Saturday, December 31, 2016

The work of bringing the light

You should have seen Saint Patrick Cathedral in New York, all decked out and blazing with light.  The brightness was due in part to the recent renovation, which scrubbed clean the interior, and replaced every fixture with new, efficient and effective lighting.  The decking included rows of wreaths and bows in festive colors.  The trouble was, it was still Advent!  A few days before Gaudete Sunday, I had gone there to see an exhibit and visit Fr. Nick. (He says Hello, and he’ll be here soon to visit.)
Back here in Four Corners, it was still Advent plain and violet, penitential and preparatory, up through the end of the 8:15 Mass on the morning of 24 December.  Then an amazing thing happened: people showed up; flowers emerged from the basement; banners and bows and wreaths and statues and candles and cloths were brought forth, and quickly began the business of bedecking our fair church, like bride preparing to meet her bridegroom.
Elaine Vining, Kelly Weisgerber, Margaret McDermott, and Melissa Franklin led a squadron of helpers that included spouses and sons and daughters and volunteers from Religious Ed.  Norma and Anthony Dao directed and detailed all the things little and big that need to be in place for a proper celebration.  Then, like Creation itself but in far less than seven days, it was done.  And we all saw that it was Very Good.
Of course, to make that possible, many of you had donated toward those flowers that were artfully arrayed in our sanctuary.  The names are listed in our Christmas bulletin; our thanks to the donors, and our prayers for the intentions they listed.
The week before, our Holy Name guys had come out on a wretched December afternoon to erect the stable for our outdoor crèche.  It remained dark and empty until we celebrated the arrival of its Divine Occupant, and now He and His Holy Family attract attention and adoration from parishioners and passersby on the busy boulevard.
Please allow me to direct your attention to the work that was hidden in the weeks of Advent but whose fruits erupted into glory in the day of the Nativity.  The music was amazing whatever Mass you attended, but you may not have had the opportunity I did to realize it was different at every Mass.  The Youth Choir and the brass at the first Vigil, then our choir with a tiny orchestra at the later Vigil, for the sublime Messe de Minuit by Charpentier, and some Mendelsohn added for oomph.  The men’s Schola chanted the whole Night Office and Midnight Mass, with polyphony by William Byrd.  Then the choir came back Christmas Morning, with yet still different music.  Each Mass of Christmas – Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, and Day -- has different proper prayers, antiphons, and readings, and they were sung all throughout, and beautifully.  John Henderson, our Music Director, and all our singers and instrumentalists gave God and us a great gift that I can assure you was unmatched at any local parish.
My altar servers and lectors were relentlessly awesome.  Let me point out to you that many of them, and many of their families, adjusted their schedules for Christmas celebrating in order to make sure all of our Masses had a full level of liturgical solemnity and skill.  That is huge.  So did our ushers, who don’t attract a lot of glory, but they help us all give it to God. 
Speaking of giving, our parish team of Expert Counters came in afterward to make sure that every gift and offering was counted and credited to the giver, with a level of detail and accuracy of which your sacred sacrifice is worthy.
Many hands make light work, the saying goes, but let’s change that a bit to say that hereabouts, many hands do the work of bringing the light.  It is particularly noticeable and appreciated that the transformation occurs here suddenly, as did our Savior.  I ask you to join me in thanking all the hands who lifted up this work of praise to God, and benefitted our prayer and worship.  God bless them, and God bless you with the inner transformation all this outward excitement promises.  May He grant you intimacy and joy with His beloved Son in this new Year of Grace!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Dignity or delight?

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6)
One Sunday morning, as I stood at the entrance to the church, waiting for Mass to end, I stood near a mom bouncing her small child.  The little fellow had already finished his worship of the Lord in the Holy Eucharist, obviously, because he was making inarticulate shouts of curiosity or desire in various directions. 
So, being a typical grown-up, I started making faces to get his attention.  He was transfixed.  The combination of the silly faces and the silly hat with the pompom took everything else off his mind, if only for a while.  It was great fun, and very reassuring, to know that this little child found me worthy of his attention.  That scenario replays itself over and over as otherwise dignified adults make goofy fools of themselves, in public or private, when confronted with a baby. 
And so Our Lord comes to us as a baby, as a little child.  He Is not impressed by most of the things by which we set such great stock.  No, He takes delight in us, in the very reality of our existence.  He more than repays any attention we manage to give Him. 
Even from his very birth, then, Jesus, the Word become flesh, reveals His Father to us, showing us the God that takes delight in our being who we are, being present and attentive to Him.  The child in the manger is not only the fulfillment of God’s desire to save us, He is the expression of His eternal desire to be with us.  He wants to be with us because He knows us and loves as and, yes, finds each one of us deeply delightful.
Back in the early 1400’s in Italy, Gentile da Fabriano captured this truth in his art.  In his painting of the Adoration of the Magi, the Virgin Mary is dandling the child on her lap as the three richly robed kings approach, each proffering his costly gift.  The first of the kings to reach the child, having doffed his crown, is crawling on his hands and knees, in obvious reverent awe of the newborn king.  He lifts his lips to venerate the tiny, royal toe.  The child Jesus, meanwhile, looks back at this dignified, respectful figure, and cooing with amusement, reaches out to pat the patriarch’s shiny bald pate. 

The juxtaposition of the dignity and the delight is marvelous.  Now, if that king had any vanity at all – pretty likely, I’d say – he did not glory in his baldness.  No matter; Jesus glories in it, because Jesus glories in him.
One of the blessings of having been your pastor here for so long, is that I can follow children from the time that they are simply “good news” joyfully shared, to miracles bundled and presented, then as they grow and blossom into much, much more.  What I get to see is not only splendid individuals taking shape in the sight of God and man, but also families transformed.  I see mom and dad, brother and sister taking new shape in relation to this one soul whom they once welcomed as almost an alien. 
Because of the child -- sibling or son or daughter -- every member, every life, becomes more itself: stronger, brighter, and more beautiful.  And suddenly it is impossible not only for us to think of them without their younger members, but also they could not think of themselves otherwise.  Because from this one who came to them small and helpless, who required that they put aside their plans and their dignity, and give over their full attention, they have received something they cannot name or quantify.  It is the experience of being loved.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."  (Isaiah 9:6)
Once years ago, we had a parishioner here who had come to Washington to work for the good of the nation at the center of her governance.  He had married his college sweetheart shortly after their graduation, which set him apart from most of his coworkers, who included some married folks, but they had married much older.  Then, he told me, when he had his first child, there was outright shock and some ridicule, for almost none of them had children at all.  These are the people who are running our country, he emphasized in alarm – the staffers and advisors who make our government do what our government does!  I thought it explained a lot, actually.
In this world that for some people is too crowded, and for some people is too lonely, the Christ child lying in the manger is both liberation and reassurance.  The eyes of a child liberate us from our own pretensions, and reassure us of our true identity.  When the child’s eyes see with the light of God’s own knowledge of us, there is no possibility of pretense, and we know that we are seen for who we truly are, and loved. 
Thank God we have so many families here who welcome children as a gift and blessing.  It takes our attention, all of us, off our own selves and our own self-image, and helps us to brighten up and open up and rejoice in the gift of being seen by a little child.  So many times, a couple with their first child has approached us for Baptism, and expressed nervousness about attending Mass.  I laugh and assure them, oh, don’t you worry.  There is room at Saint Bernadette for your baby!  I think you know what I mean.
We as a parish, as a family before God, receive insight from all these children into who we are in the eyes of God.  And whether it comes from their total dependence, or from their ability to make us look like fools, it is a gift I am so glad you share with me.
So in this holy time, as you kneel down the living God, know that He is in fact looking back at you.  That is why He came, to see you and be with you and find joy in you.   Don’t be self-conscious about your hair or your teeth or what you have to say.  Just give Him all your attention, because that is the best way to hold His attention.  And know that the God of heaven and earth is transfixed by the wonder of your existence, and wants this intimacy of delight never, ever to end.
And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."  (Luke 2:9)
Now, I am not the only one around here who can be a little silly sometimes, and who is grateful to if there is a baby nearby to serve as an excuse.  But I won’t name names -- about that, anyway.  Nonetheless, Father Gallaugher and Father Markey, Delfina, Jackie, Carol, Norma, and Dao, and the whole lot of us here in the rectory, want you to know of our joy to be with you, and our prayer that you be graced to bask today and always in the joy of God-with-us, the child Jesus.  May his tiny hand and sparkling eyes bless you and all your dear ones with confidence in His love.  Merry Christmas!
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Peaceful, not relaxing

Why is Advent so easy to ignore, when it is such a delight to explore? 
This year we have the longest Advent possible – a full four weeks, as Christmas arrives seven days after the Fourth Sunday in Advent.  Every Scripture reading, every prayer available in the Advent liturgy, we will use.  The candles of our Advent wreath will burn down to nubs.  Great, you might say.  More time!  But ask your kids: is more time until Christmas really a GOOD thing?  It simply means longer to wait, and that can be hard on a kid!
Thus is Advent a four-week exploration of the real suspense in our lives.  There is so much to do, and we do so much with every day our lives.  But none of what we do, accomplishes what we crave, what we need, what will last – what will, as the saying goes, really make a difference.  For that we need someone else.
The real work of Advent is not making Christmas happen, but directing our attention to what is going to happen.  Christ is coming; He will bring peace, and He will send packing the unjust, the unrighteous, and the uninterested. 
Wake up! is the first thing that is required of us; wake up from our slumber both literal and metaphorical.  While hardly a great accomplishment, it is something required daily of everyone. 
The next thing we must do is repent, says John the Baptist: change.   We need to discard every aspect of our lives that obstructs Christ’s coming, those aspects often called sin.  How to do that?  What should be on our lists?  It turns out, He who comes will bring an answer for that, too.
All about us, we are bombarded by reminders and even assertions of what we need to have a wonderful Christmas, the kind of Christmas we used to know, the kind of Christmas we want our children to enjoy, the kind of Christmas that we will always remember.  Because of this fixation, everybody has lists: things to do, things to buy, things to arrange, things to achieve, list upon list.  The roads are jammed with people trying to get things that are on their lists.
But isn’t it funny that the one element we need to have any Christmas at all cannot be obtained by anything we do, get, or arrange?  The Christ Who comes, comes when He pleases, because He pleases.  And until He come, we have no Christmas, no lasting joy.
Waiting longer can be a burden for one who is convinced of the goodness of what he awaits.  Waiting longer can be a blessing for one who uncertain of the coming, or the goodness: waiting to take our hardest final exam, for example, or for that worrisome diagnosis.  We welcome more time when we think we have more work to do.  We groan when more time, a longer wait, comes between us and what we need.  
Advent is a microcosm of our own lives, our relationship with God, and our hope for goodness and glory.  More time is a blessing when we are focused on what we can do, what we need to do.  More time is a burden when it comes between us and what we know only God can do.  Which is it for you?   A quick examination of our attitude toward Advent can reveal much about our relationship with the Redeemer.
O come, O come:  it is the song of Advent we all know so well.  If we listen, we will hear also the song of our lives.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The eyes have it

What are you looking at?  It is a question we have all asked, and we have all been asked, because one of the most noticeable things about us people is our eyes, and what they are doing. 
It is always exciting when an infant’s eyes begin to focus, and then recognize mother, father, and others.  The infamous teenage eye roll elicits the opposite sentiment.  Backseat cries of, “He’s looking at me!” reveal how a look can intrude.  When a companion’s eyes stare blankly into the distance, we are likely to call her back to our conversation; but when they fix and focus on a distant object and the expression changes, we stop ourselves mid-sentence, asking what it is, or even turning to look ourselves.
If you were to stand stock still in a public place with your eyes fixed on a certain point, many people would look not at you, but toward the place your gaze is fixed.  Such is the power of a look.  The most important things we can say to another human being only make sense if we are looking directly into their eyes.  To avert our eyes undermines what we say, and possibly even the entire relationship.
In our day, the screen is the killer of this essential human communication.  The television has trained us to expect eyes that look with meaning and emotion directly at us – even though the reality is that they stare into the blank cyclops of a camera, feigning engagement.  Those bright beguiling screens draw all eyes toward them -- and away from one another.  Now it seems that we all have our own private and personal screen, and our eyes are lost to one another.
One action liberates our eyes from this prison, if only for a portion of time: Mass.  Because of the power of the eyes, the priest celebrant raises his eyes in prayer, to lift the eyes of the people to God.  Closing the eyes, while helpful to private prayer, it is hardly liturgical.  Someone wisely observed to me in seminary that it was a way for the priest to go where nobody else could possibly follow. 
The priest’s eyes are not the only ones to have impact.  Parents’ eyes exert an influence over where their children look, even if they may not follow all the time.  Children learn what is important about anything, especially Mass, from their parents’ attention, especially the eyes.  A particularly devout soul can draw the eyes of family, friends, and even those simply sitting nearby to the object of his rapt attention. 
We know and love the visual aspects of Christmas: lights, decorations, greeting cards, and manger scenes of every possible style.   They celebrate the moment when the invisible God became visible, allowing our eyes to behold him, drawing the eyes of others to do the same.  But while we can enjoy these depictions, we need not settle for only them.  Since those shepherds first laid eyes on the Lord, His sacramental presence has offered the same experience to generation after generation, eye following eye, reaching not a depiction of the Living God, but the very Eternal Word become flesh.  The eyes have it. 
So look when the priest says, “Behold!”  His eyes focus not on you to whom he is speaking, but upon the God Who is suddenly come within his reach.  Direct your eyes, and other eyes will follow yours to glory, out of the natural human curiosity to know what you are looking at.

Monsignor Smith