Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

I have one New Year's Eve resolution: To be able to see the top of my desk for the next twenty-four hours.  Afterwards it will probably revert to its usual state.  The room is generally picked up, except on top of the bookshelf.  Then there is the desk.  If it were the size of a ping-pong table every square inch of surface would still be covered.  It's just one of those things.

7th Day in the Octave of Christmas
31 December 2012

1 Jn 2:18-21
Ps 96
Jn 1:1-18

“In principio erat Verbum,
et Verbum erat apud Deum
et Deus erat Verbum”

There are few more daunting words on which to preach than these.  They, and those that follow them, are perhaps the most difficult to interpret words in all of the New Testament.

“Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming, so now many antichrists have appeared.”  These are also challenging words on which to preach.  They are among the most easily misunderstood, misinterpreted, misapplied and misused words in the New Testament; rivaled only by the various manipulations of the Book of Revelation.  Just ask survivors of fundamentalist sects. Just ask those who are deemed to be antichrists, a charge that has been leveled at Jesuits for centuries.

Francis Moloney, author of the Sacra Pagina volume on John, describes the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel as: “One of the most dense passages in the New Testament, a synthesis of the author’s Christology and theology.”  At times it seems that the rest of John’s Gospel is commentary on, and explication of, the first chapter. 

In his opening comment on this passage, Fr. Stanley Marrow notes, “Little acquaintance with the Bible is needed to recognize in these opening words of the Gospel of John an echo of those that open the book of Genesis, ”In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  He goes on to note that the words, In principio erat Verbum start at a point that is prior even to the “In the beginning of Genesis.” 

Today we stand, as we do each year on this date, at the end and at the beginning.  Out with the old. In with the New.  Father time replaced by Baby New Year.  Perhaps the only startling change in the end of the year routine this year is that Dick Clark died on April 12, 2012 and will not count down the ball drop in Times Square.

Tonight during the examen we will have the opportunity to look back on the year that passed and look forward to the one that is beginning. 

What have I done?
What am I doing”
What ought I to do?

The triple colloquy will be as relevant next year, as it is this year, as it was last year, as it has been since the sixteenth century, and will be into the future beyond the time when anyone will remember any of us here today.

We are still in the Christmas Season.  However, in light of today's Gospel one can only think forward to inscribing the paschal candle at the beginning of the Easter Vigil.  The formula that the priest repeats while tracing the figures in the wax is the most appropriate prayer I can think of for those who are still awake tonight at midnight.

"Christ yesterday and today
the beginning and the end
and Omega
all time belongs to Him
and all the ages.
To Him be glory and power
through every age for ever." 

May you have a Blessed 2013.
I've spent the past weeks taking photos around Campion Center.  The retreat center is revising the web site.  My job is to take the pics.  There is definitely an aerobic element to climbing to the third floor loft only to realize that the light in the sacristy is on and unbalancing the shot.  In a few days the camera goes into the shop to be cleaned, a long overdue cleaning. 

First is the entry sign after the recent snowstorm that dropped about eight inches into Sunday morning.  Snow is difficult to photograph, especially in color.  

The portrait of St. Edmund Campion, namesake of this house, hangs in the entrance lobby.  To get a good idea of the life and bravery of this remarkable man read the short biography by Evelyn Waugh, a book that is said to have reintroduced him to modern consciousness and thus accounted in large part for his canonization. 

On the other side of the house is Pierce Pavilion, the nursing home.   

The roof after the snow.  I took only a few shots up there because the temp was in the mid-20's and the wind howling.  Can't use a camera with gloves and the Michael Jackson look with cut out fingers never appealed to me. 

The Christmas Tree in the rotunda

The major photographic project has been coming up with a shot to use for the community Christmas card next year.  This is a contender.  Just don't tell anyone that I was standing on a chair so as to extend the tripod to its maximum height.  There is an ugly exit sign over the archway on the right.  Got that erased rather nicely.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Friday, December 28, 2012

Feast of the Holy Innocents

The narrative of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents is unique to Matthew’s Gospel.  It is not unique to world history, past or contemporary.  It will not be unique in the future.  Determining the historicity of the event narrated in Matthew is problematic.  Various ancient accounts give wildly disparate, and sometimes outlandishly large, numbers to describe the extent of the slaughter.  The details, however, are less important than the underlying motivations of the killer.  The historical details are less important than the fact that the slaughter of children continues in the present. 

Herod was known to be unstable.  Apparently as he came toward the end of his life he became even crazier.  And more violent.  Upon perceiving a threat to his power in the message of a newborn king he ordered the extermination of all male children up to the age of two.

The atrocities continue.  Newtown, CT.  Columbine, CO. 

The slaughter of children is not a phenomenon unique to the U.S. despite hysterical breast beating in response to Newtown.  Anders Breivik murdered scores of children at a Norwegian summer camp in July 2011.  The Nazis did their best to exterminate Jewish children as well as children who were deemed mentally or physically defective.  China has had multiple events of late, details lacking. We grieve for those children.

We grieve for the Holy Innocents who are killed because they are inconveniently conceived.  We grieve for the Holy Innocents who are killed, with the same logic as the Nazis, because they are not going to be born perfect as determined by a variety of pre-natal tests.   The number of children aborted after pre-natal testing discovers trisomy 21, or Down’s Syndrome, ranges between 85 and 98 percent in the U.S. with similar number in Europe.  Will children discovered in utero to be carrying a gene for Alzheimer’s  or Huntington's disease be the next candidate for extermination?  These killings in the abortion clinic are more heinous than the slaughters in Columbine, Norway or Newtown because they are chosen by the parents or, if a father is not in evidence, by the mother. 

What motivates a crazy man to randomly kill children?  Herod was an insane megalomaniac.  Sufficient motivation right there.  What of the modern day killers of the innocent?  A delusion of power?  A psychotic desire for revenge?  The desire to be free of the responsibility for a child?   Adam Lanza may have been in the early stages of schizophrenia or other form of psychotic illness.  Anders Breivik has proven repeatedly in his statements that he is a complete whack job. 

But what about the mothers who eliminate their children in utero?  What about the physicians who chose to perform multiple abortions daily?  What of the nurses who assist?  And of course the femi-nazis who insist there is nothing wrong with this slaughter and there are no repercussions for the mothers who choose death for their children as a form of birth control?

A few years ago three young women who were medical students at Harvard tried to push a demand that all third year medical students nationally be compelled to learn how to perform abortions while doing their mandatory rotation on ob-gyn during junior year if they wished to receive their degrees.  The attempt failed quickly. 

We pray today for those Holy Innocents who never had a chance no matter what their age, no matter if the killing occurred in the womb our outside it. 

We pray that those who are complicit in the ongoing killings will undergo a change of heart. 

And we pray for those mothers, who like Rachel, will mourn and carry scars of their deed for the rest of their lives.
It is about 8:30 PM 28 December (it is 9:30 AM 29 December in Taipei).  Two years ago I had just arrived three hours earlier.  Thus the photos are from Taiwan, three from Sacred Heart Church and three from Sun Moon Lake, one of the most beautiful places on earth.

 The three photos from Sacred Heart depict the creche that is spread throughout most of the front of the church.

 The top of Ci-en Pagoda as the sun was going down on a January afternoon.  That is Ignatius leaning against the rope fence, over 100 feet above the ground.  
The mist at sunset.  There were some adjustments made to the color and tint. 
And my favorite kind of self-portraint, in an elevator mirror. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Thursday, December 27, 2012

An Anniversary Reflection

It is 2:15 PM on 27 December 2012.  Two years ago today I was at Dulles Airport about an hour earlier than necessary, waiting to board a 5:30 PM flight for San Francisco.  After a three-hour layover it would be time to board a China Airlines flight to Taipei.  Ten days later, Taipei to Sydney to begin tertianship.  I had not been aware of the anniversary nature of today until saying the office this morning.  St. John.  December 27.   Whoa!. 

Until the plane took off on time 27 December 2010 was a tense day.  The forecasts had been calling for snow for several days prior.  Anxiety levels climbing.  Forecast was no better on Christmas Day.  Anxiety levels climbing higher.   Woke on 27 December to hear that New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Richmond (south of D.C.) were all closed.  Reagan National, Dulles and BWI all open.  D.C. was, it seems, in the donut hole of snow.    

There were moments of happy surprise.  As soon as I heard the announcement that those on the flight to San Francisco had to check in again because of a plane change I went over to the desk. I don't know if it was because I was wearing a collar but the lovely woman asked if I wanted a bulkead seat to California.  Oh yeah!

A few moments later a United Captain was approaching as I was pacing the terminal in anticipation of 21 hours in a seat.  He noticed the Penn State jacket and asked if I was an alum.  A Naval Academy grad he was a PA native.  He then asked for my card so he could put me on his prayer list.  I remain grateful for that offer. 

The flight to California was uneventful.  In San Francisco another happy surprise.  I had booked a window-seat.  There was no one in the middle when the plane door closed.  Nice.  Except for being long it was a very smooth flight with almost no turbulence.  At the end of 24 hours in transit Ignatius met me on time in Taipei at 6:30 AM on 29 December.  It was a gorgeous day, warm and spring-like.  Alas, that was the only sunny day for the next ten days. 

Ten days later I flew to Sydney on one of the most miserable flights I've ever been on: uncomfortable seats, screaming children and an inability to sleep despite a bit of pharmacological help.  The flight to Sydney took nine hours.  It seemed longer than the one to Taipei. 

Tertianship was one of the peaks of my Jesuit life.  But, none of the high points can stand in isolation.  Each one, the novitiate long retreat, novitiate itself, the history course, the Arrupe experience, and tertianship to name just a few grew out of and reflect back upon each other.   The past 15 1/2 years have been very much a seamless garment.

With tertianship over it is now time to apply for final vows.  The provincial told me to send him an e-mail with the required information after the New Year.  Around 7:00 AM on 2 January seems reasonable.

In a bit more than two weeks Ignatius will make my trip in reverse and arrive at Logan just in time for rush hour on 14 January.  He'll be here at  Campion for six months.  Looking forward to this time more than I can describe. 
I took the following photos on 30 December, the day after arriving in Taiwan.  
The first is the entrance to Tien Educational Center.  Most of the ground floor space is taken up by Sacred Heart Church where Ignatius was pastor for the past six years. 

I had sent the processional cross to Ignatius via another Taiwanese who was going home for a visit several months earlier.  My friend Val gave it to me a few years ago.  He had it mounted on the pole.  It looks great in the setting.  

The Christmas tree was just down the street.  It is odd to see Christmas decorations in a decidedly non-Christian country.  

My first destination with the camera was Guting Riverside Park, one of my favorite places in Taipei.  It is a short walk from the community.  These photos were taken early in the day.  However, it is also where I spent a terrific couple of hours one night when I returned in the summer from about 10 PM to midnight.  Alone.  With a lot of camera equipment.  And felt perfectly safe, which is how I feel anywhere in Taipei at any time.  There is no way I would go down by the Potomac in D.C. alone after dark.   The first is a row of restrooms.  Pristinely clean restrooms. 

The next is support columns for the bridge.  They are painted with cartoon characters to go along with the nearby playground.  Note.  No graffiti.  Can't say the same about most of the places on the paths along the Schuylkill River in Philly. 
And finally, the bridge.  Actually a pipeline next to the bridge.
Have a Blessed New Year. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve

Advent is over.  This evening churches of all denominations will be crowded, and even overcrowded, in commemoration of Jesus' birth.  Would that the same churches would be crowded on the fifth Sunday or Ordinary Time.  Alas, pro sports, children's sports leagues and shopping take precedence.

This is the final talk from the Advent Triduum in Baltimore.  It will be familiar to those who read this blog two years ago.  This is a slightly revised version of the meditation I put up before beginning the long retreat in Australia in March 2011.

Given that last year I could not cough, sneeze or even move without a degree of chest wall pain a mere 17 days after heart surgery I am reveling in feeling well this year.  There is much for which to be grateful.  It will be a quiet Christmas in community with Mass and dinner.  Too far and too risky to drive to PA.   I hope to spend some time photographing the final decorations in the chapel and doing some reading.

 Generosity and Gratitude: The Foundations of Eucharist

The Date:                              11 April 1988
The Place:                             The Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
The Event:                             The 60th Annual Academy Awards
The Announcement:              “And the winner for best foreign language film is: . . . 

         “Babette’s Feast.”

No film captures the scope of Eucharistic community, or the importance of generosity and gratitude in forging such a community, better than this exquisite Danish film.  Though frequently referred to as a “food movie” it is not just that; it is not even primarily a movie about food.  Babette’s Feast is a profound meditation on the theology of Eucharist, the theology of community and the theology of generosity and gratitude; none of which can be separated from the others.

The movie, based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), uses flashbacks to introduce the viewer to a small Christian sect in a remote part of Jutland. The congregation was founded by a widowed minister whose two daughters, Martina and Philippa, continue to care for a diminishing and increasingly argumentative group of believers in the years following his death. 

Babette Hersant is a Catholic French woman who arrives at the sisters’ simple home during a driving rainstorm.  She is carrying a letter of introduction from one Achille Papin who had figured in the life of one of the sister’s many years earlier.  Babette is fleeing the French Revolution that had claimed the lives of her husband and son.  After some initial hesitation the sisters respond to Babette’s desperate plea and agree to take her in as an unpaid cook and servant.

The eponymous feast takes place fourteen years after Babette’s arrival.  It is occasioned by the minister’s centenary.  While the two sisters are planning a simple celebration of a plain meal with coffee and pastry, Babette asks permission to cook, and pay for, a real French dinner.  Once again hesitating, they give in only after a heartfelt plea by Babette.  The preparations begin.  For anyone who cooks it is wonderful to watch this “food part” of the film.

Initially there is gentle humor in watching the consternation of the two unsophisticated spinsters as Babette—with much help—brings the ingredients for the meal from the boat that transported them from France.   A dozen live quail, a huge drooling turtle, cases of wine.  It is quite a procession.  But, the sisters become alarmed—indeed they become pathologically anxious, complete with nightmares—about what they are beginning to fear will be a witch’s sabbath.

As a result of their escalating panic one of the sisters approaches the flock to share her fears.  They agree that they will partake of the meal but, “It will be as if we never had a sense of taste.”  Furthermore, they will not discuss the food or anything else about the meal.  The previously fractious community, perceiving an ungodly threat by outside and sinister forces, begins to lay aside petty grudges, long-nourished slights, and perceived hurts in a united response, a response that could only come about because of their gratitude to the two sisters and to Babette who has served their community for so many years. 

At the last moment the number of dinner guests increases by one with the announcement that General Lorens Lowenhielm, who years earlier figured in the life of the other sister, will accompany his elderly aunt.  He is unaware of the secret pact not to discuss the food. 

The courses, presented one after another, are placed on a table set with dazzling linens, white china, sparkling crystal, gleaming flatware, and a profusion of candles.   Amontillado sherry, champagne, and multiple wines complement each course.  The congregation’s conspiratorial indifference to what they are eating serves as a comic counterpoint to the General’s increasingly ecstatic responses to the food and drink.  But, the congregation does not remain indifferent.  Because of their “vow of silence” in regards to the meal they are forced to move beyond the superficialities of sensual experience and the self-absorption that such a gastronomic experience causes. 

Unable to discuss the food their talk moves to deeper spiritual realities that, over the course of the evening, renew and restore the community.  Though stilted at first conversation begins to drift to recollections of the minister and the effect his preaching had on their lives and community.  As they speak they examine and reconsider the harshness they had been showing to each other in the soft light of this banquet of thanks, a true Eucharistic banquet.  Bitter words and scowls are replaced by apologies and unfurrowed brows.  When the reconciled community departs they join hands and slowly dance around a stone fountain singing a simple song: 

“The clock strikes and time goes by.
Eternity is nigh
Let us use this time to try
To serve the Lord with heart and mind. 
So that our true home we shall find.” 

All of the guests depart except for Christof, a hard-of-hearing elderly male who appears to be in the early stages of dementia.  He stands in front of the fountain, raises his hands to the night sky and says:  Hallelujah.  Then he too departs.

There is more. The film ends with one final scene in the simple house between the two sisters and Babette.  I will leave that deeply moving encounter for you to watch.  In this final scene the generosity of the sisters towards Babette and her response to them show gratitude and generosity at their most profound. 

If one were to ask the average individual in the street to define generosity, most responses would include a reference to money:  Salvation Army Red Kettle Drives, university alumni appeals, or tossing a twenty into a cup on the street.  Yet, this form of generosity may be the complete antithesis of true generosity.  It may be a means of avoiding true generosity.  Tossing a twenty or writing a check is easy.  Generosity is not.  True generosity involves giving not only of one’s treasure but one’s time and talent.  True generosity is undergirded by love for the other who receives that gift.  

In response to the generosity of those who sheltered her in a time of need, Babette gave everything when she prepared the feast.  Her time.  Her talent.  Her treasure.  And, as becomes clear in the final scene, the rest of her life.  Martina, Philippa and Babette understood St. Ignatius’ prayer for generosity down to the marrow.  The community learned it by their example. 

O Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds
to toil and not to seek for rest
to labor and not to ask for reward
Save that of knowing I do Your holy will. 

The great French Biblical scholar Xavier Leon-Dufour writes that in common Greek usage “eucharist means the gratitude which is the source of thanksgiving.” If true generosity is difficult for us true gratitude is almost impossible.  The difficulty is not in expressing our gratitude for the other’s generosity.  We are generally very good at that.  The challenge is accepting the gratitude of those to whom we have been generous.   We see ourselves in Martina and Philippa who lived to serve; but who were wholly unacquainted with being served.  Being served can be more humbling than serving others. 

How often do we deflect, denigrate, or outright reject the gratitude of others?  The simple words “you’re welcome” have been replaced by the flippant and cynical “Sure.”  The faux-magnanimous  “No.  Thank yooooooooou.”  And the stunningly inarticulate “Mmm hm” or  “Uhhh huh.”  Only when we are willing and able to accept the generosity and gratitude of others without embarrassment or equivocation will we be able to accept and respond to God’s overwhelmingly generous gift of Himself in the Eucharist of bread and wine and in the Eucharist of community. 

At the close of this series of Advent reflections we are called to remember Mary’s fiat.  We are called to imitate Joseph’s silent assent.  We rejoice in God’s gift of His only Son who was born to redeem us from sin, and we can only respond to that generosity with the gratitude of the Eucharist.
The photos are all black and white.  The colors of the lights are distracting at times.  In addition, because of the grayish white walls in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit and a few unfortunate lighting choices, it is difficult to get a decent balance of color.  

The first is the Ignatius Altar that appeared in a earlier posting in this series with the colored lights.  The second is straight down the arches on the side.  

The chandeliers in front of the second floor loft with the garland and (faux) candles. 

The organ at the church in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia.  It has already resounded with the message of Christ's birth as we are just waking up to Christmas Eve morning. 

The final photo is the Church of St. Aloysius in Sevenhill, South Australia, taken during the long retreat. 

The best statement of the true meaning of Christmas comes from Dag Hammarskjold, late Secretary General of the UN, in a haiku found in his diary Markings.  

On Christmas Eve
Good Friday was foretold them
In a trumpet fanfare

The  manger in Bethlehem was overshadowed by the shadow of the cross on Calvary.  That has not changed. We can never afford to forget it. 

May you have a Blessed Christmas and Joyful New Year. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD