the light comes to do only one thing: to drive out the foreign invaders and to reoccupy the land. Doesn’t the first reading foretell the smashing of yokes of burden and of poles of oppression?

And yet, it is clear that this is not what our readings mean for us. In the gospel, the coming of the light is associated with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. And, in his preaching, Jesus does not call for the overthrow of the Roman invaders, but for the conversion of human hearts. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The darkness that Jesus comes to dispel is first of all a spiritual one. Like the youngest prince in our story, in the gospel, Jesus comes to fill the land not with the sticks and stones of rebellion, but with the light of repentance. While the use of sticks and stones would bring only more violence and conflict, the light of Christ shines out with compassion and healing. We’re told that Jesus went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and curing every disease and illness. Jesus fills the whole space of Galilee with his healing light. And he even calls disciples, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, to join him in doing the same.

In the second reading too, it is with this same light of Christ that Paul wants the Corinthians to fill the space of their lives. According to Paul, the Corinthians have carved up their community into groups that exclude one another. When people claim to belong to Paul, for example, they mean that they do not belong to Apollos, or to Cephas. And vice versa. By using the names of the apostles in this way, the Corinthians have filled the space of their community with divisive sticks and stones. They are acting contrary to what Jesus preached. They remain in spiritual darkness. Which is why Paul reminds them that, instead of competing with one another, they should be united in the same mind and the same purpose of Christ. They should be filling the space of Corinth with the healing light of Christ.

But it is important for us to recognize that this is not an easy thing to do. It is not easy to choose compassion over conflict, healing over division, the way of light over the way of sticks and stones. It is not easy, because the way of light is also the way of the Cross. In today’s gospel, for example, the light begins to shine out at a very particular moment. We’re told that it is just when he had heard that John the Baptist had been arrested that Jesus begins his public ministry. It is precisely at a time when it is dangerous to be a prophet, that Jesus decides to become one. And he chooses to do this not just at a particular time, but also at a particular place. We’re told that Jesus withdrew to Galilee, a place that was under the control of Herod Antipas, the very person responsible for having John the Baptist arrested. And who would eventually have him killed. For Jesus, the way of light is also the way of the Cross. To choose to live in the light is also to choose, in some way, to die to oneself.

But still, although it is difficult to choose the light, it is not impossible. It is not impossible because, although the light of Christ does not occupy space out in the world, it has the mysterious power to make space within us, space for others. When we allow the light of Christ to shine upon us, we begin to find in ourselves a desire that is deeper even than our cravings for safety and security, for power and control. In the words of our responsorial psalm: One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. And what is this house of the Lord for us, if not the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaims in the gospel, the kingdom of light, of justice, and of peace? To live in the house of the Lord. Isn’t this what each of us wants most of all? And it is important that we Christians kindle this desire within us especially today, when we live in spaces that are so often torn apart by sticks and stones of various kinds. Whether it is in our families, in our country, or in our world, everywhere we turn, it is possible to find people struggling with one another for space of some sort. Even we ourselves, who claim to be followers of Christ, remain split apart into so many different denominations and groups. We, of whom the Lord said: This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).

Some of us may still remember that well-known story of the spiritual teacher who once posed this question to her disciples: How do you know when the night is ended and the dawn is breaking? One disciple answered: It is when you can tell from a distance whether a tree is a cherry tree or an apple tree. Wrong, replied the teacher. It is, answered another disciple, when you can tell from a distance whether an animal is a cow or a horse. Wrong, said the teacher.

You know it is dawn when you can look into the face of another and see there the face of your sister or your brother. Until you can do that, the light has not dawned on you. You remain walking in the dark.

Sisters and brothers, what will it take for the dawn to break in our hearts and in our world today?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Call of Care

Sisters and brothers, do you remember Tarzan of the Apes? I think there are probably some of us here who may still remember him. As a boy, I used to love watching Tarzan cartoons on TV. From childhood, Tarzan was raised by the great apes. And later, when he had grown into a man, he became the Lord and protector of the jungle. If I remember correctly, although every episode of the cartoon tells a different story, they all also usually follow a similar pattern. They begin with something bad happening, something that breaks the peace. There is a cry for help. And Tarzan comes to save the day. He comes to restore order to the jungle. But he usually doesn’t do this all by himself. Often he calls his friends, the jungle animals, for help. And he does it in a very unmistakable way. Probably the most memorable and distinctive thing about the Tarzan character, is his call. Do you remember what it sounds like? I hope so, because I’m not going to try to reproduce it for you now.

Whenever there is trouble in the jungle, Tarzan comes to save the day. But he comes to restore order in a very particular manner. He cares for the jungle by calling upon the jungle animals for help. In this way, the animals end up playing two roles at once. In addition to being the ones who are being protected, by responding to Tarzan’s call, the animals also lend a hand in doing the protecting. And, with their help, peace is again restored to the jungle.

This pattern of caring for the jungle by involving those who live in it bears a striking resemblance to what we find in our prayers and readings for Mass today. For we believe that just as Tarzan protects and cares for the jungle, so too does God our Father protect and care for our world. As we said in our opening prayer just now, God’s watchful care... orders all things in such power that even the tensions and the tragedies of sin cannot frustrate God’s loving plans. And, just as Tarzan does with the animals, God chooses to care for the world by calling upon those who live in it for help. 

We see this in the first reading, where the people of Israel are suffering. They are living in exile in Babylon. But God hears and answers their cry for help by calling, from among them, a servant who will come to restore peace. Not only will this servant of God restore the survivors of Israel, but he will also become a light to the nations so that God’s saving power might be felt to the ends of the earth.

This promise made by God in the first reading finds its ultimate fulfillment in the gospel. Here, Jesus is the One formed as God’s servant from the womb of Mary his Mother. Jesus is the One called by God to be the light to the nations. He comes to restore peace to the chaotic jungle that is our world. But here is also where we are brought face to face with a great mystery, the same mystery that we have been pondering during the Christmas season. For we believe that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. As fully divine, Jesus is the one called by God to come and save us from our sins. But as fully human – as one who has been tempted like us in every way, but without sin (Hb 4:15) – Jesus is also someone who calls out to the Father for help. Not unlike Tarzan’s animal friends, here in the one person of Jesus, we find someone who plays two roles at once. Jesus calls out to the Father on our behalf, even as he comes to us as God’s answer to our cry for help.

But that’s not all. This great mystery is not just about Jesus. It also has deeper implications for us. For as John the Baptist reminds us in the gospel, we have all been baptized into Christ and in his Spirit. We Christians make up the Body of Christ on this earth. The two roles played by Jesus are now to be played by us. Not only are we to cry out to God for help in times of trouble, we are also called by God to lend a hand in caring for the rest of the world.

Isn’t this dual role also what Paul is writing about in the second reading? Not only does Paul refer to the Corinthians as those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he also reminds them that they themselves are also called by God to be holy. For Paul, then, Christians are people who both call on God for help, and who are called by God to help others.

And the same two roles are to be found in our responsorial psalm too. The psalmist begins by speaking of how he cried to the Lord for help, of how he waited for the Lord, and how the Lord finally stooped toward me and heard my cry. But the psalmist doesn’t stop there. He goes on to speak of how he himself has responded to God’s call, of how he announced the Lord’s justice in the vast assembly. Here am I, Lord, he says, I come to do your will.

Calling upon the Lord, and heeding the Lord’s call. These are the two activities, the two inseparable roles, that our readings present to us today. Calling upon the Lord for protection, and heeding the Lord’s call to help protect others. These are also the roles that our world urgently needs us to take on today. For whether it is in our homes or on our streets, whether it is locally or overseas, it often seems as though the world in which we live is continually being threatened by violence of some sort. Our world needs the protection and care of Christ. Our world needs to hear and to hear again the Word of love and compassion, the message of justice and peace, for which Christ died and rose again. And from where will the world experience this care, from whom will it hear this message, if not the Body of Christ. Each of us, in our own little corner of the world, is called to lend a hand in this task. Each of us is called to do what John the Baptist does in the gospel: to make known and to make real the protection and care of Christ. In those famous words of St. Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now but yours
No hands no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.

Sisters and brothers, when there’s trouble in the jungle, and Tarzan’s call rings out, the animals come running. There is trouble in our world today. God is calling. Are we running yet?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Feast of The Baptism of the Lord
On Your Mark...
Picture: cc rachel sian

On your mark...

Sisters and brothers, I think most of us are familiar with these words. On your mark. At this command, athletes take up their positions behind the starting line before a race. For the spectator, of course, the words are important only as a signal to pay attention, because something exciting is about to begin. But, for the athlete, these words mean much more.

On your mark...

More than just the beginning of a race, these words also mark the end of a long and arduous period of preparation. For even if it may look easy, this command is not given to just anyone on the track, but only to athletes. And, in order to be worthy of taking one’s place on the track as a true athlete, one has to be willing to spend much time and energy, to spill plenty of sweat and, yes, perhaps even some blood. There’s much more to taking one’s mark at the start of a race than simply taking a stroll from the dressing room onto the running track. Just to receive the call to stand behind the starting line as a true athlete is in itself already something of an achievement.

On your mark...

From the athlete’s point of view, this command is as much an end, as it is a new beginning. The same can be said about the feast we are celebrating today. In the church’s calendar, the Baptism of the Lord marks both the end of the Christmas Season and the beginning of Ordinary Time. In the life of Jesus too, his baptism can also be seen as marking both a beginning and an end. Like an athlete being called to take his mark at the start of a race, at his baptism, Jesus gets himself into position to begin his public ministry. Here, in the Jordan river, the Spirit descends upon him to strengthen him. The Father’s voice rings out to affirm him. This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And Jesus is now ready to start running the race. He is ready to lead people back to God.

But, like the athlete’s command, the baptism of the Lord is not just a beginning. It is also something of an end. For Jesus does not come to the Jordan as the baby that we have been feasting our eyes upon in these days of Christmas. Jesus comes to John as a fully developed human adult. And not just any human adult, but one who is the most human of all. For this is the mystery that we have been celebrating at Christmas: that, in Jesus, One who is fully divine has also become fully human. Here, at his baptism, we see the end-result of Jesus’ growth from human infancy into human adulthood.

But, as with all spectators, we may think that nothing very special is happening here. What’s so great about becoming a truly human adult? Don’t we all grow into adults? Aren’t we all human too? But that’s precisely the question we need to ask ourselves today, isn’t it? When we say that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we often assume that we ourselves are already fully human. We assume that to be a human person involves nothing more than being born to human parents. But is that true? Is it really that simple? Our readings today suggest otherwise. In particular, they point out to us three characteristics of Jesus that are quite unlike what our world considers to be truly human.

For modern people like us, one key characteristic of being a human person is freedom. And not just any kind of freedom, but the freedom to be one’s own boss, to be the master of one’s own destiny. When someone tells us to do something – whether it is our friends, or relatives, or our government – we want to have the freedom to say no, I don’t want to. Of course, that is important. But the freedom that we find in our readings is of a different sort. Here is my servant whom I uphold... In these word from the first reading, what we find is not the freedom to be one’s own boss, but the freedom to be an obedient – even a suffering – servant of God. This is the freedom that led Jesus to ask John for baptism, even though Jesus was without sin. Jesus’ baptism was not a confession of sin but a free and obedient submission to the Father’s plan. It is fitting, Jesus tells John, for us to fulfill all righteousness. Here we see the freedom that marks Jesus as a truly human adult. This is the freedom that he spent years learning from his parents, Mary and Joseph. It is the freedom to say yes to the will of God.

Also, for us, to be human is not just to be free to be one’s own boss, it is also to be able to put that freedom into practice. For us, to be human is to use our hands to work for our own happiness. Whether it is on the world stage, or in the workplace, or simply in our own backyards, for us, to be human means to build our own kingdom on this earth. But in Christ we see something different. Since the freedom of Christ has to do with obedience to God, the most important human ability is not to build things with one’s hands, but rather to hear the call of God in one’s heart. It is through this kind of listening that the servant of God comes to hear God’s consoling and challenging voice: I, the Lord, have called you... I have grasped you by the hand. This is the kind of listening that every truly human person has to be trained to hear, as Jesus was, again by Mary and Joseph. Such that at the Jordan, Jesus could hear his heavenly Father say: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased...

And, finally, precisely because our modern view of being human has so much to do with becoming our own boss, and with building our own happiness, it also often leads to violence. Everyone wants to be happy. But what happens when your happiness conflicts with mine? Or mine with yours? Is it any surprise that our modern view of humanity often leads us to cause suffering, to others as well as to ourselves? In contrast, because it is focused first on the love of God, the humanity of Christ leads him to occupy himself with the kinds of ministry described in the second reading. He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. The humanity of Christ is seen not in violence, but in gentle and compassionate care for others. As we heard in the first reading, not even a bruised reed did he break, nor a smoldering wick did he quench... 

On your mark...

On the running track, these words signal both the start of the race and the end of the runner’s training. At this command, the runner takes up position as a true athlete. Similar words are spoken at Jesus’ baptism today. This is my beloved Son... This is the One whose nature was divine, but who allowed himself to become a fully trained human servant. At his baptism, Jesus heard the call. He took his mark. He started running his race.

But this feast is as much a celebration of our baptism, as it is of Christ’s. Today, we remember that we too have been baptized, that we too have been trained to be fully human, that we too have been called to go about doing good. Today, we too are being commanded to run the race.

Sisters and brothers, how ready are we to take our mark today?

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Solemnity of The Epiphany of the Lord
To Share Or To Snuff Out the Shining
Picture: cc culbertson11

Sisters and brothers, if you happen to go rummaging around in the sacristy or perhaps the storeroom of this church, there’s a good chance that you’ll find an interesting looking piece of equipment. It’s a long pole, possibly made of or plated in brass. At one end, this pole is split into two prongs. One prong is narrow and hollowed out in the middle, so that a taper or a wick can be inserted into it. The other prong ends in something that looks like a small bell or an inverted ice-cream cone. I’m quite sure that at least some of you know what I’m talking about.

This piece of equipment is meant for use on candles. Having these two prongs side by side makes this a very convenient tool to use. Holding it in your hand, when you come before a lighted candle, you can quickly make one of two choices. You can either use the prong with the taper to transfer the flame to another candle, or you can use the other prong – the one with the bell – to extinguish it. To share the flame or to snuff it out. The decision can be made with a quick flick of the wrist. The choice is in your hands.

Not unlike the two prongs on this instrument, our readings today present us with two possible ways in which people can choose to respond to God. Today, we celebrate the solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Epiphany, as you know, means manifestation. What we celebrate today is the wonderful way in which God’s glory is made manifest before all the nations. Our readings describe this glory in terms of light. In the first reading we hear a joyful proclamation and a detailed description of what happens when the awesome glory of God shines down upon Jerusalem like a powerful spotlight. At this sight, not only do all the exiled people of Israel come streaming back to their home, but even foreigners from faraway lands are attracted to the light. They come bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. We find a strikingly similar image in the gospel. This time, the glory of God shines out in the newborn baby Jesus. And the magi from the east are attracted to his light. They come to pay homage, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And that is not all that they do. The people who come to pay homage to the light are not content simply to enjoy it and to keep it for themselves. Rather, we are told in the gospel that, instead of remaining by the side of the baby Jesus, the magi go back to their own country. Having finally arrived at the brightly shining light of God they next proceed to carry the flame back with them to share it with others. By doing this, the magi show us that they have within them the same attitude toward the light that Paul has in the second reading. Here, Paul speaks of his ministry as a stewardship of God’s grace. Paul is deeply aware that although the Light of Christ has been given to him, he is not its owner. He is only its steward, its servant. His duty it is to be a taper, to carry and to share that light with others, as we find him doing in the second reading.

But, unfortunately, the light attracts the attention not just of people bearing gifts and wishing to pay their respects. There are also others drawn to the light, who carry in their hearts far more sinister intentions. The gospel tells us that Herod is greatly troubled by the news of Jesus’ birth. He is uneasy because the title that the magi use to refer to Jesus is the very same one that Herod claims for himself: king of the Jews. But there can only be one king. There can only be one light. So, in order to preserve his own status as king, in order to continue to cultivate what he considers to be his own personal flame, Herod resolves to have Jesus killed. Like someone using the bell-shaped prong, he wishes to search for and to snuff out the Shining Light of Christ.

To share or to snuff out the light. These are the two choices that our readings present to us today. And, at first glance, the choice may seem to us too easy to make. Of course, we want to be stewards like St. Paul and the magi. Of course we don’t want to be cruel tyrants like Herod. Who likes Herod anyway? But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to think too highly of ourselves. Perhaps it’ll be helpful for us to first pay closer attention to one important difference between our readings and that instrument from our sacristy.

As we said earlier, for someone carrying that instrument, the decision whether to light or to extinguish a candle can be taken with a quick flick of the wrist. In contrast, the choice between sharing and snuffing out the Light of Christ is not so easily made. Consider again the difference between the actions of the magi and those of Herod. Notice the great inconvenience that the magi had to endure in order to seek out and to share the Light. First, they had to make a long arduous journey to a foreign land. And then, they had to make a return journey to share what must have been a very unusual piece of news with the people back home. Who knows what sort of reception they received? Yet, they were willing to go through all this trouble. They were willing to seek out and to share the light of truth even though it was shining out from a strange land.

On his part, of course, Herod too was willing to endure inconvenience. To extinguish the Light of Christ, he was willing to kill all the male babies in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. But what was different about Herod was his motivation. Whereas the magi were willing to courageously embrace the strange for the sake of the truth, Herod tried to snuff out the Light of Christ because he anxiously wished to protect the familiar.

Either to adventurously encounter the truth in what may at first seem strange. Or to anxiously seek only to preserve the familiar. These are also the options that our readings present to us today. And these contrasting choices take on great significance for us today. For we live in a world where there are many who are blinded by anxiety and prejudice, and who eagerly engage in violence for the sake of their own religion. And yet, for our part, even if we Christians may believe that the fullness of truth is to be found in our own faith, we also believe that the Light of Christ may shine out in other religions as well. As the late Pope John Paul II wrote:

Through dialogue, the Church seeks to uncover... ‘a ray of that truth which enlightens all men’; these are found in individuals and religious traditions of mankind.… Other religions constitute a positive challenge for the Church: they stimulate her both to discover and acknowledge the signs of Christ's presence and of the working of the Spirit, as well as to examine more deeply her own identity and to bear witness to the fullness of Revelation which she has received for the good of all (Redemptoris Missio, 56).

Sisters and brothers, on this solemn feast of the Epiphany, something like that instrument from our sacristy is being placed in our hands. It is for us to decide whether we wish to share or to snuff out the Light of Christ, wherever we may find it shining. Which option will we be choosing today?

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Solemnity of The Blessed Virgin Mary,
the Mother of God
Microexpressions and the Mother of God

Sisters and brothers, have you heard of Dr. Cal Lightman? That’s the name of the main character in the TV series Lie to Me. Dr. Lightman has a very special gift. He’s an expert at reading facial expressions and body language. By paying close attention to someone’s face, he can tell whether or not that person is telling the truth. He is able to do this because he is highly skilled in the art of reading microexpressions.

When we see someone smiling at us, for example, many of us will naturally conclude that that person is expressing happiness or approval or friendship. And yet, we also know from experience that that’s not always the case. People can smile because they are nervous, or because they are making fun of us, or even because they wish to do us harm. Sometimes we ourselves may even fake a smile, so that people don’t know what we are actually thinking. People smile for many different reasons.

And here’s where the ability to read microexpressions comes in handy. It’s not something I myself know how to do. And I don’t really know how far this is true. But, apparently, someone who is really happy smiles not just with the lips, but also with the eyes. When we flash a genuinely happy smile, the muscles around our eyes contract naturally, in a way that cannot be duplicated when we are just faking it. The microexpressions around the eyes are not easy to spot. But a person skilled in reading them is able to tell the difference. Microexpressions can help us to recognize a genuine smile when we see it. 

Something like Dr. Lightman’s skill can also come in very handy for us today, as we celebrate the solemn feast of Mary, the Mother of God. As you will probably have already noticed, today’s feast has a lot to do with names. In the first reading, Moses is taught how to bless the people by invoking God’s name. In the gospel, Mary’s child is given the name Jesus, which means God saves. In the second reading, we’re told that, in Jesus, God sends the Spirit into our hearts, giving us the ability to call God by the intimate name of Abba, Father. And, of course, today’s feast itself recalls the title given by the Council of Ephesus to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the year 431. Mary was given the name theotokos, or God-bearer.

Yes, today’s feast is all about naming. But it’s not just any kind of naming. It’s the kind of naming that is born of recognition. We name Mary the God bearer, because we recognize in her child, not just any ordinary human being, but also the very presence of God. Mary’s child is named Jesus because his parents recognize him as the one through whom God will save God’s people. Naming is born of recognition. And, clearly, something very special is being recognized today. We find a marvelous description of just what this something is in the first reading.

Here, one of the things Moses is taught to say when blessing the people is: The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The same thing can be said in a simpler way. To let one’s face shine on another is simply to flash that person a warm genuine smile. May God smile upon you! That’s the blessing that Moses is being taught to impart to the people. And this beautiful blessing finds its fulfillment in the gospel, in the birth of the child Jesus. Our feast today, then, is all about recognizing and naming God’s smile. But it’s not always easy to recognize the smile of God. For just as people may sometimes use a smile to mask their true feelings, so too does God’s smile often seem to come to us only in disguise.

In his description of the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, for example, Luke paints a very poignant picture of poverty. Mary and Joseph could find no proper place to bear their child. And when they finally managed to bring the little one into the world – laying him down where the animals were feeding – all they had for him to wear were some stray scraps of cloth. A lively little body wrapped tightly in bands of cloth and laid in a manger. Can we imagine this sight today, without also being reminded of that other scene where, years later, a body, bruised, bloodied, and lifeless, would be wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a borrowed tomb?

A moving sight indeed. But if we were among those passing by on that first Christmas night, is it not at least likely that we would simply have walked by without giving it a second thought? Much like I sometimes pass by the many transients sitting on the benches along State Street? And if we were in the shoes of Mary and Joseph, is it not more than likely that we would have been complaining about our troubles, and wishing for better times?

Yet, in the gospel, it is precisely this sad sight, it is just this picture of poverty, that the shepherds recognize and name as the smiling face of God. After casting their eyes on what must have looked just like any other homeless family, we’re told that they returned glorifying and praising God. And what’s perhaps even more marvelous is that, in the midst of their struggles, Mary and Joseph were able to recognize God’s smile. Instead of discarding their child as a burden, they protected and cared for him as a blessing. They named him Jesus, God saves.

What do we find here, sisters and brothers, if not a truly amazing ability to recognize the God who often smiles upon us only in disguise? What do we find in the gospel, if not people who are skilled in the fine art of reading the microexpressions of God? Isn’t this what we find Mary doing, when we are told that she kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart?

Today, in addition to celebrating the Mother of God, we are also ushering in a new civil year. We give thanks for all the blessings that God has showered upon us in 2010, and we pray that God will continue to bless us in 2011. But in order to do all this well, it’s important for us to realize that God’s blessings often come to us in disguise. Which is why it’s good for us to learn from Mary that skill, which is so similar to Dr. Cal Lightman’s: the ability to recognize, in the many different and often challenging situations of our lives, the consoling warmth of God’s smile.

Sisters and brothers, on this last day in the octave of Christmas, as we look forward to a new year, how might we learn to better read the microexpressions on the face of God today?