Saturday, January 24, 2015

Subject matters

You know, two weeks ago, I used this precious space to tell you something that you could have learned from any number of sources, including the local newspapers – that there was an exhibit of Marian art and imagery at a museum downtown.  That’s not something I usually do, but every exception has its reasons.
In this case I not only wanted to inform you of the opportunity to enrich your experience of our faith and culture, but to emphasize what a rare opportunity it is to find such a sacred treasure presented in a place that is otherwise so secular.  If you had read a review in one of the local newspapers, you would have found it laden with deconstruction and dissent from a critic who is consistently and explicitly hostile to the faith. 
As I finish my morning poke at the local paper, this is on my mind.  For the hostility to the faith that animates you and me and our community is consistent, but rarely explicit.  It is like the atmosphere we breathe, the very environment we inhabit.  In fact, I am convinced that in many of its advocates, it is even unconscious. 
Predictably, this question of thought and ideas is revealed in the reality of language.  The words the chatterers use, the goals they espouse, the virtues they extol; all of them betray a certain mindless acceptance of jargon and slogans that have been made to sound hopeful and exciting, but at best are empty and meaningless, and at worst, toxic. 
The language of the faith is rich and full of life.  Remember the great feast we just celebrated: And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.  Words matter, and the Word is the greatest matter of all.
Like the Marian aspect of our salvation that is so beautifully and truthfully on display in that exhibit, there is a straightforward humanity and reality to the faith we have received.  All that is good, true, and beautiful participates in and leads to our relationship with the one God living and true.  But if this is so ubiquitous as to pervade the world around us, why is it so rare to find it recognizable, much less celebrated?
Cynicism, sarcasm, and irony are the common coin of our social discourse today.  Willfully deployed or not, they cover over the goodness that is in us, around us, and for us.  In our society overflowing with riches, this novel and synthetic poverty claims more and more of us every day.
What is the antidote?  What program, protocol, or process can we implement at the highest level, or the grassroots, to break the bonds of deprivation of the living, and malnutrition of souls?  We must not only speak, but we must work to listen to Word of Life.
In the midst of the confusion and rejection of the crowd after He had asserted unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you… Jesus said to the twelve, "Will you also go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
A voice crying in the desert is not what you’ll find on your doorstep (or web browser) every morning.  So what I have to offer you here is quite clearly not the same as what you hear all about you.  Instead I must strive to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.  Before you put it aside in your cabinet of religion and other curiosities, ask yourself:  Where do you turn for your transfusion of hope?  To whom do you go for the Word of Life?

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Undignified?


Now all the Christmas decorations are taken down and put away, everything looks somehow naked, cold, and dark. It is just… winter. 
But for those of you who missed it, I want you to have a chance to see what I have come to call The Parishioner Tree, which graced our rectory front office this season.  I have always enjoyed receiving the family Christmas cards that you send, especially with photos.  Don’t tell, but I even secretly enjoy Christmas family newsletters!  Last year, I began hanging the photo cards on the office tree so that they would get a wider audience, and I could enjoy them for a longer time, too. 
This year we did the same, and as more people saw the tree, more cards came in and were added.  So it was not until right before time to take it down – the (real) Epiphany, in this house – that all the cards were hung by the photocopier with care. So here it is, fully decorated.
The cards were helpful to Father Seith, to learn names and families of people he was just getting to know; and to Father Nick, who was remembering folks whose kids look a lot older than when he lived here.  I just like seeing everyone together on one card.  Parents, please don’t leave yourselves out of the pictures! 
Of course some of the photos were quite funny, either intentionally or just because of the situations depicted.  Kids and families have fun doing all sorts of things, and that fun is one of the things folks like to recall at the end of the year.  We had pictures of parents “struggling” to keep up with their kids, kids in silly costumes, and babies wearing their birthday cake all over their faces.  Great fun.  So, thanks for sending and sharing with me!  I displayed them with reverence and care, after I laughed and laughed.
Among all those Christmas decorations we all just put away was at least one crèche, or Nativity scene, in every home.  It’s a family scene not unlike so many of the photos on the cards.  Baby’s first Christmas; Mary and Joseph’s big adventure; look what we got ourselves into.  And everybody loves to see the baby.
Isn’t it funny how the one God, living and true, has this in common with us – that He does not mind, in fact delights in, being depicted in the most undignified of situations, for the sake of His love?

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Picture the opportunity!

We live in a city of museums.  That provides a range of possibilities for most of us, and no matter what our inclination – be it art or history or technology or even dinosaurs – there is something for us here.  And since this is the capital city, what there is, is usually of the very highest quality.  So I can always find something to do with my day off even when the weather is such that I would rather spend it indoors.
So when my mom and dad visited for a few days during Christmas, I planned to spend a day in the city, and take advantage of this abundance.  They’ve been here many times before, but I found an exhibit at a museum none of us had ever visited, and thought we would give it a go. Boy am I glad we did!
Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea is on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (nmwa.org) through April 12.  The museum is open seven days a week, but is NOT part of the Smithsonian – so there is an admission charge.  This exhibit brings together a range of art depicting the Holy Mother of God over a span of history.  Paintings, sculptures, tapestries and even one window all shed light on who Mary is and how she has been understood and approached over the centuries by different societies and individuals. 
The exhibit is not huge – only five rooms – but it is abundant and diverse.  The works of art come from some of the finest collections in the world, including the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi in Florence.  The artists are world-class, too: Della Robbia, Caravaggio, Botticelli, and that shy old fellow Anonymous.
But there are also works that are interesting because they are from places you would never think to visit yourself – the diocesan museum of a small town in Italy, for example – as well as some private collections you would never be permitted to view; or because they are by artists you have never heard of.  One example of the latter is Orsola Maddalena Caccia, an Ursuline nun who was not only talented but also prolific, to judge by the number of huge canvasses that represent her here.   My mom was completely taken with a tiny (ten inch) statue of the Blessed Mother carved with exquisite and expressive detail out of a piece of boxwood about six or seven centuries ago. 
All of this art is surrounded by useful information about not only the art and artists, but also the subject herself.  That means that to move through the exhibit and read all the explanatory plaques and narrative introductions will lead you through a pretty effective catechism on Mary, her role in the salvation of the world, and her relationship with disciples of her divine son. 
Now, all of this will be interesting and informative for you, and some of it may even be news to you.  But imagine what it offers to so many museum-goers who are not acquainted with Mary, or even Jesus Christ!   The texts provided, which include some of our most basic and beautiful Marian prayers, do a marvelous job of presenting everything that you and I know and love about Mary and our relationship with her.  That is hard to come by outside of a strictly Catholic or devotional setting, which could well be off-putting for someone unfamiliar or not already well-disposed toward the faith. 
This exhibit, however, is easily approachable and enjoyable for one and all.  In that, I suppose, it is most like Mary herself, and most effective in revealing who she is and what her role is, not only in history, but in our lives today.  She is approachable and understandable, as well as understanding.  Thus she is now, as she has ever been, the first and best ambassador of our Savior.  And it is only fitting that she be encountered so easily, so beautifully, not behind the walls of one of our city’s embassies, but through the open doors of one of its museums.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, January 03, 2015

On go the lights

In the cartoons, it is a light bulb; in the history of salvation, a star.  This is what appears overhead to indicate an epiphany – the sudden manifestation of a new understanding, an insight, or reality.  This sudden comprehension changes everything, including plans, and perhaps especially plans. 
Today’s feast of the Epiphany of the Lord – or, more accurately, Tuesday’s feast, which in our country is now observed on the Sunday closest to January 6 – takes that star for its own sign.  However, since the revision of the liturgical calendar after the second Vatican Council, this day should more accurately be called the Adoration of the Magi, or Three Kings Day. 
Originally, the feast of the Epiphany encompassed all three moments of the manifestation of Jesus as God.  Though you can no longer find this in the texts of the Mass, evidence remains in the antiphons of the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours, which the Church, especially clergy and religious, use to sanctify the hours of the day with psalms and prayers.  The most explicit is the antiphon for the Marian canticle (Magnificat) of second Vespers:
Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.
Each of these three mysteries is a manifestation, or epiphany, of the divine identity of Jesus.  Each accentuates a different aspect of that identity and has a different audience.
The mystery that takes center stage today, the adoration of the magi, is picturesque, has a marvelous soundtrack (“We three kings of orient are”), and is tied most closely in our minds to Christmas, as the wise men and their camels have a place in almost everybody’s Nativity scene.  The mysterious adorers from the east have discerned the birth of Christ from the signs of the natural universe – a star – and indicate that his divine identity is “a light to the nations” and “all nations will come to adore you.”    
The second manifestation, or epiphany, happens at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changes one thing into another, one good thing into something better.  Not only does He reveal His lordship over the natural and material world; but He also reveals how He Himself will be present to act in the lives of souls around the world and for the rest of time, in the sacramental order wherein he will change one thing that is good in the natural order into something better in the supernatural order. 
The third manifestation, or epiphany, is the Baptism of the Lord by John in the Jordan, when the heavens open, the Spirit descends in the sight of all present, and a voice from above reveals Him to be “my beloved Son.”   In the context of John, the last prophet preparing the way of the Lord, Jesus is revealed to be the fulfillment of the (Old Testament) Scriptural promises to Israel.
In the reforms after the last council, the new emphasis on Baptism as the source of our identity in Christ and His Church led to the liturgical separation of that event as a feast in its own right the Sunday immediately after the now-diminished Epiphany.  That leaves the wedding feast at Cana to show up only once every three years; not this year, but next.
That Jesus is Lord and Redeemer of 1) the people Israel, 2) all the nations of the world, and 3) everything in creation, takes some time to sink in.  So today, as you sing about that star, it is my prayer that this manifestation, this new understanding, this epiphany, grow in your hearts and minds, and give you peace and light – with or without an actual light bulb.

Monsignor Smith