Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Am planning to spend Thanksgiving dinner in Marblehead, about fifty miles to the north.  Beautiful town that is a lot more beautiful when one has a GPS program on the cell phone.  The only way to learn to get around there is to be born there.  It ain't a town made for strangers.

Traffic is already getting heavy on the interstates and Mass Pike.  I had to run some errands out to Target and Lowe's.  Had I been asked to do so the day after Thanksgiving rather than the day before the vow of holy obedience would have had to be invoked.

Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Zech 2:14-17
Mt 12:46-50

Like the Memorial of Sts. Ann and Joachim, the narrative of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary comes from the pious and fundamentally unreliable Protoevangelium of James.   The celebration first appeared in the East around the 7th century.  It appeared in the Western Church in the 14th century, was stricken from the calendar by Pius V, who reigned from 1566 to 1572, and was reintroduced in 1585 by Sixtus V.  This feast, like the aforementioned memorial of Ann and Joachim, fills  what would otherwise be a pious lacuna and provides Mary, whose childhood is otherwise hidden,  with a history to precede her appearance in the synoptics.  

The first reading from Zechariah is celebratory in the extreme.  As noted in the Jewish Study Bible  "Rabbinic Judaism interpreted many of the texts in Zechariah in relation to the Messianic time to come."  Thus it is no surprise to read in the same source that  "The early Christian readers interpreted many verses in Zechariah in Christological terms." 

Today in Synagogues this particular reading from Zechariah marks the beginning of the long haftorah, the reading following the Torah, for the first Sabbath of Hanukkah.  This year Hanukkah begins on Saturday evening December 8.  On Saturday morning December 15, Jews throughout the world will hear,
"Sing and rejoice O daughter Zion!
See I am coming to dwell among you. . . " 

The ecstasy in the Lord's immanence jumps off the page.  The joyous hope of the writer is shared with the people.  That joy is something of a contrast to the tension in the Gospel though, in fact, the tension is more perceived than real. There is no hostility or rejection or anger in Jesus' reply to the anonymous someone who informed him of his family's presence, unless the reader or commentator wants it to be there.

In the first reading we heard, "Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day and they shall be his people and he shall dwell among them."  Jesus' response here confirms that prophecy.  "Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother."  Those who do the will of the heavenly Father are those who join themselves to the Lord.  They become his people and he dwells among them.

The prophecy of Zechariah has been fulfilled.  The Lord dwells among us, and nourishes us with his Body and Blood.  In that light can we do anything other than sing and rejoice?
The photos are from autumns past, mostly at Gloucester. 

The first is not from Gloucester but rather from Longwood Gardens just outside Philadelphia.   I'm giving a retreat in Baltimore in two weeks.  Will drive to my sister's in Delaware a day earlier than necessary so as to fit in a trip there on the way south. 
This is a view of Philadelphia at sunset a few autumns ago when the Jesuit physicians had their annual meeting at St. Joseph's University.  The guest house was lacking space.  I was quite pleased to stay at the old Holiday Inn on City Line.
This was the view.  
Pine cones at Gloucester.  
Some of the homes near Niles Pond (fresh water) near the entrance to the retreat house in Gloucester.   I walked by those homes almost daily during the long retreat as a novice.  
Autumn leaves at sunset somewhere on the grounds at Gloucester.
The view of the Atlantic Ocean from "The Rocks" at the retreat house in Gloucester.  I hope to get up there for a few days at some point simply to wander with the camera.  

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Late November . . .

. . . is my favorite time of the year.  I love the skeletal nature of the trees against the sky and everything else about it.  The colors are lovely in October but it isn't really autumn until Thanksgiving is here.  

I celebrated the 10 AM Mass here at Campion this AM.  Given the change to Standard Time I found myself sitting in the celebrant's chair almost blind from the sun streaming in from the east windows.  No complaints just noting the fact.  

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time  
Dn 12:1-3
Ps 16 5-11
Mk 13:24-32

The apocalyptic tenor of today's readings and Gospel tell us that the end of the liturgical year is rapidly approaching.  Next Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, marks the end of the year.  The following Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent.  The Gospel of Mark will be replaced by Luke on Sundays.  Year I will replace Year II in the daily readings.

Apocalyptic is a genre that  strikes fear in the hearts of preachers, bizarre thinking in the minds of millennialists and perplexity in most of the rest of the faithful.   Apocalyptic is many things.   Ancient Near Eastern science fiction is not one of those things. 

Apocalyptic is a literature of hope.  However, it is a literature of hope that emerged during times of persecution.  The imagery is odd and, at times, plainly weird.  It is, however, neither bizarre nor odd to those for whom it was written.  Apocalyptic was a way of engendering hope in those suffering persecution while hiding the message from the persecutors.  Even today some of the symbolism and meaning in apocalyptic remains hidden from interpreters and commentators.

One of the unhealthy ways of meditating on readings such as these, readings that describe those who will be saved, and those who won't, is to assume oneself among the saved, then to make a list of family, friends, and co-religionists who will be among the elect, and then make the opposite list of co-workers, the date who stood you up for the prom, a particularly unhelpful provincial, and those whose religious thought is different from yours, and assign them among those not destined to be saved.  Dante, of course, created a masterpiece out of such thinking, but most of us are not Dante.  

The reading from Daniel, the first truly eschatological book in the Bible,  comes toward the end of the book.  It is less obscure than much of what precedes it.  But, for the time it was radical.  It was radical in its description of the resurrection of the dead and even more radical with the mention of life everlasting. 

Like the nature of the reading from Daniel, the Gospel, taken from what is called, Jesus' Eschatological Discourse, is not warm, cuddly, or consoling. The images are terrifying.  In the earlier verses of this discourse, Jesus described the earthly manifestations of the tribulation: wars, reports of wars, earthquake, famine and a general breakdown of society.  It reads like the headlines in today's papers.

In today's reading Jesus details the cosmic signs that will follow the earthly chaos of the tribulation.  The cosmic signs also sound as if they were taken from contemporary headlines, particularly the headlines a few weeks ago detailing the devastation of the tropical storm.  It wasn't bad here in Weston. Inconvenient is a good word.  But for the people of Queens, NY it appeared as if the tribulation was occurring.  And it was. 

The earthly and cosmic signs of Jesus coming have been happening for millennia. They will continue to happen in the millennia to come until time ceases to exist.  Just as the Church repeats the liturgical cycles from Advent to the Feast of Christ the King, the signs of end of times continue to cycle.  Thus we see the problem of time as we understand it.  Our time and God's time are not at all the same. 

The first words of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament are: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."  The penultimate verse of Revelation the final book of the New Testament is:  "Surely I am coming soon."  All of Scripture is contained within a parenthesis of time: the beginning of time and the end of time.

God transcends both cosmic time, the rhythms of nature, the cycle of days and nights, of seasons and epochs.  But He also transcends historical time, the only concept of time with which we are truly comfortable.  The form of time we have superimposed over cosmic time.  Thus, most of us are preparing for Christmas 2012.  A 65th birthday may have passed or be on the horizon. Tomorrow afternoon is already booked.  The date on which one will die is a mystery.

Prognostication has been a fact of life since ancient times.  Nostradamus. Tarot cards and other pagan divinations. The Farmer's Almanac. The Weather Channel (highly suspect prognostications).  We want to know the how, the why, and the when.  It is not for us to know.  "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."  Most of us will never be comfortable with that saying. 

Thus we heard in the Alleluia.  "Be vigilant at all times.  And pray that you have the strength to stand before the Son of Man."
It is fun taking photos of abstract shapes, shadows and colors.  Things that both are and aren't figurative.  Thus today's shots.  They are the kind of photos upon which you can project anything you want.  

The first is balls at a kindergarten in Viet Nam in a rope basket.  They look a lot like mints. 

The next was down by the pond at Campion Center.  The color here was admittedly manipulated to within an inch of its life.   The rushes were, in fact, green.
The skylight of the elevator shaft at Campion is a study in light and dark as the sun is rising in the east. 
A poster at Wu-ling Mountain in Taiwan has definitely seen better days.  Rain and humidity (not too bad at that elevation) extracted quite a toll.  
 Finally, the view straight down from the roof at Campion of a rubber mat on the floor of a veranda overlooking the ambulatory.  It was partially dry from overnight dew.
Have a blessed Thanksgiving. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Taste of Winter

Weston was graced with about an inch of snow on Wednesday AM.  One man said he had four inches in nearby Waltham.  Nonetheless, it was pretty to look at for a few hours.  The air had the unmistakeable feel of winter.  Though my aversion to driving in the snow is complete I am looking forward to winter and the kind of temperatures associated with New England in November and December.  February will prove to be something else entirely.

In a surprising fit of discipline I got the homily done by mid-afternoon, before the Penn State-Nebraska game.

First the homily for the 10:30 AM Mass tomorrow and then some photos.

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
11 November 2012
1 Kgs 17:10-16
Ps 146
Heb 9:24-28
Mk 12:38-44

In a nice thematic trifecta there is a common thread running through the two readings and the Gospel.  That theme is: total self-donation.  The second reading from Hebrew's reiterates Jesus' sacrifice.  A sacrifice He made exclusively for our sake.  The depth of that sacrifice, a sacrifice of blood, is almost impossible to comprehend, but there is precedence, or at least an early hint, in the Old Testament.

The importance and significance of blood as a means of sacrifice in Ancient Israel cannot be overstated. The Old Testament frequently details the sprinkling of blood that was a necessary part of atonement.  The Hebrew community addressed in this reading would have been familiar with the ritual shedding of blood for the atonement of sins.

In today's reading, the writer contrasts the definitive shedding of Jesus’ blood with the necessarily repeated rituals of the old covenant.  The uniqueness of Jesus’ shedding of His blood was that it was once and for all.  It would never be repeated. The need to ritually and repeatedly shed an animal’s blood was mitigated in Jesus' unrepeatable act.  Jesus made a total self-donation of His body and His blood.  And in that self-donation He freed us from sin and death.

What is total self-donation?  Every Jesuit made (and makes) that act when, midway through his vow formula, after promising perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience, he said, either in Latin or his native tongue:  

"I promise that I will enter this same Society to spend my life in it forever"

Jesuits have a lot in common with the widows who figure prominently in the today's readings.  That commonality has less to do with finances than it does with total self-donation, with throwing oneself on God’s mercy in complete trust.  The vow formula again:   

"Therefore, by your boundless goodness and mercy, and through the blood of Jesus Christ, I humbly ask that you judge this total commitment of myself acceptable.  And as you have freely given me the desire to make this offering, so also may you give me the abundant grace to fulfill it."

The setting of the first reading  was a drought.  Stores of wheat were running low.  The olive trees were not producing and thus no oil. 

There are few things worse than anticipating death through starvation.   One of the things that is worse is a mother realizing that she and her child will die of hunger.  Yet, in her generosity and faith the woman acquiesced to Elijah’s request for a small cake.  She acquiesced on the basis of his promise that “the jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”  By sharing all that she had remaining with this itinerant exiled prophet the widow provided for herself and her son in ways that she never could have imagined. 

The Gospel narrative about the widow is placed in direct contrast to that of the scribes who, despite outward shows of piety and prayer, foreclosed on the homes of widows leaving them even more destitute than they already were through their lack of social status and inheritance. 

There are many modern versions of these scribes.  They are schemers and manipulators who feast on the paltry holdings of the poor.  Those who gleefully engage in elder abuse, be they telephone solicitors or the children who convince mom to sign over the house.  Sometimes these modern day scribes do the perp walk.  Other times they bask in their profit. 

Commentators vary in their interpretations of the widow's actions.  One notes the widow’s generosity but then wonders, “Is she generous to a fault?  Does Jesus really approve of her action or is he critiquing established religion that manipulated her to give what she couldn’t afford?  Is Jesus romanticizing the poor such that this Gospel can be used by the prosperous to keep the poor in that condition?"  I don’t think so.  Indeed it is a bizarrely concrete interpretation.

"Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury.  For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood."  However, the woman’s poverty was determined not by her meager copper coins but by her status as a widow. 

In the Ancient Near East widow’s had no power or social standing.  They could not inherit or own land.  They were entirely dependent on male relatives, particularly their sons, and the kindness of neighbors and friends for support.  The two coins in her hand were most likely all she had. And they amounted to nothing. The little she had wasn’t going to move her from social dependence to financial independence.  With the coins or without them the widow was still destitute.  She was dependent on society for material things.  More importantly she was totally dependent on the grace of God. In this case however, she was rich in God's mercy. The widow made a total donation of self.  She no longer depended on her own resources, as meager as they were, but on God’s providence. 

When, in a few minutes, we say “Thy will be done” can we do so without caveat or exception?  Can we throw ourselves on God's mercy without adding a footnote as to what we want that will to be? If so we will stand with the widow and rejoice in the same grace.

The first photo is the view from my office earlier in the week.  The dust on the window is functioning like a lens filter.

A few moments later I took this in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.  

Then came the snow.
The chrysanthemums before. 

The chrysanthemums after. 
The roses didn't do much better. 

This was the scene at the fountain in front of the Pierce Pavilion.

And finally a detail of the fountain.  Love the ability to change color into high contrast black and white at the touch of a button. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD