Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Homily and Some Black and White

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
1 Sam 3:3-10, 19
Ps 40 2,4, 7-8, 8-9,10
John 1:35-42

Voco, vocare, vocatus. 

To call. 
To name. 
To summon. 
To call upon. 
To invite. 
To challenge. 
There is overlap among the various translations.  Each one has a distinct flavor  and subtle variation that is unique. 

Voco, vocare, vocatus. 

This is the root of the word vocation.  The first reading, the psalm and the gospel are tied together by the idea of vocation.  Samuel’s vocation.  The apostles’ vocations.  And, thus by extension, our vocations. 

Voco, vocare, vocatus. 

She heard the call the first time she went there. The sound was faint.  Perhaps it was easier to hear when remembering the moment than it was when it happened.  The invitation became more insistent over time. The voice of God became more challenging. The urgency in the summons became more easily discernible. Reflecting on it over 40 years later she wrote, “Many people don't understand the difference between a vocation and your own idea about something.  A vocation is a call – one you don't necessarily want. The only thing I ever wanted to be was an actress.  But I was called by God.”  The woman is Mother Dolores Hart, of the Order of St. Benedict, former movie and Broadway star and, for the past 51 years, a cloistered nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT.

A standard dictionary defines vocation as:   "A regular occupation, especially one for which a person is particularly suited. An inclination, as if in response to a summons, to undertake a particular career."  A vocation may be a call to a particular way of living that is independent of one’s job, or it may define what other's call one's job.  The vocation to marriage.  The vocation to parenthood.  The vocation to medicine.  The vocation to the creative life.  The vocation to teaching.  The  vocation to religious life in one of the orders for men or women.  We are all graced with a vocation.  We all receive a call from God.  The first challenge is to hear and discern God’s voice over the clamor of daily life so as to learn what that vocation is. The second, and greater, challenge is to accept and live out that vocation. 
The first reading is amusing.  It took more than one call for Samuel and Eli to realize that God was summoning Samuel.   Poor Eli.  There he was sound asleep when the kid wakes him up and says, “You called.  I’m here.”   Eli eventually understood what was happening and instructed young Samuel to reply “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”  Samuel was obviously rattled when God called him that third time.  He replied, “Speak, your servant is listening,” completely forgetting to address God as Lord.  Samuel’s vocation was to be a prophet.  Samuel was called to proclaim the Word of the Lord fearlessly, even when he knew that those who heard him were not going to like what he said.  That is, in part, the vocation to which we are all called as Christians.  We are called to proclaim the Word of God even if it makes us unpopular.  Being unpopular is the price of being a prophet.   It is time to become unpopular again.

The annual March for Life is this coming Thursday, 22 January, in Washington, D.C. Talk about being unpopular. Try proclaiming one's support for life at a cocktail party in Cambridge, or in Manhattan or among the glittery types in Hollywood. Those who proclaim moral opposition to abortion, those who decry killing the inconveniently ill elderly, or even not so elderly, or those who state opposition to a government that forces physicians, nurses, hospitals and pharmacists to act against their moral convictions by participating in these and other activities are derided, called names, and spat upon.  Such is the life of the prophet.  Such is the life of a disciple of Jesus.  Such was Jesus' life.

John’s Gospel describes the call of the first apostles.  We hear Jesus give Simon a new name Cephas—or Peter.  Peter’s life changed at that moment, just as our lives change the moment we realize and accept our vocations.

Hearing the call to your vocation and acting on it is a funny thing.  There you are going about your daily life, working, playing, relaxing, perhaps simply watching the Patriots, and so on.  And then something changes.  You realize that this is the one I am called to marry.  This is the work I am called to do.  It can be a very unsettling experience.   Recall Mother Dolores' words, "A vocation is a call – one you don't necessarily want."

Like Samuel we may need to be called more than once.  But, God’s voice is insistent.  The call to one's vocation does not and will not go away no matter how much we, and sometimes those we love, wish we could simply continue with things as usual.   As Christians we share the vocation to follow Christ.  In the Gospel we heard that John said, “Behold the Lamb of God.” And John's two disciples turned, followed Jesus, and stayed with him for the rest of the day.  I suspect they remained with him for life.

“Samuel grew up, and the Lord was with him . . . . “ 

When we receive our vocations be it to marriage, parenthood, the single life, a life teaching or life in a religious order, the Lord will be with us.  He will give us the strength necessary to live that vocation. 

I made a special request for today’s offertory hymn at both churches where I celebrated Mass.  Here I Am Lord.  The hymn emerges from today’s first reading.  Listen carefully to the dialogue between God and each one of us.  Will I choose to reply with the psalmist?  Will I choose to say with Samuel?

Here I am, Lord.
I have come to do your will.
I have heard you
calling in the night.
I will go, Lord.

Be assured that the Lord will lead you.

Black and white photography is my first love as far as taking photos goes.  The first role of film I ever shot was an ASA 400 black and white using a Canon AE-1.  I drove down 45 West from Danville to State College, PA stopping along the way to take photos.  It remains a fond memory.  Black and white allows one to focus on shape, texture, composition and other characteristics rather than being distracted by color.  

The first is the desk, bed, chair, and rug in a recently vacated room at the retreat house in Gloucester.  One of the retreat directors moved to Campion Center.  This had been his room.

 Campion Center was ready for a baptism, a very rare event, the day before the Baptism of the Lord (and the end of the Christmas season).  Did a lot of post-processing here including removing a cotton ball between the two amphora and replacing it with Christmas lights.  It would have been much more difficult to pull this off in color. 

 A tree clinging to the side of a cliff on Wu-ling Mountain in Central Taiwan.  Took this on the way home from Australia when I stopped in Taiwan for ten days.  

 Another one from Taiwan is Sun Moon Lake, one of my favorite places on earth, in January of 2011.  It was getting late and quite chilly.  The mist was settling in.  Once we returned to the hotel it was time for dinner and a couple of hits of Scotch.  

The view from the Georgetown University Campus one morning.  The fog was rising from the Potomac.  The buildings of Arlington, VA are visible in the distance.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Baptism of the Lord

Is 42:1-4,6-7
Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Acts 10:34-38
Mk 1:7-11

Those of us who are more than halfway to 100 years old or older will remember the Art Linkletter show.  It was black and white TV at its best.  The show’s most popular feature by far was a live segment titled, “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”  Truer words have rarely been spoken.  Kids do say the darndest things. But they frequently get it right.

A few years ago four year-old Sophie was looking at pictures of her 18 month-old sister’s baptism.  Looking at  the usual group photo taken near the baptismal font she began pointing to various participants:  That’s Maya.  Here’s mommy.  That’s daddy.  That's nana and grandpop.  That’s me.  She said that giggling with the particular note of pride typical of children.  She then pointed to the priest in his white vestments and asked, “Is that Jesus?”  Daddy and mommy dissolved into helpless laughter (Note: Daddy in particular was hysterical with laughter because I was the priest.  Both parents are psychiatrists with dad having been my chief when I was training director at Georgetown).  In reality Sophie got it right.  She got it right not by confusing the priest with Jesus.  She got it right by seeing Jesus present at Maya’s baptism. 

In the Church, the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season.  Tomorrow we resume ordinary time until the beginning of Lent on February 18th,  Ash Wednesday.  In the New Testament, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of His public ministry. 

That Jesus was baptized is indisputable.  All four Gospels give accounts of it.  As usual, the details vary across the Gospels.  John’s description is particularly murky.  However, the importance of Jesus’ baptism does not hinge on how it was performed, whether it was total immersion, pouring water over His head, or something in between.  The importance of Jesus’ baptism hinges on its significance, and thus on the significance of baptism for each of the faithful.  This is where Sophie’s question becomes both relevant and theologically sophisticated.  Both of the readings, the psalm, and the Gospel illuminate the significance of Jesus' baptism for us.

The majority of Old Testament readings during Advent and the Christmas season are from Isaiah, with particular emphasis on the servant songs from the latter part of the book.  The servant described in today’s reading accomplishes his mission with quiet strength rather than brute force.  The images of the bruised reed or smoldering wick need explanation.  One commentator notes that the images indicate the servant’s gentle respect for others and perhaps his awareness of a hint of strength in their weakness.  What better description is there for Jesus in His public life?  Jesus who forgave the woman caught in adultery, Jesus who cleansed lepers, Jesus who prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Peter’s writing in Acts elaborates Isaiah’s prophecy.  But, rather than speaking prophetically he is speaking historically with a brief synopsis of Jesus’ baptism by John and His ministry, a ministry that was possible only because “God was with Him.” 

Peter’s statement that God shows no partiality is a central theological tenet.  “In truth I see that God shows no partiality.  Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”  It is unimportant whether we are socially elite or oppressed, it is insignificant whether we are economically disadvantaged or wealthy, it is irrelevant whether we belong to the in-crowd or are hopelessly nerdy.  Our status does not make us acceptable to God.  How we respond to His goodness, how we respond to His presence in our lives, is what makes us and our offering acceptable to God.  Living in faith is what ultimately matters. 

The voice of the LORD is over the waters
The LORD over the vast waters.
The voice of the LORD is mighty
The voice of the LORD is majestic.

The psalm reflects the Gospel in which we hear God’s voice as Jesus emerges from the water:  “You are my beloved Son: with you I am well pleased.”  John’s role as herald is over.  The one whose coming he prophesied in his preaching has come. 

There are three ways to understand baptism in the New Testament.  The first is the most obvious:  washing.  Washing is the literal meaning of the Greek root baptein or baptizein.  For us the washing includes remission of original sin.  But sin was the single human dimension Jesus did not share with us.  He united Himself with sinners but He Himself was free from sin.  Thus the question of why Jesus was baptized arises.

A second New Testament understanding of baptism is that of dying and rising.  Jesus’ baptism by John  presaged the baptism of blood He was to undergo. As Leon-Dufour notes that the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan announces and prepares for His baptism “in death.”  Analogously for us the waters of baptism suggest dying in order to live anew, dying so as to live again.  Leon-Dufour again, “Baptism kills the body in so far as it is an instrument of sin and confers a share in the life of God in Christ.” 

A third understanding is that of new birth; a birth in the Spirit, a very Pentecostal theme.  While one could go on and on about various themes and symbols of the sacrament of baptism, there is one fact which unites understandings of baptism; and this is  where little Sophie proved herself to be a four year-old theologian. 

Whether one understands baptism as cleansing from sin, as dying and rising to new life, or as new birth in the spirit, Jesus Christ is the agent.  Jesus is there.  Perhaps He is smiling.  He may be looking on with concern and love; rather like Sophie, Nick and Susan her parents, her grandparents, cousins and friends.  Jesus’ hand was underneath little Maya supporting her as she was anointed with the chrism and the oil of catechumens, as the waters of baptism poured over her.

The name Sophia or Sophie means ‘wisdom.’  With the wisdom of a child who can see around corners and discern the faint shadows that are invisible to adult eyes, she showed that she understood this celebration of The Baptism of the Lord.  She demonstrated exquisite understanding of the sacrament of baptism  Like us in all things but sin, Jesus, like us, received the waters of baptism . . . . He is present when we receive those same waters.  And He remains with us forever.

Tomorrow night after evening prayer the Church's Christmas season will be over and we return to the green vestments of ordinary time.   It will be a busy day as I have Mass at 9:30 AM and 5:00 PM.  

It has been very cold up in New England.  Hit some temps of about 1 and perhaps a bit below zero.  Got to drive in the snow on Friday.  A few trips on slippery roads and I will be missing Chad.  Or Lyon where I wouldn't try to drive anyway.

I didn't do any picture taking of the chapel this year.  The decorations were the same, I was lacking the energy to light all those candles at night and there are only so many angles one can capture.  And then came this morning.  I went over to the chapel to see it set up for a baptism.  We rarely have a baptisms here.  The sacrament is ideally administered in the parish.  However, the opportunity for photos presented itself.  I needed a reason to pull out the camera.  Wish I'd gone over about 30 minutes earlier.  The light was just a bit more interesting then.

I'm fascinated by glass and by the sacred oils.  Looking back I've got photos of the various vials holding the oils from multiple churches in a few different countries.  We have very nice and very simple vials for the oils.  The smooth glass allows for interesting distortion of the background.  

Ornaments on the tree in the middle of the rotunda. 

A retreatant at prayer in the chapel.  The old glass in the door panes gives a slight distortion to parts of the scene. 

The sacred oils (catechumens and chrism) and the paschal candle stand with the altar and creche in the background.  The paschal candle is at least eight feet from base to wick.  Didn't even try to get the entire thing in the photo with the close-ups.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD