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The Gift That Gives Us Hope

Posted on 01 January 2016 by patmarrin

"Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Charles Dickens' classic A Tale of Two Cities begins with the words that describe every age: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Newspaper columnists on this first day of the New Year offer their projections for 2016 in the same fashion, many of them heavy on dire assessments of the political scene and global threats coming to a head. Their big-picture views of the problems the world faces search the horizon to determine if the faint rim of light signals a sunrise or a sunset for human hope.

The birth of Jesus offered a quiet yet decisive affirmation of hope in what, even for the evangelists, might have seemed the worst of times. A fearful, violent world in lock down under Roman rule, mockingly proclaimed as Pax Romana by the conquerors, saw little reason for optimism. Survival was the norm for occupied Palestine, caught in the overlapping surveillance and control of Rome, King Herod and the corrupt Temple establishment.

Into this vortex, a poor couple welcomed their child into the world in a stable on the outskirts of tiny Bethlehem, and shepherds came from the surrounding hillsides to welcome him as their savior. The child was crcumcized according to the Law and named "Jesus," the name assigned to him by Gabriel at his annunciation, meaning: "He will save his people from their sins."

Mary shows us how to begin the New Year, by holding all its events in our hearts, pondering them in the light of God's overwhelming gift of hope. For all our fears and daily concerns, Jesus is among us now, and his life, death and resurrection affirm that God holds our story in the heart of divine mercy. Be not afraid.

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In the Beginning

Posted on 31 December 2015 by patmarrin

"In the beginning was the Word" (John 1:1).

We end the year by beginning again. The Lectionary gives us John's magnificent prologue to reflect on the gift of creation. But an even deeper gift is God's invitation to us to be co-creators. By receiving the Word, we participate in breathing new life into the chaos of 2015 to make the New Year. What 2016 will bring is for now pure potential waiting to be shaped and directed, first by God, but then also by us as human agents of change.

John's prologue is the Genesis of the new creation in Christ, God's mercy taking up the old creation marred by human pride and self-centeredness. Jesus enters history like light into darkness, the new Adam who will show us what the original blessing was meant to be. His life of justice and love will meet and overcome all resistance, establishing the path of grace towards eternity and friendship with God for all those who follow him.

Time makes hope possible. The future awaits us and a different world is both possible and necessary. We rejoice to be partners with the risen Jesus, for we are his hands, feet, mind and heart in our world. Let us begin the New Year listening to the lessons of the old, but filled with hope for what is still to come.

Thanks to all of you who have shared Pencil Preaching this past year. The living Word of God, our daily bread, comes to the whole Church, but also fresh and unique to each of us and our special needs. It will be a lamp unto our feet, step by step and day by day, as together we walk into 2016.

[Explore the famous earth rise image on the Web, the first time our world was viewed from the moon, inspiring a profound reflection on the unity and fragility of Earth, our common home.]

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Anna and Jesus

Posted on 30 December 2015 by patmarrin

“She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child” (Luke 2:39).

Anna the prophetess gets her due in today’s Gospel. Yesterday, Simeon, another aging prophet, sang his canticle in praise of the arrival of Jesus and his parents in the temple. Together these two “senior citizens” did what their 21st century contemporaries in churches everywhere always do, which is to welcome and mentor the newest members of the faith community. And if there is a baby to admire and pass around, all the better.

As we approach the end of 2015 and prepare to enter 2016, we rightly celebrate the continuity that seamlessly knits us together like a beautiful, multi-patterned scarf from one generation to the next. Our faith today goes back two millennia to the events described in today’s reading because of this amazing skein of human yarn, fiber, voice and fidelity, a light channeled and unbroken, as brilliant today as it was in the beginning, the face of God shining on our faces.

Mary and Joseph take the child Jesus home to Nazareth to a life of ordinary and anonymous virtue. They will reappear briefly when Jesus is 12, then disappear again until Jesus is around 30 and beginning his public ministry. We, too, live hidden lives in Christ, barely aware of what we are becoming day by day. We only know that when he appears again we will be like him (cf 1 John 3:2).

Dreams and Visions

Posted on 29 December 2015 by patmarrin

"The Holy Spirit was upon him" (Luke 3:26).

Placing the feast of St. Thomas Becket in the liturgical calendar today continues the theme begun yesterday with the Holy Innocents, that faith is a decision that will cost you everything. Struggle and suffering, like birth pangs, are part of the encounter between grace and resistance in the world. God’s kingdom enters history and culture through the members of the body of Christ, crucified and risen.

Simeon holds the child Jesus in the temple, overcome with gratitude that he has lived long enough to see the promised Christ. He then tells Mary that she will share in the suffering her son will endure as a sign of contradiction. Redemption will come at a price.

The story of Simeon and Anna waiting in the temple, the center of the old covenant with its laws and sacrifices, is also the story of the breakthrough to the new covenant of mercy and grace. What we could not accomplish or even imagine comes to us as a pure gift. Openness to what God is doing in history lifts us into the transformation made possible by Jesus, our older brother and the pioneer of the new creation.

“The old dream dreams and the young see visions,” says the Prophet Joel (2:28). The new reality is mentored by the wisdom of the elders. Simeon and Anna are in the Spirit, filled with longing. Their fidelity is what frames and explains the meaning of the promises being fulfilled. They see both the joy and the cost of the new world they are pointing to. They hand off the flame they have guarded all their lives.

The New Year is coming, and with it the rituals of looking back and looking ahead. We rejoice in the promises made at the Paris conference on climate, the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the vision of Pope Francis and other leaders for a different world. But the dreams and visions of 2015 came with a cost. Jesus goes forward into 2016, turns and looks at us. “Come follow me,” he is saying. “I will show you the path to life.”

We remember Landon Rowland, a long-time friend and supporter of NCR, who died yesterday. May he take his place among the cloud of witnesses who encourage us to build God’s kingdom on earth.

Holy Innocents

Posted on 28 December 2015 by patmarrin

12-28-15 Holy Innocents

“Herod ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under” (Matt 2:16).

Sixteenth century Flemish artist Peter Bruegel did one of his characteristically detailed and wide angle paintings of a village where occupying Spanish soldiers are killing children. It is winter, and against the blood-stained snow in the village square, the people swarm among the elegantly dressed officers on horseback begging for the lives of their children. The contemporary theme of political and religious violence by the Spanish, an arm of the Catholic Inquisition against the Protestant Reformation, is cast as the biblical scene in today’s Gospel of the massacre of the innocents by Herod.

What makes this heartbreaking depiction as universal as el Mozote in El Salvador or My Lai in Vietnam is the historical fact that when the painting was acquired by the Holy Roman Emperor, the murdered infants were painted over as animals or plundered foodstuffs, the same attempt at denial that has characterized so many other atrocities. They never happened. They always happen as violence and intolerance are unleashed by war, and the innocents pay the price.

We hear in the cry of the mothers in Matthew’s Gospel the anguish of the Hebrew mothers in Egypt whose male children were slaughtered to control the population. But Moses escapes to return as liberator. In the slaughter at Bethlehem, the Holy Family escapes to Egypt to wait out the tyrant. The dreamer, Joseph, insures that the promise is protected so the boy Jesus can grow in grace and stature to confront sin and evil in the world.

Three days after Christmas we note the cost of our salvation and the historical truth that whenever God’s gracious power appears, all hell breaks loose in a desperate attempt to stop it. The logic of earthly power is always that it is better for one innocent person to die than for the system to be shaken.

The Word became flesh and dwells among us. We share the Eucharistic body and blood to ground us in the struggle in this world between good and evil, grace and sin. As members of the body of Christ, we are called to bend history toward justice and mercy by the way we live, even if it costs us our lives.

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Living Color

Posted on 26 December 2015 by patmarrin

"Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man" (Luke 2:52).

Longtime family friends Mike and Margaret tell the story of their then young son, Matt, who was looking at old photo albums. He looked up from the pages, whose images had gone from monochrome to Kodachrome, and asked, "What was it like before color?"

His assumption that reality had at some magical moment shifted from black, white and gray into a full pallet of primary colors and pastels held a child's insight applicable to today's Gospel story that reflects a fundamental passage from old to new, from a colorless, half-blind understanding of reality to a vision of the age to come.

The Temple scholars of the Law who were astounded at the boy Jesus were living in the black, white and gray world of legal perfection, but they had yet to experience the living color of grace that Jesus was already seeing when he read God’s Word from the scrolls in the full light of the Holy Spirit.

For Luke, the new depth and power of the Word Mary had experienced when she consented to God’s invitation to be the mother of Jesus was now evident in her 12-year-old son. Like mother, like son. The Word that became flesh in her womb was now standing at the lectern in the Temple, proclaiming the sacred texts at his bar Mitzvah. What the scholars were witnessing without understanding it was the Word of God coming true in their hearing.

As the boy chanted from the scrolls, they could hear the letter of the Law, but not the Spirit animating both text and reader. Something truly mysterious and unprecedented was taking place. Jesus could see color because he was a member of a holy family, raised by holy parents who could see the movement of grace in everyone and everything around them. As Jesus returned home with Mary and Joseph, he resumed a hidden life in which he advanced each day in wisdom and age and favor.

Who can say whether one of these Temple scholars was still alive 17 years later, by Luke’s account, when Jesus repeated this scene as he inaugurated his public life in the synagogue in Nazareth. Again, the monochrome world of duty and sacrifice burst into every hue of the rainbow as this same child, now a 30-year-old traveling preacher, read the scroll of Isaiah to his astonished family and neighbors: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom to captives… to announce a year of favor from the Lord” (Luke 4:1 ff). It was a Word that came true in their hearing.

We received this same deep sight at our baptisms, but like all newborns, we must learn to see both the surface and depth of the world around us. The church, where we hear and celebrate this feast today, is our holy family. Everything we need — Word, Spirit and example — is all around us in the community of faith. The doors of mercy are open before us as the Jubilee Year of Favor continues. Let us pass through these doors together, from monochrome to color, from law to grace, from obedience to holiness. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Christmas Down to Earth

Posted on 25 December 2015 by patmarrin

"He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him" (John 1:10).

The Christmas Gospels from Luke and John, proclaimed at midnight, dawn and during the day, approach the mystery of Emmanuel from both human and divine perspectives. Luke tells the familiar story of the child born in a stable, laid in the manger, visited by simple shepherds summoned by angels whose song of joy filled the night skies over Bethlehem. John presents the eternal Word, the very template of creation, appearing in the world like light in the darkness.

The readings of Advent contemplated the promise that God would save his people, but even the great prophets could not have foretold that God would come in person, or in so humble a way, among the poor, welcomed by outcasts, hidden from the rich and the powerful.

In our small midtown church here in Kansas City, Fr. Garry Richmeier offered us this insight about Luke's story of the birth of Jesus. It was his way of summarizing the way Jesus was regarded in his adult ministry, welcomed by the outcasts and lowly of society, ignored by important people, rejected by religious experts. The point of Christmas is always here and now, our challenge to believe that God is among us, within us, and to respond to the mystery by the way we live our lives. To acknowledge and receive God is to know life.

At every faith assembly around the world, from Mass in the basilica in Rome to the barrios of Latin America, from parish churches in rural towns to big cities, the Incarnation will be hidden in plain sight in families gathered to celebrate the mystery of humanity and creation. With meals lovingly prepared and with the exchange of gifts, in gatherings that span generations, people will look at each other, embrace and share stories, amazed at how quickly life goes by and how everything is a gift.

We will come at Christmas from many perspectives, and Christmas will come to each of us once again to help us understand how loving our God is and how wonderful we really are.

Blessed Be the Lord

Posted on 24 December 2015 by patmarrin

"The LORD promised to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant" (Luke 1:73).

There are many canticles, or short songs, in the Bible, three of them in the New Testament that are sung regularly in Christian prayer: Zechariah's Benedictus, Mary's Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittus sung by Simeon when Jesus is presented in the Temple. These songs proclaim joyful gratitude to God for keeping every promise within the Covenant -- to keep the People of God from harm and to save the world from the power of sin and death.

Today's Gospel from Luke is Zechariah's song as he recovers his voice after the birth of his son, John. Zechariah has been speechless since the day he doubted the word of the angel in the Temple sent to tell him that he and his elderly wife, Elizabeth, would receive a child. The miracle of this conception and birth underwrites the miracle of God's victory over violence and resistance in the world. What seemed impossible will be accomplished because God is the LORD of history, more powerful than all the forces of evil, sin and death.

We witness in Zechariah the power of hope. Even when the evidence is against it and believers falter in their trust in God, the poor and the oppressed break into song: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; for he has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up a mighty Savior, born of the house of his servant David."

Clothed in the language of the biblical canticle is the basic message of the Gospel, the message of Christmas meant for every time and place, meant for us today in our troubled world. The presence of God in the person of Jesus, both divine and human, confirms that the outcome of history is the ultimate victory of grace over sin, truth over falsehood, mercy over violence and greed.

Do we believe it? Are we ready to be part of the message? Are we awake and alert to the signs already present that a new world is coming, both necessary and possible? It signals the end of the old world, and what we do see and feel in world affairs is the collapse of everything that is not from God, the illusions and deceptions that divide and oppress, hide and exploit.

The Christmas story, both biblical and in popular poetry, will be read at the hearth in many households this night. For a keen sense of hope, add to them Pope Francis' Message of Peace 2016 (on the Internet with a key word search). This is our canticle of hope and an invitation to share in the joy of the Gospel being proclaimed this Christmas.

A Second Language

Posted on 23 December 2015 by patmarrin

"He will be called John" (Luke 1:60).

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, knew enough sign language to fend off his relatives who wanted to name the boy after him. "No," he insisted, then wrote on a tablet, "He will be called John." The name means, "gift of God," and for Elizabeth and Zechariah, sterile in old age and legal perfection, no other name could describe their joy at receiving a child so late in their lives.

I remember taking a short class on ASL from Fr. Dan McCarthy, a Benedictine monk in Atchison, Kan. His graceful facility with the pure theatrics of conveying meaning with his hands and face opened up to me the power of knowing a second language.

American Sign is spatial and visual in depicting the reality it presents. For example, the name "Jesus" is communicated by touching the palms of each hand: Jesus is the crucified one. Or "faith" is conveyed by an upturned finger for an idea, then grasping that finger to indicate the embrace of love: To believe is to "marry" an idea.

To grasp the Christmas mystery, we must learn another language. As St. Paul movingly describes his encounter with the crucified Christ, we, too, must "take hold of the One who has taken hold of us" (cf. Phil 3:12). The proud Pharisee who thought he knew everything about God was blinded by what he learned on the road to Damascus, even as poor Zechariah was struck dumb by what he was told by the angel in the Temple.

A God who seemed so distant comes so close to us our very existence is altered and opened to a love that overpowers us with joy. There is no physical sensation to convey the thrill of being embraced by God. The Incarnation is about intimate union with the Source of all life, for Jesus, the Whobody of God, comes to us, choosing us, naming us, filling us with divine promise and purpose.

For those who have everything and those who have nothing, God is the perfect gift. Christmas Eve should move us like children to expect our deepest dream to come true. Jesus is one with our flesh, and he awakens in us the dream of who we really are.

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Glory to God in Heaven and on Earth

Posted on 22 December 2015 by patmarrin

"The Lord remembered his promise of mercy..." (Luke 1:55).

Luke tells us that Mary "pondered" everything in her heart. Another word for ponder is to "weigh." Mary's contemplative grasp of the larger story of God's intentions for the world must have filled her with a sense of awe at the struggle that would ensue between grace and sin, good and evil, because of the child she was carrying. Simeon, the old prophet in the temple when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to be blessed, foretells the sword of sorrow awaiting her.

We, too, can feel overwhelmed to look at the day's headlines and realize how deep a hold the forces of greed and fear have on our world. Local conflicts and scandals mirror the larger betrayals and inequalities that afflict millions of people around the globe, especially the poor. We weigh this evil against our hope for a different world inspired by the Christmas season, but who will say with assurance in his or her heart that goodness is tipping the scales toward better days? Like the winter darkness, cynicism and chaos so often seem to push back the power of light and hope. We wish it were different, then hunker down for gray skies.

Mary is the model for our faith. She, too, knew that suffering lay ahead for their small family, for the newborn John and her own precious child. They would soon make the arduous journey to Bethlehem to register for Roman taxes. Unknown to her, but looming in the shadows, was the flight into Egypt as refugees from the murderous plotting of Herod. Then life in the small town of Nazareth, from which Jesus would launch his mission to preach God's victory over evil, a campaign that would lead to his crucifixion in Jerusalem.

Yet Mary weighed the sin of the world in her heart against the absolute power of God over creation and history, and she burst into song. She knew that salvation was already in the struggle, uprooting evil, exposing injustice, giving notice to those who abuse the poor that their days are numbered, for God keeps every promise.

Suffering will be as necessary to salvation as birth pangs are to the gift of a newborn, but joy will prevail. A new world is proclaimed by a young woman representing every woman in history who has suffered abuse at the hands of power, announcing a Word that was already coming true in the world's hearing. "My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior ... from this day forward all generations will call me blessed!"

We join the chorus with Mary, then take up the new day with confidence that against all odds and threats and naysaying, God's promises will be kept and God's plans will be realized.