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Joseph the Dreamer

Posted on 18 December 2014 by patmarrin

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about” (Matt 18:1).

Matthew’s account of the mysterious conception of Jesus is also a parallel, fulfillment story that ties back to the story of another Joseph, son of Jacob, who was also guided by dreams. That Joseph, who wore the many-colored coat and, out of jealousy, was sold by his brothers into slavery, ended up in Egypt. As provost of Pharaoh, he saved Israel from famine. Joseph of Nazareth, a just man, fulfills his mission as husband of Mary and guardian of the Holy Family when they flee to Egypt, an ancient story fulfilled so Matthew can later declare of Jesus, the new Moses: “I called my son up out of Egypt."

The seamless narrative of angels, dreams and journeys is all about Jesus Christ, God’s anointed One, Son of God. This is how he came about, how he came into the world, in the flesh and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the perfect union of divinity and humanity. The Incarnation is how the estrangement between God and us caused by sin is healed. Christmas celebrates Jesus, whose name means “savior.” Humanity apart from God will starve to death. Joseph makes possible the Bread of Life for Israel, our own communion with God and one another.

The deep richness of the liturgy places us within this mystery and invites us to believe—to participate fully in the gift God is offering us in Jesus. The measure of our response is the measure of our hunger for God. Advent is our time of fasting before the feast, our chance to sharpen our appetite for the one thing that will fully satisfy us. God is offering us Life. The story is our story, the dream is for us. Now is the time, like Joseph, to say yes.

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The Genealogy of God

Posted on 17 December 2014 by patmarrin

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1).

Many religions speak of divine intervention, heavenly figures visiting earth. When the Gospels assert that in Jesus God became flesh, they mean real flesh and blood, a human being emerging within the family tree that began with Adam, and more specifically within the line, or house, of Abraham. He is called the “father of the faith” because it was to him and his wife Sarah that the promise was made by God that the whole of human history would come to fulfillment through their descendants.

Matthew’s long list of generations, a total of 28 from Abraham to Jesus, embeds that promise within flesh-and-blood people. Their lives hold the narrative of “salvation history,” for the same Spirit of God present at the creation has moved through them and their children to reveal God’s purpose in world history.

We become more aware of this same reality when we explore our own genealogies, tracing our ancestry back through our parents, grandparents, great grandparents. We learn the narratives of the lives that made it possible for us to be born. For many of us, family stories reveal great heroism, both tragedy and opportunity, conflict or chance happenings that changed everything for the subsequent trajectory that produced us. Every life is an astonishing story filled with small miracles, adversity and choices.

These scriptures have special meaning for me today as my extended family gathers to bury the last remaining member of an entire generation that gave us life. My 102-year-old Aunt Bea, my mother’s older sister, passed away last Saturday (12-13-14). As a remarkable survivor, Bea became a fixed point for the memories of our family, her blessing was essential for every family event, her lap held every newborn, and toward the end her needs were the focus of love from all of us and from everyone she met, including her final hospice caregivers, a precious witness to a century that spanned horse-drawn wagons to the space age.

Like the larger genealogy of faith that encompasses our own pilgrimage, Bea quietly revealed the mystery of God to us in her hospitality, wisdom and simplicity. She emptied herself into us and taught us how to do the same for future generations. She completed the circle of family as it expanded, welcoming new members, demonstrating the calm that endures crisis, the openness that offers healing and forgiveness when conflict threatened family unity.

We say goodbye to her as she now joins the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, wait for us to complete our own portion of the same salvation history going back to Abraham. We rejoice at the approach of Christmas 2014, where the secret source and center of our lives appears again in Jesus, God-made-flesh, in the world, and alive in us.

A Man Had Two Sons

Posted on 16 December 2014 by patmarrin

"Which son did the father's will?" (Matt 21:30).

Today's short parable is one of a number of stories Jesus told to contrast those who responded to the invitation to the kingdom with those who did not. Two sons of a vineyard owner are told to go work in the vineyard. The first said no, but later went; the second said yes, but did not go. Addressed to the chief priests and elders, this story describes well their outward show of piety masking inner disobedience, compared to sinners who were leaping at the invitation to God's mercy.

The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in the temple has the same message. But the ultimate expression of this theme is the magnificent parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), which shifts the message from judgment to mercy. In each story, listeners might first side with one figure or the other, but after deeper reflection realize that we are always both brothers. We say yes and no; we respond and resist; we succeed and fail in our efforts to understand and do God's will. And in the end, what the Father wants most of all is to bring both brothers, both sinners and saints into the kingdom. In other words, God wants all of us, in both our virtuous self and sinful self, outer and inner person, each of us a work in progress.

Our response to the Word is not simply to do better, but to show mercy to one another in our common experience of ambiguity and inconsistency. To be merciful to one another is the path to entering fully into God's loving mercy and forgiveness.

By What Authority Do We Live?

Posted on 15 December 2014 by patmarrin

"A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel" (Numbers 24:17).

The morning paper has full page ads for the most recent "Lord of the Rings" movie. The popularity of the books has allowed the filmmakers to tease out the story into one of the longest sagas with sequels in recent memory. J. R.R. Tolkien, part of the group of British scholars turned storytellers that included C.S. Lewis, anticipated the hunger for deep myth, magic and mystery by future generations as secularity replaced religion. All People want and need stories. The "Hobbit" series exceeded most others, except for the Bible itself, which is the true well that nourishes Western literature, especially Shakespeare and all the derivatives that flow from his genius.

Today's first reading from Numbers gives us a glimpse of the rich spiritual genealogy found in the Bible. Balaam, son of Beor, "hears what God says and knows what the Most High knows... sees enraptured, with eyes unveiled." The oracle of Balaam is about someone who is coming in the distant future: "I see him, though not now: I behold him, though not near."

Tolkien, who also did the English translation of the Psalms for the Jerusalem Bible, surely understood and marveled at the power of the Bible, even as he set out to create his own imaginary world of Orcs an Elves, Gandalf and Bilbo. We all need stories to make sense of the world and ourselves. Everything depends on which stories we believe.

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, the priests and elders were also probing Jesus to find out where his authority originated. They were experts of the Torah and the Law of Moses. Jesus answers them with a dilemma: Did they accept John the Baptist as a messenger from God? If they said no, they would incur the wrath of the people. If they said yes, they would need to explain why they ignored John’s call to baptism and repentance. So they refuse to answer, and so does Jesus. His authority would be evident in the life he lived, the death he submitted to and the vindication that would follow.

What story informs and inspires you and motivates your daily life? Discipleship draws its life from the authority of Jesus. If we truly believe he was of God, then his is is the greatest story ever told.

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Dec. 14, 2014: Third Sunday of Advent

Posted on 13 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near” (Phil 4:4).

Last Sunday we got Mark’s portrait of John the Baptist. Today we get the evangelist John’s image, basically Mark’s again but with more details layered on. John the messenger is now John the witness to the light. He is not the light, only one who will introduce the light. John the Baptist is like a figure walking toward us as the sun rises behind him. He is so backlit we can barely recognize his features, for he is less important than the brilliant source approaching us behind him.

John’s shadow rolls over us. His message is an urgent warning: "Repent, get ready, change your heart and your ways so you can receive the light that is arriving behind me, like the dawn of a new creation."

We call this Gaudete Sunday, Latin for “rejoice,” because the promise is near, just 11 days from now. Something wonderful is about to happen that will change everything. Most of all, we will be changed. The former limits of existence, the certainty of death that so stunned the ancient philosophers and gave rise to religion as a desperate wager against mortality, is now revealed as the darkness before dawn, the silent interval before the real music begins. It is the offer of eternal life, filling the universe, then transcending it, the pulse of divinity in our DNA, a new destiny revealed by the One who is coming, the Light.

John, the greatest prophet the world ever saw, the greatest person ever born, yet he barely understood what he would again witness to on the banks of the Jordan. Later, sitting in a dank cell awaiting his own death, he would send messengers to ask Jesus if he was the promised one. Word came back that the blind were receiving back their sight, cripples were dancing, the poor were hearing good news and prisoners were being set free. The scriptures were being fulfilled, but not in the way many had expected. God’s light was pure mercy, not punishment.

This is why we rejoice on this Third Sunday of Advent. As we open our hearts to the Light, we will be able to see, hear, walk and know that life with God is our present reality and forever future.

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Grace in Motion

Posted on 12 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).

The amazing story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is prophetic in ways yet to be understood and accepted in the Americas. Beyond its religious and cultural importance in Mexico or its spiritual power to subvert the history of conquest of the New World, the image of a pregnant mestiza siding with the indigenous people already here when Europe arrived to enslave and loot contains the promise of an even greater reversal to come over the global designs of neoconservative money and power.

The Church of the Poor has its seeds in this vision. God’s preferential love for the poor, first whispered by John XXIII in 1958, then said out loud at the 1968 meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellin, will again drive Catholic social teaching and pastoral outreach. An Argentinian pope will complete the revolution when he formally recognizes the martyred Monsignor Romero of El Salvador as the model for all the church’s shepherds. A wave of hope and joy will stir throughout the developing world, beginning in the Southern hemisphere, and, despite all efforts to stop it, complete a demographic shift from white Eurocentric dominance to a new multi-cultured and -colored world order that will emerge to guide the planet through breakdown to breakthrough, chaos to community.

The message of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego was to ask that a church be built on ground already consecrated by the blood of the conquest. The house of humanity is that church, a new structure that respects the dignity of all peoples, new policies that restore right relationship to every system and society centered in fairness and the common good. The dream becomes a vision becomes a movement becomes a reality when we believe it and put our collective shoulders to the task.

Poets know it, musicians sing it, young people see it, those who oppose it understand its implication and will try and stop it, distract us from it. But like a river rolling downhill, it will happen. It is an idea whose time has come. We rejoice to witness it, welcome and work for it.

May I Have Your Attention, Please

Posted on 11 December 2014 by patmarrin

"The violent bear it away" (Matt 11:13).

The late Southern Gothic writer Flannery O'Connor once said that her stories were shocking because she was like a cartoonist drawing large for blind people.

Insight and conversion do not come easily to people numb with self-satisfaction. Only crisis awakens us to choose life passionately and decisively. The curious phrase Jesus uses to describe those who were seizing the moment to enter the kingdom of God -- "the violent bear it away" -- was in contrast to the cautious complacency of the so-called righteous people of his day, who responded neither to John the Baptist nor to him when the call to conversion was given.

The scribes and Pharisees stood outside the gates of the kingdom while prostitutes and tax collectors, outcasts and simple people stormed in to receive God’s mercy like holiday shoppers after bargains. Jesus was up-ending the conventional hierarchy and meritocracy of religion to reveal a God who opens wide the eternal banquet to the streets, offering abundant, extravagant life to anyone willing to risk the fiery embrace of Love. It is pure paradox.

Your invitation to the party of paradox is in the mail. Do not hesitate to RSVP. Come as you are, but ready to change everything that hinders you from welcoming others. Take dancing lessons if needed. Sharpen your appetite, give your heart over to the sleepless anticipation only children really understand. Don't be afraid. Something wonderful is about to happen. It is about you, about all of us together, entering God’s House.

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Let's Go Together

Posted on 10 December 2014 by patmarrin

"Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt 11:28).

A recent news story reported that a major corporation known for its research and development prowess used a management experiment to increase innovation, telling its employees that those who came up with new ideas would get bonuses while those who did not would be fired. The result was a company-wide contraction of sharing ideas as employees competed to survive. A company known for its open collaboration was paralyzed. Over all innovation slowed, production fell and company morale plummeted.

Rugged individualism and self-sufficiency are characteristically North American values, reinforced by so much of our media, beginning with the myth of the Old West and pervasive to warrior video games like "Army of One." It isolates and debilitates people and postpones real maturity. Its appeal to personal survival preempts the natural instinct to find community and obeys perfectly the felt need to have "our own of everything" that drives our consumption economy.

Going it bravely alone takes a hit in today's gospel reading. Jesus invites us into the "yoke" or harness of relationships as the secret of self-renewing strength and effective living. Teamwork is a counter philosophy that has made some headway in education and the workplace, but it is challenging, requires communication and conflict resolution, and competition often overrides the proven benefits of collaboration.

Christian spirituality and sacramental life are all about relationship. Our very consciousness is communal, an ongoing conversation with God, self, others. We awaken each day to a supportive network of voices that encourage, correct, inspire us. To be true to yourself is be accountable to this cloud of witnesses. Make it your default setting and, when your need it, it will also be your sanctuary and place of rest. Welcome home, pilgrim.

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The Good Shepherd

Posted on 09 December 2014 by patmarrin

"What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?" (Matt 18:12).

Today a picture is worth a thousand words. Here is what Pope Francis wears around his neck, a pectoral cross depicting the good shepherd carrying the lost sheep. Does this not define his papacy and its goals?

Francis added emphasis to this image in his remarks at the end of the Synod on the Family. He told the gathered bishops to welcome the lost sheep, then added, "I make a mistake. Not just welcome, but go find them!"

We rejoice to have such a leader, and we honor God by following his example.

Just Say Yes

Posted on 08 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28).

Today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the Catholic teaching that, in preparation for her role as the mother of Jesus, Mary was conceived without "original sin." The theological concepts and biblical images that come together in this feast encompass the whole narrative of salvation history, beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden. The effects of their disobedience were inherited by the entire human race, except for Mary, who signals the second Genesis, the new creation made possible by Jesus, the new Adam, the Son of God. Mary’s holiness derives from her relationship with Jesus.

What can this teaching possibly mean for us? Such theological and biblical ideas seem so distant from our ordinary experience, including our sense that we could never meet so high a standard of perfection or claim freedom from sinful thoughts, motives and actions. Yet this feast is in fact also about us. What Mary received from the first moment of her existence, we receive at baptism. We are filled with grace — the gift of God’s life — to the measure that we open ourselves to it.

From the moment of her conception and birth, throughout her childhood and young adult life, Mary lived in the presence of God. But her external, visible life must have been typical of a young woman living in Nazareth in the first century. Her daily choices, like our own, were natural and practical in nature. What characterized her was her openness to the Spirit guiding her toward the day when she encountered God’s messenger and said Yes to God’s will for her.

Isn’t this the same for us? Our yes to God, like Mary’s, is to welcome the Christ within us, bearing his life and giving birth to him in our every word, gesture and purpose.