Thursday, December 24, 2015

Say, what did you see? And tell us of Christ's nativity. Alleluia.

It is an argument familiar to many mothers and children on the night before Christmas:
Go to sleep, Yves my darling, go to sleep my child…
Mother I want to see Him!
He wants to be loved without being seen…You know, don’t you, that in the Mass, the moment when He descends to the altar, all heads are lowered…
It is Jesus of whom they are speaking. The mother in Bordeaux over a century ago had taught her son that the baby Jesus brought him gifts, placing them in shoes that he had left by the fireplace.  The great French Catholic novelist François Mauriac (1885-1970) is drawing on his own childhood recollections in his story, A Christmas Tale. 
Jesus wants to be loved without being seen, the mother asserts.  At one time, He must have wanted to be seen; for at Christmas we celebrate His birth in the flesh, allowing Him to be seen, and heard, and touched, lying at first in that manger in Bethlehem.  It is for us now, she seems to indicate, to believe without seeing him; though she knows that He comes on the altar, and can be seen and touched there.
She departs for midnight Mass, leaving him in his bed, plunged into this very mystery; as he tries to keep his eyes open to learn whether it is Jesus who comes, or simply his mother.  In the latter case, that very mother would have “fooled” him, lied to him.   
Our children these days still want to see Him.  As parents, we respond with different answers, trying as hard as the French boy’s mother to lead the child to truth.  While the discussions of who brings gifts down our chimneys go rather otherwise, children still admit to a desire to see Jesus that we all can acknowledge, not only in childhood.
Because of this desire, we set up a crèche or Nativity scene both inside and outside our church, and ideally in our homes as well.  This makes it possible for our children and us, and for all who pass by this way, to see if not Jesus, at least how He looked when first He was seen.  The reality of His circumstances is shocking but credible, foreign but familiar.  We delight to see the soft infant face of God.
You will notice that this year that our own crèche here in the church has changed.  Our old sets, though not without their charms, are made of plaster and simply disintegrating.  Finally, finally, after years of looking, I found on my last trip to Rome something that seems suitable.  The figures are beautiful, approachable, and human, and in a style not too florid for our mid-century modern church.  They are carved of wood, so they will last for future generations as yet unborn to marvel at the mystery they present.  And honestly, for all that, they were reasonably priced.

The manger scene will look almost deserted this year, with only the Holy Family and none of the other characters in that midnight drama; no cattle are lowing, no shepherds watch.  And on the Epiphany, the Three Kings will seem to have missed their star.  But that is a temporary condition.  Because this is an Italian creation, there is no shortage of sheep and lambs and dogs and Magi and shepherds and even a camel available to fill out the entire cast. 
Consider this my first plea for donors to offer the cost of as many of these statues as we can afford, as soon as we can manage.  The donors will be commemorated both by notice as the statures arrive, and, I hope, by having names inscribed on the statues themselves.  Remember, they will last for generations.  I have a picture catalog, and am waiting for a list of prices from Rome.  There will be a wide range: I know already that a sheep costs far less than a shepherd.  The Holy Family statues are available for dedication as well; inquire at the rectory.
Nonetheless, when we come for Christmas we do not settle for statues or pictures no matter how compelling their presentation of the Nativity of Our Lord.  We still come because, like young Yves in the story, we want to see Jesus – not simply see what He looked like when He was young.
That night in Bordeaux, the excited young boy took a major step toward mature faith:
If time seemed to pass quickly, it was no doubt because I was suspended in timelessness.  Someone pushed open the door and I closed my eyes.  Hearing the silken whisper of the dress, the rustle of paper, I told myself it must be Mother.  It was she and it wasn’t she; it appeared to me rather that someone else had been transmuted into the form of my mother.  During that midnight Mass, which I had not attended and which was beyond my imagination, I knew that Mother and my brothers must have received the little Host and that they had returned to their seats as I had seen them do so often, with their hands folded in prayer and their eyelids closed so tight that I wondered how they were able to find their way.  To be sure, it was Mother.  After having lingered at the fireplace, she approached my bed.  But He lived in her.  I could not think of them separately.  The breath which I felt on my hair came from her in whom the spirit of God still dwelt.
Jesus took flesh because He wants to be seen.  Behold the child laid in the manger, adore Him come on the altar; receive Him under your roof, that His flesh and yours become one.  
The boy arrived at the truth his mother had wanted him to learn and love:  But He lived in her.  I could not think of them separately.   That is my prayer for you, and for all whom you love and hope to help love the Truth.  May the Christ born this night be manifest in your flesh, and your works of love make it possible for all who see you, to see Jesus.
On behalf of Fr. Gallaugher, Fr. Markey, and all the folks here who labor to make Christ visible to you and to the world, I wish you and all your dear ones a blessed and joyous Christmas.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Call your office!

This weekend, I was reading an article about the future of “music delivery” -- you know, what comes after iTunes and Pandora.  It predicted a near-future combination of technology and tunes that would track one’s history, monitor bodily indicators, note the time of day, weather, and all sorts of circumstances; then instantly produce a stream of music catered to take you to where even you hadn’t realized you wanted to go.  Pretty cool and scary tech, isn’t it?
It made me think of how different that is in both intention and execution from sacred music, which is not personalized, but rather is part of a larger reality that is the ancient worship of the entire Church.    Rather than manipulate or reflect our mood, it manifests the mystery of the living God, making it possible for us to participate, in prayer and praise, wonder and awe.
The power of music celebrating the Birth of Jesus is so great that it is the only sacred music broadcast in the popular media.  Some of the most robust singing in our church is heard in Christmas carols and hymns, as will be proven abundantly: you will have a chance to sing your favorite Christmas songs at every Mass here for the Nativity of Our Lord.  But you will also have two opportunities to enhance your experience of Holy Mass with the Divine Office, offering more Christmas music you know and love, but also much more. 
On Christmas Eve, come at 8:30 for Vespers (Evening Prayer) before our 9:00 Solemn Mass.  Or come at 11:30 for the Vigil, to be drawn into the glory revealed at Midnight Mass. 
Along with the Mass, the Divine Office, or “Liturgy of the Hours,” is the other pillar of the Church’s liturgy.  It is rooted in the Psalms, the prayers that Jesus Himself prayed.  Like the Mass, it has a set structure that combines elements that are constant or recurring, with elements that are specific to the day being celebrated.  One may pray it alone – solo – using just a book known as the breviary; or a community can pray it in common, out loud, singing certain portions.  All clergy and religious pray the proper “hour” at five or more times each day.   Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has encouraged lay people to take up this prayer as well.
The first “hour” of the Divine Office is known as the Office of Readings, or Matins; I always pray it first thing in the morning.  In many monasteries, however, the community rises during the night to pray it together, in which case it is also called a Vigil.  
Because the birth of Jesus occurred during the night, Christmas has not only a night Office, but also a Mass to be celebrated In the Night.  The Church envisions the two being united, even in parish celebrations. 
The shepherds who came in the night were the first witnesses of the newborn Jesus, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, the Word become flesh dwelling among us.   The liturgy during the night gives us the opportunity to share this experience, especially with marvelous sacred music.  The music is quieter, almost hushed in reverence and awe; and the ancient texts lead us to wonder at the depths of the mystery offered to us in this child.
The world in silent stillness lay, as the song goes, when the marvel of our salvation lay revealed.  The worship of the Church in the middle of this long, holy night uses ancient words and beautiful songs to pull us into the mystery of God become helpless for our sake, a child lying in the straw.  We are filled with holy joy.  No technology will ever accomplish that.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 12, 2015

What's the use?

Practicality.  Efficiency.  Usefulness. 
These are all attributes that most people value highly.  In our day and our society, they make a product more valuable, and often contribute to our decisions to how we spend our days.   We choose to do what is practical in the most efficient manner possible, so that our results are useful to ourselves and others.   Sometimes, we use these criteria because we feel we have no choice – some things we would like to do have to be dropped from our schedule, or our budget, because they are not practical, wouldn’t be an efficient use of our resources, and no useful product or result would be obtained.
It is hard to think of a time of year when we are more likely to make hard decisions using these criteria than right now, what our modern society has come to call The Holidays.  There is so much that we hope to do, want to do, have to do, that we just cannot do it all.  Some things simply must be done; and some things must be allowed to slide -- they don’t make the cut.  Even the parties we choose to attend have to withstand the test of practicality, efficiency, and usefulness. 
I understand.  Really, I do.  My inner German, my training as a professional analyst, my dread of waste; all make me a sucker for such decision-making processes.  However, please allow me to take the opportunity to beg you: Do not to fall for this!
The counter-example I offer you is: snuggle time with your child.  This clearly does not fall on the winning side of the practicality/efficiency/usefulness contest.  Yet, somehow, it carries its own imperative, and bears its inarguable rewards.  Whether the child chatters aimlessly the whole time, asks a Big Question (Daddy, why do people die?), or just falls asleep, it has an immeasurable value.  I don’t think I have to explain to you or verify how this complete waste of time confirms and strengthens the identities and relationship of both participants.
The Sacred Liturgy of the Church similarly fails completely when put to the test for practicality/efficiency/usefulness.  Absolutely nothing is accomplished, and in fact much is lost.  Heck, at a good one, some of our best things get burnt up!  Whether you spend the time reeling off seemingly unconnected preoccupations to God, ask Him a Big Question, or simply settle into a restful peace, this time “squandered” bears great fruit in ordering your life rightly according to your identity and relationship with God and everyone else.
There is nothing practical or productive about worship.  Many words are said, but very little new information is conveyed.  The “Good News” isn’t that new, really.  Much is done, but little is accomplished.  And there are long periods of just ...being there.  Gack!  How unbearably inefficient and ...useless!  What’s worse, it requires pouring out before God our precious time and vital essence, strewing the floor with our treasures, littering His place with our concerns.  That simply doesn’t rate much in a busy society, especially in its busiest month, December. 
But right now is precisely when our worship teaches us that we will never know who we are and who He is, unless we put aside all our tasks and priorities for silence, stillness, and waiting.  It’s an audacious request, but He never fails to deliver on His promise. 
Remember that if you are trying to decide if you can “afford” to attend Mass.  The formerly fashionable concept of “quality time” never really filled the bill with toddlers, or with God.  He offers us holy time, if we only embrace its inefficiency, impracticality, and uselessness.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 05, 2015

But wait; there's more!

Is this all there is?
This is the great punch line, the so-called “insight,” of so much entertainment of the past century.  In the book, movie, play, or pop song, our protagonist, whoever he is, after laboring to achieve ideals, struggling to maintain virtues, and pursuing the highest possibility, pulls up short, says, Is this all there is? -- then walks away in disgust.  Such pessimism passes for profundity for plenty of people of our age, excusing them from evaluation and further effort.  It is what it is, and It’s all good.  Whatever. 
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, says the prophet.  Before we can claim the light, we can learn by asking first, what is the darkness?  It is the perduring ignorance, renewed in every generation, that closes itself off to the enlightenment that there is more than this – more than we have, more than we see, more than we can achieve; more than this world and more than what we can do with it.  Before God can offer us the possibility of being with Him, before He can offer to deliver us from all that keeps us from Him, before He can cheer us with the promise of coming to dwell among us, He takes the first necessary step of identifying Himself to us, letting us know He Is.
In the days of Advent we walk by the light of the prophecies, the promises of God to come and deliver us.  Deliver us from what? would be the question of the day for anyone who is unaware of just how far we are from the life we yearn for, the companionship we are made for, the One who made us, and Whose company we desire even before we know who He is.  We crave deliverance not only from present danger, not only from concrete evil, but from futility – the futility of our own undertakings and strivings, the futility of “carpe diem” – of trying to seize the day. 
At the heart of our divine worship is the desire to be reminded that we are not “all there is.”  We do not try to get God’s attention in order to avoid destruction by some malevolent force, like the dust-speck people in Horton Hears a Who, shouting We are here we are here we are HERE!   Rather, we still our noise, and tune our hearts to hear Him who promises, Behold, I come. The light that shines reveals Himself, and in so doing, reveals our distance from him.  The light of His mercy does not say to us, that’s where you are, and that’s okay.  No; He wants us to want Him to gather us to Himself.
Tuesday we open the extraordinary jubilee, the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis.  He exhorts us to offer and to seek mercy, to enter into the mystery of the Mercy of God.  Initiating this grace-filled year on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary reminds us that God acts first, in His prevenient (“coming before”) grace.  In His mercy, He prepares a place for His mercy to occur, and to take flesh.  He who would offer us mercy, first makes us aware of our need for it, so that we may desire it, and desiring it, request and receive it.
In Advent, we rejoice in God’s first mercy, when He lets us know that this is NOT all there is.

Monsignor Smith