Monthly Archives: December 2013

Joseph the dreamer

St. Joseph, Gracias, Lempira, Honduras

St. Joseph, Gracias, Lempira, Honduras

Joseph, being a just man,
wanted to put her away quietly…
but, an angel of the Lord appeared
to him in a dream.
Matthew 1: 19-20

Joseph had his plans, what appeared reasonable to him.

He didn’t want to hurt Mary but he also might have wanted to wash his hands of this mess – his fiancée is pregnant and he’s not responsible.

Into this mess, God intervenes in a dream. Joseph, like his Old Testament namesake, has a number of dreams that change his life.

Joseph doesn’t let himself be tied to his plans – but is open to dreams, to what is larger than himself, to the plans of God. And though he says nothing in all the Gospels, though he is the one whose plans are sidelined, he can show us how to respond to God’s call.

Writing from a Nazi prison, Father Alfred Delp, S.J., wrote

Joseph is the man on the outskirts, standing in the shadows, silently waiting, there when wanted and always ready to help. He is the man in whose life God is constantly intervening with warnings and visions. Without complaint he allows his own plans to be set aside. . . .

Willing, unquestioning service is the secret of his life. It is his message for us and his judgment of us. We have crabbed and confined God within the pitiable limits of our obstinacy, our complacency, our mania for ‘self expression.’ We have given God only the minimum of recognition.

God’s call opened Joseph to being holy – not merely a “just man.”

That dream opened him to experience the presence of God in his life, in a very concrete way: he would hold in his arms the child of Mary, Jesus, God-with-us.

Seven years ago, comfortable in my ministry in Ames, something happened that, like Joseph’s dream, moved me to consider something different; because of this, I am in Honduras where I am continually being opened to God’s presence.

May our hearts be always opened to the dreams that open to us the way to God. It can give us great joy – even though it may be hard, even though it changes our plans.

O Wisdom, come

Tonight, the first of the O Antiphons is prayed at Night Prayer. These seven antiphons reveal to us seven names of Jesus, the One-Who-Is–To-Come.

Tonight we pray to Jesus, the Wisdom of God.

O Wisdom,
you came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and teaching from beginning to end,
you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care.
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

 A medieval image of Jesus seated on the Mary’s lap, as on a throne, recalls the title of Mary as Seat of Wisdom.

A carved wooden image of Mary – lacking the head of Jesus – is found in the Cloisters Museum in New York City. It never fails to move me.

Seat of Wisdom  The Cloisters

Seat of Wisdom
The Cloisters

May Mary open our hearts to the Wisdom of God, her Son.

The Gospel of “begat”

Tree of Jesus window, Canterbury Cathedral

Tree of Jesus window, Canterbury Cathedral

Matthew 1: 1-17 is the “Gospel of the Begats,”the listing of the ancestors of Jesus . The older translation made for a difficult and tongue-twisting reading:

Abraham begot Isaac; and Isaac begot Jacob; and Jacob begot Judas and his brethren…

Salmon begot Booz of Rahab. And Booz begot Obed of Ruth. And Obed begot Jesse. And Jesse begot David the king. And David the king begot Solomon, of her that had been the wife of Urias…

after the transmigration of Babylon, Jechonias begot Salathiel. And Salathiel begot Zorobabel. And Zorobabel begot Abiud. And Abiud begot Eliacim…

And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary…

And then Jesus was begotten of Mary….

To make this visual, medieval artists made images of the Tree of Jesse in stained glass windows and paintings. The tree starts with Jesse and ends with Mary – though often with only a few of the descendants of Jesus, not the 42 generations listed by Matthew.

Jesus, God-with-us, the Word made flesh, has a history – full of heroes and villains and a few foreign women.

Jesus doesn’t refrain from involving himself in the nitty-gritty of our human existence.

We have a God who gets his feet dirty.


As the prayer from today’s Mass puts it (in my translation from the Spanish):

so that the Son of God
who has taken our human nature
may make us participants in His divine nature.

Out of the muck of our human history God calls us to share his divine life – by being God-among-us, Emmanuel.



Seeking shelter

Today is the traditional beginning of Las Posadas, a re-enactment of Joseph and Mary seeking shelter in Bethlehem.

In the parish of Dulce Nombre de María they have been celebrating the Posadas since the first Sunday of Advent.

The tradition is that a group of people  – the pilgrims – goes to a house and, with one part of the group inside, alternate singing these verses:

Those outside:

In the name of heaven,
I ask you for shelter,
since my beloved spouse
cannot walk.

Inside comes this response:

This isn’t an inn,
Keep on going elsewhere,
I cannot open;
Don’t be a tramp.



We’ve come, exhausted,
from Nazareth;
I’m a carpenter
and my name is Joseph


I don’t care what your name is;
let me sleep,
since I’ve already told you
that I don’t have to open.

Are our hearts open to receiving the Christ who comes to us, who knocks at our door? Not only at the door of our hearts? But also, as the poor stranger, at the doors of our houses and at the borders of our nations?

Las Posadas are a challenge to all closed doors, all that keeps others out.

The are a challenge to us as persons – but also to the nations of the world.

Would that the nations of the world be able to sing the last verse, where those inside open the doors and let the people in:

Come in, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
and even though my dwelling is poor,
I heartily give you this place to stay.

The Kingdom ruptures the darkness

Strengthen all weary hands,
steady all trembling knees
and say to all faint hearts,
‘Courage! Do not be afraid.
Look, your God is coming…
He is coming to save you.
Isaiah 35: 3-4

We live in a time plagued by fear – fear of violence, fear of death, fear of sickness, fear of insecurity.

In his 1961 essay “The Root of War Is Fear,” Thomas Merton noted:

At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another, as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.

But today’s readings offer reason for hope, not for fear.

The Kingdom of God will break through, will rupture the darkness and fear. It will offer hope in the midst of darkness.

“God is coming to save us.”

 But how do we know this? How do we say this to people who are suffering – from poverty or from severe illness, from the loss of a loved one or from the loss of a job?

We cannot merely say that God is coming and all will be well.

But Jesus gives us a hint of the response.

When John’s disciples ask him if he is the Messiah, the one who is to come, he doesn’t say “Yes” or give them a theological proof of his status as the Messiah.

He tells them to look around.

Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind see again, the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

The Reign of God ruptures the darkness with signs of hope.

When we help the blind see and the lame walk, when the poor hear the good news of God’s preferential love for them, then God’s reign breaks through.

That is what Jesus did and what we are called to do.

Break through the darkness with signs of life and hope.

And blessed is the one who takes no offense at those who practice the works of mercy and call for the justice of the Reign of God.


Turning the hearts of parents

 [Elijah], you are destined, it is written, at the appointed time…
to turn back the hearts of parents toward their children…
Sirach 48: 10

 When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, announcing the birth of John the Baptist, he used these words, first written about Elijah, to describe the mission of the Precursor of the Lord.

What strikes me is that the missions of Elijah and John are all about the conversion of parents, not of the children. One could interpret the angel’s statement that John will turn “the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous” as a reference to disobedient children, but I don’t think that is what the text means.

Why, then, do parents need to turn their hearts to their children?

We have so many expectations for the next generation, so many hopes that they will fulfill what we haven’t.

But are we open to the ways that God may call the young, their ways of trying to live up to who they are and who they are called to be?

Is the generation gap due not to the rebelliousness of the young but the conformity and traditions-bound convictions of the old?

I have seen this in the rural parish where I help here in Honduras. Some of those who have been serving in the church don’t always welcome the young who want to be involved – especially in positions of leadership.

The small but vocal opposition to the reforms of Pope Francis and his strong words about the economy are another sign of that adherence to traditions. (Note the plural “traditions.” I don’t know who said it but Tradition is the living faith of the dead and traditions are often the dead faith of the living.)

Today’s saint, John of the Cross, endured persecution, jailing, and more as he sought to reform the Carmelites in 16th century Spain, together with St. Teresa of Avila.

The hearts of many of the leaders of his order, an order that lays claim to the inheritance of Elijah, were turned against him. Not only did the “Observants” imprison and beat him but he suffered marginalization in his final days at the hands of his own reformed brothers.

But in all this, he sought God.

So today we might ask God to open our hearts to the young and to those who challenge us to new ways of thinking and living, new ways of being faithful to the Gospels.

It might not be easy, but God will accompany us – as John of the Cross recognized the presence of Christ even in the dark night.


Waking from a dream of separateness

Forty-five years ago, on December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton died.

Trappist monk, writer and poet, peace advocate, a gregarious hermit, and more: he was a man of contrasts.

His biting essay “Devout Meditation on Adolf Eichmann” and his poem “Chant to Be Used in Processions Around a Site with Furnaces” remind us of how easy it is to be accomplices in the killing of the innocent.

His essay, “The Root of War Is Fear,” in New Seeds of Contemplation, after appearing in the Catholic Worker inspires me in the midst of a world still paralyzed by fear.

The closing paragraph reveals his realization that war and violence have deep roots in our own hearts:

 So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the cause of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate them in  yourself, not in another.

In some way I think Merton’s insights into the roots of war came not just from his theology, but from his experience. One experience stands out: his famous Fourth and Walnut “epiphany” on March 18, 1958. He realized that we are all connected and therefore he was overwhelmed by the love he felt for all of them.

As he tells it in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness….

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! …

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….

We are not strangers. We are connected in so many ways – even, perhaps especially so, in God becoming flesh and living among us.

Sometimes this is hard to see, but at times, when we open our hearts, this message that we are “all walking around like the sun.” And we would fall down – perhaps not in worship – but at least to wash each other’s feet.

Evangelizing martyrs of Argentina

On December 8, 1977, Sister Alicia Domon and Sister Leonie Duquet, French sisters,  Religious of the Foreign Missions, were disappeared, with twelve other women, as they left the church of Santa Cruz in BuenosAires. These sisters had been working in solidarity with the families of the disappeared in Argentina, 1977.

These women lived among the poor and were examples of the accompaniment that evangelizes that Pope Francis writes about in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, ¶ 24.

Sister Alicia explained why she did what she did:

“We did not go to the villa miseria  [the shantytown] to tell people what they should do but to help one another to share the good and evil in life by taking ourselves as we were. We receive a great deal, perhaps more than we give.”

She and Sister Leonie and many others, especially women religious, are examples of what Pope Francis described

An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance.

In her standing with the families of the disappeared, Sister Alicia saw her solidarity in terms of her faith:

“I feel in communion with so many families suffering the drama of the disappearances. We seek an answer from the Lord in the light of the Gospel. I am deeply convinced that this situation of passion is united to that of Christ and it preceded the resurrection.”

Pope Francis’s words might have been written about these modern martyrs – these French sisters in Argentina in 1977, the US women killed in El Salvador in 1980, Sister Dorothy Stange killed in the Brazilian Amazon, and thousands of women (and men) killed because they stood with the poor. They evangelized by their lives, being faith disciples, as Pope Francis might say:

The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed.

May their witness of accompaniment and their courage in the face of opposition move us to be evangelizers who stand with all those in need.


The challenge of Nelson Mandela

Today, at the age of 95, Nelson Mandela has passed to the Lord. May he rest in God’s peace.

When Mandela was released from prison he held no rancor or bitterness toward his jailors, February 11, 1990. On May 9, 1994, he took office as President of South Africa.

Two days after his release from prison he told his supporters:

“It is not the kings and generals that make history…. I have seen with my own eyes the masses of our people, the workers, the peasants, the doctors, the lawyers, the clergy, all our people. I have seen them making history and that is why all of us are here today.”

It is easy to make Nelson Mandela a hero in such a way that we dismiss our responsibility to struggle for justice.

It similar to Dorothy Day’s quip to not call her a saint since it makes it seem so impossible for us mere mortals.

Looking at our heroes should inspire us to stand up for justice, for the poor and the oppressed.

Looking at the saints should inspire us to seek to live each day as God’s daughters and sons.

We will almost certainly not make changes by grand scheming and tremendous deeds. But the persistent every-day acts of love and struggles for justice will help bring about a little of that Reign of justice, love, and peace which Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, and so many others sought.

The little deeds, done with an enlarged vision, are what the world needs from all of us.

Let us begin.

Sharing the promised banquet

Let us all go to the banquet,
to the table of creation;
everyone, with a stool,
has a seat and a mission.
Salvadoran People’s Mass

 God has given us numerous banquets – the beauty of creation, the Eucharist, our daily bread.

When the people came to listen to Jesus (Matthew 15: 29-37), he had compassion on them and had his disciples give them what little they had. But all ate and were filled.

When the people of Israel were beset by invasions, the Lord promised them  (in Isaiah 25: 6-10) a rich banquet – for all peoples.

And the psalmist, in Psalm 23, rejoices that the Good Shepherd has spread a table before him.

God wants all of us to eat, to be filled, to enjoy the banquet. Yet, sad to say, there are so many who have little or nothing. They face death each day: that is “the veil that veils all people.”

But God offers a vision and a task.

Jesus saw the crowds and asked his disciples to give them something to eat.

They were skeptical but Jesus took the little they had and “all ate and were filled.”

What is the little we have to share so that all may eat and be filled?

Let us be sustained in this task by the vision of Isaiah and the example of Jesus, and these verses from the entrance song of the Salvadoran People’s Mass:

God invites all the poor
to this common meal, by faith,
where there are none who grab everything for themselves
and where no one lacks a full meal.

God commands us to make of this world
a table where there is equality,
working and struggling together,
sharing our property.

A video of the entrance song, Vamos todos al banquete, with images from El Salvador, can be found here.