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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.


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.


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.

The First Beatitude

Posted on 21 December 2015 by patmarrin

"Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Luke 1:45).

Today's Gospel gives us the first Beatitude: "Blessed are you who believe." Mary's faith in the Word spoken to her opens all of humanity to the promise of God’s presence with us.

Like the other Beatitudes, this defining trust in God places our lives in the forward zone of hope, where even now we begin to live a different future because of what is but also not yet. We live in the tension of grace at work in us. For God's promise is not enough if we do not trust it or embody it. God's invitation to Mary to be the mother of Jesus needs her consent. Once she says yes -- to a gift she does not fully understand yet still welcomes -- the Word becomes flesh in her.

Mary is the model for our response to God in faith. The Word comes to us today in the story of Mary's journey to be with her cousin, Elizabeth, also pregnant with the story of God's coming into the world. Her unborn child is already leaping for joy. From the womb to the wilderness, John the Baptist will point to Jesus.

In faith we take our place in the story of Christmas. Our consent welcomes Jesus into the world again. Everything we do and say, every relationship we have, every thought and prayer we hold and share will be an act of evangelization. Where faith meets promise, the Word becomes flesh. Let it be done unto us according to your Word, Lord.


Now Is the Time of Our Visitation

Posted on 19 December 2015 by patmarrin

"At the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy" (Luke 1:44).

Today's Gospel defines the full meaning and power of evangelization. Arriving in the house of Elizabeth, Mary proclaims the presence of God. At the sound of her voice, Elizabeth feels the child in her womb leap for joy. John's vocation is confirmed. He will be a voice in the wilderness to proclaim the new creation with the coming of Jesus.

Mary's Annunciation three months earlier began this call and response when she accepted the Word-made-flesh in her womb. The long-ago promise made to Abraham is fulfilled in her hearing. Salvation has come into the world, announced by two women at the edge of the empire in an obscure corner of the universe, among the poor and simple discounted by power and status, a tiny whisper heard only by prophets and little ones.

Three decades later, another small group of women, also discounted as witnesses to anything, will leap for joy as they run to announce that Jesus is risen from the dead, that what was passed forward between his mother and her elderly cousin has been fulfilled. The story will come full circle and begin a spiral of joy that now reaches us two millenia later: God keeps every promise; the poor hear good news, the blind see, cripples walk, prisoners are set free, and the jubilee year of forgiveness and mercy is given.

What the Scriptures imagine we receive and make real in our time and place, however small or obscure. A living Word comes to us in these Advent and Christmas Gospels, stirring within our hearts a determination and purpose to be Good News to everyone we meet. Grace waits to flow into every encounter we risk, every moment we make pregnant with grace and action, going out of ourselves to find the same promise quickening in others who have also heard the voice in their dreams and in their desire for a different world, one set straight by justice and leveled for the coming of peace.

Let us be evangelists and ambassadors of mercy. No less than shepherds and kings are we when we proclaim joy to the world at Christmas. But what we tell we must also show, for the Spirit needs flesh to be seen and heard, touched and felt. Mary said Yes. Elizabeth welcomed her and the child into her house. John lifted up his voice in the desert. Jesus gave his life to show us how to advance the will of God in the world. It all begins with our consent. Let this be done for me and for you according to the Word we receive today.


Our Story Begins Here

Posted on 18 December 2015 by patmarrin

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

In what is perhaps the most understated beginning in literature, Matthew tells the story of salvation: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” But, then, the story of the virginal conception of Jesus to Mary, then betrothed to Joseph, follows Matthew’s genealogy, the 42 generations of ancestors going all the way back to Abraham, the father of the faith and the first one to receive the promise of God’s deep concern for the outcome of human history. Mary's yes completes an offer made 1,800 years before, in biblical time.

The mystery of the Incarnation, “God-with-us”, begins even before Abraham. It begins at Creation, when the same Holy Spirit that will overshadow Mary hovered over the void and formless deep that first received the reflection of the divine face, the image and likeness of God that initiated the world, springing into existence in time from timeless Being itself.

What Mary conceives in her womb is the culmination of the divine Plan, the embodiment of the same Word that formed the universe. Jesus is the glory of God, the visible face of the invisible Progenitor of all that is and all that will be. As the world unfolds according to God’s will, so will Jesus Christ enter the emerging bloodline of human freedom and failure, grace and sin, to guide wayward history home to its intended destiny, eternal friendship with God.

In Jesus, the mystery of God’s unconditional love confronts and heals our nature, wounded and distorted by sin, which spread exponentially to spur the collective damage to the divine image done by human pride and self-centeredness. This encounter is the story of salvation. Jesus’ name means “he will save his people from their sins.” His short life will absorb the full impact of human sin, carry it through death to the new Creation, to present the original design, purified of evil by mercy, to the Eternal One. Because of Jesus, we will be part of that new Creation, members of the glorified body of Christ, the new humanity, glory embodied in us and in a world as true, good, beautiful and one as God intended it to be in the primeval moment it came to be. No more tears, no more crying, no more death.

Our ascent from sin to glory appeared in Jesus the moment Mary said yes to the Holy Spirit and Joseph the dreamer received her and the child into his protective care. We have here models for our own lives, perfectly expressed in the first sentence of the story of Christmas.


Posted on 17 December 2015 by patmarrin

"The genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham."

The genealogy of Jesus contains a treasure trove of theological themes that reflect the early church's attempts to ground the Christ event in the long history of the promise made to Abraham.

The fundamental mystery of Jesus begins with the Incarnation. It is impossible to understand who Jesus is without this core belief that God appeared in history as a human person in this man from Galilee. But God does not appear uniquely or suddenly in Jesus, because his human identity has intimate and essential continuity with his forbears.

Jesus is of the bloodline of all the preceding generations going back to Abraham. The Holy Spirit who overshadows Mary of Nazareth has been hovering over the entire genealogy, preparing for and inspiring a whole people to reveal God present with them -- Emmanuel. Jesus is bone and flesh all the way back to Adam and Eve, children of God, the origins of the human family represented by Israel.

His personal identity is inseparable from a family history rich in both sin and grace. The genealogy encompasses the full drama of human violence, betrayal, intrigue and ambition, but also reveals a capacity for love, reconciliation, fidelity and hope. It is a long, tragic love story still dreaming of future fulfillment because God has made promises hidden in the human spirit.

As followers of Jesus, we are part of this genealogy and the salvation history it contains. We are of the bloodline of Adam to Abraham to David to Jesus, and each time we share the body and blood of the risen Christ in Eucharist, we deepen our claim on the covenant with God that promises us life beyond physical death.

As Advent imagines Christmas, we await not just the coming of Jesus, but his coming in us, within our lives, our bodies, our hopes and dreams. This is the joy of the Gospel.