Saturday, December 28, 2019

Go to school with a Pope!

The Flight into Egypt, Martin Schongauer, c. 1470-75
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Nazareth is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like and even to understand his Gospel. Here we can observe and ponder the simple appeal of the way God’s Son came to be known, profound yet full of hidden meaning. And gradually we may even learn to imitate him.
Here we can learn to realize who Christ really is. And here we can sense and take account of the conditions and circumstances that surrounded and affected his life on earth: the places, the tenor of the times, the culture, the language, religious customs, in brief, everything which Jesus used to make himself known to the world. Here everything speaks to us, everything has meaning. Here we can learn the importance of spiritual discipline for all who wish to follow Christ and to live by the teachings of his Gospel.
How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth! How wonderful to be close to Mary, learning again the lesson of the true meaning of life, learning again God’s truths. But here we are only on pilgrimage. Time presses and I must set aside my desire to stay and carry on my education in the Gospel, for that education is never finished. But I cannot leave without recalling, briefly and in passing; some thoughts I take with me from Nazareth.
First, we learn from its silence. If only we could once again appreciate its great value. We need this wonderful state of mind, beset as we are by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times. The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers. Nazareth can teach us the value of study and preparation, of meditation, of a well-ordered personal spiritual life, and of silent prayer that is known only to God.
Second, we learn about family life. May Nazareth serve as a model of what the family should be. May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplify its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings, in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children—and for this there is no substitute.
Finally, in Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work and the discipline it entails. I would especially like to recognize its value—demanding yet redeeming—and to give it proper respect. I would remind everyone that work has its own dignity. On the other hand, it is not an end in itself. Its value and free character, however, derive not only from its place in the economic system, as they say, but rather from the purpose it serves.
In closing, may I express my deep regard for people everywhere who work for a living. To them I would point out their great model, Christ their brother, our Lord and God, who is their prophet in every cause that promotes their well-being.
From an address by Saint Paul VI, pope (Nazareth, January 5, 1964)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Gentlest Conqueror

The Adoration of the Shepherds
Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, 1475/85
National Gallery of Art, Washington
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  (Luke 2:12, RSV)
That’s the sign: a newborn baby.  And not only a newborn baby, but one bundled up tightly and placed in a feed trough.  That’s pretty much helpless, made more helpless, and then consigned to perfect helplessness.  And that’s the sign?  That will be the cause of rejoicing?
Like all the touchstones of our faith, this one can become so familiar and shopworn after the parade of images on cards and in songs that we rarely stop to appreciate how truly strange it is; strange, and common.  Babies are present everywhere and at all times throughout human existence; babies are everywhere and at all times completely helpless.  This one, though, is different, because this one is the Savior from God; this one is, in fact, God.  Indistinguishable from every other baby in his helplessness.  
But the very helplessness of the baby sheds light on the power of God.  For babies routinely change the behavior of people who are strong and capable; infants make people change their plans, drop what they are doing, end even risk their lives.  They reveal the strange power of helplessness.
A quick search of headlines reveals this is true in our time and place:  Total stranger saves the life of choking Toledo toddler; Stranger Caught On Camera Saving Dying Child At Supermarket; Family stuck in flooded truck meets hero who saved baby's life; Stranger Saves Baby’s Life from Fire As Desperate Mom Drops Her from the Third Floor; Baby rescued on Miami roadside by stranger who gave CPR; Strangers Rescue Babies From Watery Grave in Texas;  Stranger Saves Baby From Choking at North Carolina Restaurant;  Guy Almost Dies Trying To Save Baby In A Pram That Rolled Onto Train Tracks.  Those are all real headlines, and recent.
We may believe and even expect sacrifices or heroic actions by mothers of babies, or fathers, or even siblings, other relatives, or family friends.  But strangers?  They all dropped what they were doing, put aside what they had planned, and responded to the helpless baby.   And what about “Guy almost dies trying to save baby?”  He was probably simply on his way to work, but seeing the baby’s danger, risked himself, and almost died!  What could motivate a stranger to put aside fear for his own life and safety, but helplessness?
So God, Who comes to save us, reaches out by being … helpless?  What happened to power and might, and all that?  But there he is, daring us to refuse to respond, daring strangers to leave him to His own helplessness.  Who can pass a helpless baby?   And so He begins to change lives.
This is exactly what He promised, if we recall the words of the prophet Isaiah:  Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened, and bud forth a savior: and let justice spring up together: I the Lord have created him.  (Is 45:8 Douay-Rheims) What could be gentler than dew?  What could be more fragile than a flower’s bud?  And so shall our Savior be.
It is possible to resist; it is possible to refuse.  So was it foretold by Simeon to Mary and Joseph in the Temple, when them presented their child there: Behold, this child is destined to bring about the fall of many and the rise of many in Israel; to be a sign which men will refuse to acknowledge.  (Luke 2:34, Knox version)
So do many resist the helplessness of a child, even in our time, and respond with selfishness and disregard.  So do many respond to the helpless Savior, insisting like the thief crucified on His left side that He prove Himself by saving Himself, and them.  (cf. Luke 23:39) And in refusing to acknowledge, they embrace their own destruction.
But this Lord Who Comes is not only helpless and gentle; no, He is also relentless, like the rain that falls:  And as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth, and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:  So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it.  (Is 55:10-11, Douay-Rheims)
And so He comes.  He Whom we thought we knew, He whom we were convinced we understood, presents himself to us afresh in His helplessness.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.  This holy night, we behold him with fresh eyes, especially if we are around children.  In our day and time children see and recognize their fellow helpless-one as they look at the Christmas crib.  They recognize love -- fragile, vulnerable love -- that has so much in common with them, and in their eyes, we can see Him too. 
Looking at Him, we can hear the call that love speaks: love calls us to drop what we are doing, put aside what we had planned, and move closer.  Love even calls us to put aside fear for our own lives and safety, and do His bidding! 
He is vulnerable, and persistent.  He is helpless, and relentless.  
Madonna and Child, Andrea Verrocchio, c. 1475;
usually in the Bargello museum in Florence, Italy,
 but in Washington at the National Gallery of Art
until 12 January 2020.
Pray to Me with confidence then, for I am the King of Love, and I want to be recognized as such.  I rule in souls, not by coercion, but by My most sweet love.  I rule as a Child King, with gentleness and an affection that is wholly divine.  I am not a tyrant, nor will I force my rule upon anyone.  I am the Child King Who comes in the guise of a beggar, seeking the hospitality of one heart after another.  To those who welcome My rule, I impart warmth and light, food and drink, and a share in My kingdom forever.  (A Benedictine Monk, In Sinu Iesu:  When Heart Speaks to Heart – the Journal of a Priest at Prayer, 2016)
May the newborn Infant King, Who comes to conquer with love, give to you and your families and friends and all who are dear to you warmth and light, food and drink, and a share in His kingdom forever.  With the promise of my prayers for you throughout the year, please let me wish you all a blessed and truly merry Christmas. 
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Now + forever

“Like sands through an hourglass, so are the Days of our Lives!”  With these weightily-pronounced words began a popular soap opera when I was younger.  Nobody in my house ever watched it; perhaps it was in a break room during my summer job that I saw it.  “Life is just one (darn) thing after another” isn’t a bad summary of the outlook behind this platitude, nor of the daily melodramas it introduced.
But real lives, our lives, are not “one darn thing after another.”  The Creator God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, loved us into being, and our every moment is an unfolding of the real drama of our coming to know and love Him, even as we are known and loved.  We resemble our Creator in that we are free and able to choose and act, and therefore to love.  The question each moment brings is, Will I love?
It is easy not to see how these moments add up to lives that tread into eternity.  To open our eyes to this reality of our days and our lives, we depend on the sacred liturgy, which presents to us mortals both the divine engagement in time and our participation in the holiness of God, Who is without beginning or end.  Liturgical time keeps us from losing sight of how God works in our time and how our time opens to eternity.
Whether simple or silly, or both, one of the joys I find in Advent is seeing the burning candles of the Advent wreath mark of time of this short, blessed season.  The first-lit violet candle is precisely one week shorter than the second, which is one week shorter than the pink.  This visible, material measure of time is a help to all of us to understand the wait, and the preparation, for the coming of the Savior.  Like the Advent calendar, with its daily windows counting down to the Big Day, the Advent wreath is a domestic devotion, a way to bring liturgical timing onto the family home.  It summarizes in wax and fire the temporal advance of the Lord Who comes that is spelled out in prophecies, promises, and prayers presented in the Mass and Divine Office.        

Days, weeks, seasons, and the year itself are all measures of time, and all are made holy by liturgical worship.  Sometimes the chronology is literal, as in the nine months between the Incarnation (Annunciation) and Nativity (Christmas), between the Immaculate Conception and the Nativity of the Virgin; in the intense three days of the Paschal Triduum; in the forty days between Resurrection and Ascension; and the novena from thence to Pentecost.  The forty days of Lent are both literal (Christ in the desert) and figurative (Israel’s forty years wandering).  And both the arc of the history of salvation and the events of the life of the Savior are spread and represented in the course of one year’s travel round the sun. 
Advent’s four-week season is a microcosm of the work of the Sacred Liturgy throughout that year.  How can so short a time convey such waiting, and elicit such preparation?  Is there any marvel more hidden, yet more closely watched, than the gestation of a child?  How this is true of all God’s work for us; and how hard, how inevitable, and how rewarding are the patient anticipation and preparation it teaches us who look for the Lord!
Periods of silence, light and darkness; listening and speaking, bowing and rising, sorrowing and singing; repetition and representation: all form our flesh and manifest the mystery of the eternal God entered into history, and entering our story.  Like athletic training, it works our “muscles” for recognizing and responding to the Lord Who comes in the fullness of time.  

The wax of a candle is consumed in giving us light, and the child Who will save us from our sins grows in His Immaculate Mother’s womb.  Both unfold over time, and both mark that time for eyes to see the victory of light over darkness, and life over death.  The gestures and movement of the Sacred Liturgy reveal the divine action, not only in history but also in our life. 

Not simply “one darn thing after another,” the drama of our lives is time sanctified by the touch of the immortal, invisible God who comes in our days and in our years to draw us to Himself for all eternity.   Though He formed our flesh in an instant from the dust of the earth, He will make it glorious forever through the grace of divine worship, writing immortality on the days of our lives.   
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Settle, or rejoice

And now we dance.  Today I splurged and bought a t-shirt with that phrase, celebrating the Nats’ 2019 World Series Championship.  It’s an inside joke, since that’s what the local MASN TV announcer would say as a Nats player headed to the dugout after hitting a home run, then to dance the gantlet as his teammates cheered him on and pounded out a rhythm.  The phrase was not used by the national-network announcers who broadcast the postseason; you have to have been there during the regular season to get the reference.  I was there for the whole run, so I bought the shirt.

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.  (Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again: rejoice!)  With these words begins our Mass this weekend, marked by the festive rose color that breaks up the solemn violet of Advent, and we light the third candle in the wreath -- the pink one.  Rejoice! 
So why are we not dancing?  Wouldn’t that be rejoicing?  Shouldn’t there be some tub-thumping going on, some booty-shaking in the dugout?  Well, honestly, no; not at all.  What we are doing here, in church, in worshipping God, is different from ballgames and parties; even (especially) our rejoicing is different and distinct.   
The very name of Gaudete Sunday is evidence of the reality that binds us.  Like Advent, it is instructive of how and why the Liturgy is different from other human activities, and thus liturgical rejoicing is different from other forms of human rejoicing.  The ancient hallmarks of the day, and the very emphasis on rejoicing at this stage in our journey toward the Nativity of Our Savior, are indications of the reality in which we participate.
The Liturgy derives its greatness from what it is, not from what we make of it.  Our participation is, of course, necessary, but as a means of inserting ourselves humbly into the spirit of the Liturgy, and of serving Him Who is the true subject of the Liturgy:  Jesus Christ.   The Liturgy is not an expression of the consciousness of a community which, in any case, is diffuse and changing.  It is a revelation received in faith and prayer, and its measure is consequently the faith of the Church, in which revelation is received.  (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, as quoted in The Mass and Modernity, 2005)
“The true subject of the Liturgy” is Jesus in the sense that Jesus is the subject of every verb, the author of every action, the origin of every reality that the Liturgy presents.  We don’t have to be from the “Me Generation” to fall into considering ourselves the subject of our own story, to make “I” the subject of most of our thoughts and sentences.  The Liturgy liberates us from this slavery.  To recognize Who is acting in our presence, in our midst, and in our corporate activity is deliverance from the autocentric delusion.

Our rejoicing this weekend, and every day we pray liturgically, is articulated in a different idiom than the dugout dance party of the ballgame.  The tub-thumping and booty-shaking are intelligible and accessible because they are primal, that is, rooted in the elemental origins of life.  Liturgical rejoicing is formed and informed by the divine, that is, the source and goal of human life, our Creator and Redeemer.   Necessarily higher and more developed, this rejoicing not only reminds us of God, but also engages us with Him, raising our rejoicing to the level of Communion in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.
Liturgy … is a human activity, but it is not merely a human activity because God takes the most important role in the celebration of the sacraments.  We adore, bless, praise, give thanks, confess our sins, intercede, and present our petitions, yet it is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Who is principally active in the Church’s liturgy.  It is God Who constitutes the people of God in a community with a supernatural dimension, which is therefore more than a naturalistic or social entity; it is God Who displays and makes present the saving death, Resurrection, and Ascension of His Son through the work of the Holy Spirit.  (Jonathan Robinson, The Mass and Modernity)
The expression, And now we dance, will long bring a smile to my lips as it reminds me of being present during the Nationals’ championship season.  But a deeper and daily joy is mine, and yours, in our participation in the liturgical manifestation of our salvation in Jesus Christ, the One Who comes, whose Advent we mark in these days.  The Incarnation of the living God, the Salvation of the World, is happening in our days and in our flesh!  Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. 
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Like an open book

We think of the Bible as a book we should read, from beginning to end, like all other books.  It comes with a binding, it comes in a box, and we know we should know it, whether we like it or not.  But it was not ever so; no, that’s not how it started.  The Bible is books (plural) with dozens of writers.  We know there’s one Author of Divine revelation, but to bring it all together took centuries of cooperation.
You might never ask, Who decided what’s in the Bible?  But to think on that for a moment is surely worth your while.  Bible writers were inspired, and so are still Bible readers.  The bridge between them is the Church, and centuries of divine worship.
“Scriptures” are writings, but with greater significance.  That’s the word Jesus himself used, because even in His time there was no single collection.  There were the Law and the Prophets, but there was more too, which He often quoted.  The same writings, and the same terms for them, were taken up by the Apostles.  For centuries, when the Church said “Scriptures,” they had in mind all those writings.
When in 142 A.D., Saint Justin Martyr wrote to explain the practices of Christians to the Emperor of Rome, he described the Sunday Eucharist that is the center of Christian worship.  He said that there are readings from “the Scriptures and the memoirs of the Apostles,” using a marvelous expression that shows that the Gospels and Epistles had not yet been codified into what we call the New Testament.  
Centuries later, it became clear that some definition was in order.  By then, there was a near-consensus among the local churches around the world what writings were divinely inspired, that is, Scriptural; what was need was an official act of the Church to ratify the consensus.  In response to this need, in 382 A.D. Pope Saint Damasus promulgated the definition of what we now know as the Holy Bible.  One of the criteria upon which this was based was which texts were proclaimed and preached on during Mass.  
That’s right; you had always thought that the readings we hear proclaimed at Mass are there because they are contained in the Bible; whereas in truth, what we find in the Bible is there because it is what the Church proclaims at Mass.  The Divine Worship of the Church is the place where revelation regarding the content of Sacred Scripture is manifest and ratified.  
There is no better time than Advent to understand how the Divine Worship sheds light on the Scriptures, when so many expect only the reverse.  As we began the season last week, the readings and the antiphons all seemed to carry the very same message as in previous weeks as last year ended: be alert, He comes!  Then, they boded dread consummation and judgment; now, these similar words carry different import: incarnate consolation and hope in the fullness of time.  Think of how the Davidic titles identify their fulfillment as the great Antiphons lead us to His Nativity:  O Daystar, O Key of David, O Emmanuel.
It is clearly not enough simply to read the Scriptures; they open themselves most fully to us when we pray and sing them in the context of worshipping their Divine Author.  The Sacred Liturgy that guides and defines our worship reveals the meaning and significance of the Scriptures in ways that cannot be grasped otherwise.  
The Bible’s Author still inspires and reveals, and to worship Him brings Communion.  We should surely all read it, though it’s not like other books.  The Holy Mass is its true binding, where lifted hearts think out of the box.  
Monsignor Smith