Saturday, December 24, 2022

CHRISTMAS MASS 2022


They shall name him "Emmanuel," which means “God is with us.”
Matthew 1:-25

The real Christmas story is far from sweet, cute and sentimental, no matter what all those Hallmark Cards have to say! If one reads the story of the birth of Jesus carefully, without all the embellishments and preconceptions, a pretty pathetic situation is presented. I invite you to lay aside all your preconceptions about this story for a minute and let me help you look at it through a different lens. The truth is that this story is quite pitiful, really! On the other hand, however, it also offer us great comfort and hope in the desperate moments of our lives! 

1. In the Gospel of Matthew, from which we read tonight, Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, but not yet married, found herself pregnant. Joseph almost divorced her because of it, before he had the chance to understand the facts in a vivid dream. 2. In the Gospel of Luke, which we will read at Midnight Mass, we hear all of the most familiar details of the Christmas story. Mary came due at the very same time that Joseph was required by law to register in a Roman census that was taken every 14 years. It meant Mary and Joseph were forced to travel 80 miles from Nazareth, across country on donkey-back, to the far-off town of Bethlehem. This whole inconvenience happened so that the foreign government occupying their country could collect more taxes! 3. Away from home and unable to find a place to stay, with no family or friends to help her with childbirth, Mary delivers her baby in a barn and places him in a box out of which animals ate. Luke could hardly have painted a bleaker picture if he had ended there. 

However, Luke knew that if this event had taken place back home, the birth of their Jewish son would have been an occasion of great joy. In accordance with their tradition, when the time of the birth was near at hand, friends and local musicians would have gathered around the house to await the news. When the birth was announced, the musicians would have struck up the band and broken into song. There would have been universal congratulations, singing, and dancing around the house.

Luke, the teller of the most familiar Christmas story, looking at it through the eyes of faith, not through the eyes of a modern-day reporter, takes this pathetic situation and has the Savior of the world welcomed by a surrogate family and stand-in heavenly musicians: farm animals, smelly shepherds and a choir of angels. According to Luke, himself a Gentile, God became flesh in the humblest of situations, using this motely crew of stand-ins to give Jesus a traditional Jewish welcome!  

We know all the details of the Christmas story quite well, but we also need to know the point of the story. We need to know what it means. Luke is not just reporting facts here. He has a point to make. The story of the incarnation is basically a disarmingly simple story about God kissing the earth and every human being on it. By sending his Son, Jesus, into the world in this way, God is saying to us that heaven is involved in our lives, even in the most pathetic and unlikely situations, even when things seem hopeless and God seems absent. Think of the tortured people in places like Ukraine and how they read the Christmas story this year! By sending his Son, Jesus, into the world in this way, God is saying that he loves us, all of us, every part of us, including the weakest and most vulnerable of us, believers and unbelievers, even those of us the world considers worthless - in spite of how we treat each other! The Savior of the world was born in a situation very similar to what so many desperate people today have to endure so as to teach us that he is with us even in our desperate situations.      

Most of us know this story by heart. But what does it mean? It means that God so loved the world that he bent over backwards to prove it. He took on human flesh, experiencing everything we experience, but sin. His whole life became one great “show and tell.” By word and deed, he showed us how to live our lives and how to treat each other. The short of it is that he showed us how to love!  To prove it, he laid down his life for us, dying like a common criminal, rejected and scorned, all while loving those who did it anyway! Then he left us with this challenge: “All I ask is that you love one another as I have loved you!” It's that simple and it's that difficult!    

The Christmas story, in the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was “laid in a manger” when he was born.  From that word "manger," we get the French word for “to eat,” “manger.” A “manger” then is a trough from which animals eat. That story also says that he was born in Bethlehem. “Bethlehem” means “house of bread.”

On the night before he died, this same gospel says that Jesus gave his followers one last gift - bread, ‘breaking it” before passing it around, as a symbol of his body which would be broken for them. He told them to keep "breaking bread" in his memory after he was gone.

Like the shepherds who attended the birth of Jesus, shepherds who were considered religious non-conformists, Jesus didn’t just give himself as bread to his faithful followers. He even gave it to those who betrayed him, including Judas, to show that his love was unconditional.

What could we do better this Christmas Eve than to share that “broken bread” with each other in celebration of God’s unconditional love for each of us, in all our variety and levels of faith? God’s universal, unconditional and inclusive love is the very essence of Christmas! Christmas, above all, means inclusion, not exclusion

We desperately need this message in a world where hate, division, separation and exclusion is growing stronger every day! Maybe the reason the world is filled with so much anger, hatred, mistrust and division  is that we no longer remember that Christ is the reason for this wonderful season! Fundamentally, he did not come to teach us a bunch of complicated theology. He is above getting involved in our silly little liturgy wars. He simply came to teach us to love each other just as he loved us - that is "without condition" "friend and enemy alike - and everyone in the middle! Christmas isn't meant to be "cute" really! Christmas is more like an atomic bomb of love that was dropped on all of us in the person of Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago!  That same love is being showered on all of us tonight whatever condition we find ourselves in! 

"They shall name him "Emmanuel," which means "God is with us!"



Thursday, December 22, 2022

BOYHOOD COUNTRY CHRISTMAS MEMORIES OF LONG, LONG AGO

MIDNIGHT MASS, TACKY DECORATIONS, COUNTRY HAM SANDWICHES AND OPENING THAT SINGLE GIFT
 
I can clearly remember, as a very young child, going to Midnight Mass "dressed in our best" at my little country St. Theresa Church in Rhodelia, Kentucky. Even though Mass itself was in Latin, I considered the high point of the whole service to be the point where the choir sang "O, Holy Night" in English!  Even though that hymn always gave me "cold chills," I remember it ending too soon and  my wanting them to keep repeating the verses. 

We always came home after Midnight Mass, ate country ham sandwiches, opened our one and only Christmas present and got into an argument or two before finally going to bed in the wee hours of Christmas morning!

I am sure that if we had video recordings today of those times, they would ruin the few sentimental and  nostalgic memories that I still carry in my head. The choir, I am pretty sure, would have been pretty amateurish by today's standards. The decorations in the church, as well as at home, would have been a bit tacky and the presents we opened would have been pretty simple.  Our expectations were not very high, so we were seldom seriously disappointed. However, I am certain of one thing - those country ham and biscuit sandwiches at 2:00 a.m. in the morning were "to die for!" 
Besides, I probably would have known the pig personally! Oh, yeah, we country boys certainly knew where our Christmas ham came from!!!! 


Tuesday, December 20, 2022

I LAUGHED MY HEAD OFF READING THIS BECAUSE I LIVE ALONE TOO

 


an article from

THE NEW YORK TIMES

I Live Alone. Really, I’m Not That Pathetic.

Dec. 9, 2022

By Frank Bruni

Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.


The New York Times is starting to give me a complex.

Late last month, it published a long article defining a new problem: More baby boomers and Gen Xers are living alone than forebears of their age did, and that apparently poses physical, psychological and financial challenges. Born in 1964, I’m the fumes of the boom. I live alone. And reading the article, I suddenly felt like some cautionary tale.

Last week came another article: “Who Will Care for ‘Kinless’ Seniors?” It noted, with alarm, that “an estimated 6.6 percent of American adults aged 55 and older have no living spouse or biological children.” I’m 58. I have no spouse, no children. That makes me kinless by the article’s definition. Luckless, too, by the sound of it.

I’m being tough on The Times, and I’m half-kidding. Both articles were important. They rightly expressed concern for older Americans who don’t have the resources or the kind of extended family that I do. They’re at risk. We should attend to that.

But the articles nonetheless reminded me that in an era that exhorts everyone to respect the full range of human identity and expression, there can still be a whiff of stigma to living uncoupled in a household of one. There’s puzzlement over it, pity for it. Surely, you didn’t choose this. Possibly, you brought it on yourself.

If you’re alone in your 30s, it announces an inability to commit unless it signals a failure to attract anyone decent. Take your pick: sexual vagabond or romantic sad sack. The six seasons of “Sex and the City” alternately explored, exploded and capitulated to that thinking — one signature episode was titled “They Shoot Single People, Don’t They?” — and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” had page upon page devoted to how awkwardly conspicuous its protagonist felt all by herself. Not by accident am I using pop-culture examples of women flying (or flailing) solo. They get the brunt of the scrutiny.

That remains true with loners in their late 50s, 60s, 70s. “Spinster” applies to an older woman; for an older man, there’s no term with the same cruelness and currency.

But I’m less interested in issuing a cultural indictment than in correcting impressions and complicating the picture. For many people, yes, living alone is a present or incipient danger. For many others, it’s bliss.

It’s loud music when you crave that energy and silence when you need to concentrate — no negotiations, no complaints. It’s mess when you can’t rally to impose order and order when you can no longer stomach mess.

It’s the bedtime of your choice, meaning 4 a.m. if you happened to start watching “Mare of Easttown” or reading “Bad Blood” at 9 p.m. and couldn’t stop. It’s a morning routine contoured perfectly to your biorhythms and quirks.

It’s plenty of space in the refrigerator and ample room in the closets and the possibility of seeing and understanding yourself in a particular light, one that’s not shadowed or filtered by the doting, demands and dissatisfactions of others.

And if that sounds selfish and shallow, well, answer this honestly: Don’t people who live in larger households have their own indulgences? Are they ipso facto more generous in spirit? Their domestic arrangements are as driven by personal desires as mine is. It’s just that they have different wants.

As for generosity, many of us who live alone tend to our friends with extra care because we don’t have constant company at home. Those friendships can be richer as a result. We’re hardly hermits, though we can play that part for whole weekends if we’re feeling unusually tired or especially reflective. What a sweet and singular freedom that is.

Maybe it makes us a bit more stubborn, a bit less elastic. There are character flaws much worse than those.

And there are mitigating factors. Mine is named Regan, and if she doesn’t get a few miles on our neighborhood’s forest trails in the morning, she prods me with her snout and curses me with her eyes. But once she’s contented and ready to curl up at someone’s feet, mine are the only game in town.

It’s not a bad way to live.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

JOSEPH CHANGED HIS MIND

 

When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband decided to divorce her quietly. But behold the angel of the Lord 
appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
Matthew 1:18-25


In the summer of 1959, I was barely 15 years old. It was my first summer home from high school seminary. In a town of 27 people, there wasn’t much to do on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon, except go swimming in a pond on one of my father’s farms. There were four of us boys about the same age: me, my brother Gary, John Paul Manning and his brother Joe-Joe. We walked about three miles to the pond. None of us knew how to swim all that well, so we had agreed just to play together a few feet from the shore.

For some unknown reason, Joe-Joe decided to swim across the pond - alone! Distracted by each other, the rest of us didn’t even realize that he had done this, until we heard his cries for help from across the pond. We tried our best to get to him, but the short of it was, he drowned right in front of our eyes. I can still feel the tiredness in my arms, the struggle to keep from drowning myself, his panic stricken eyes staring right at me and our inability to reach him before he went down for the last time 

He was thrashing about, wildly, trying to keep from drowning. The sad thing was, if he had done the opposite, if he had only relaxed and let himself float, we could have grabbed him and pulled him, or he could have floated, to safety. The more he tried to save his life by thrashing about wildly, the closer to death he came. If he had just quit trying to save his life, he might have saved it. The message was: there are times to fight on and there are times to let go.

As a young priest, I worked with an angry nun who had been hurt by a convent chaplain when she was a novice. Because of his recommendation, she was dismissed from her order as “unsuitable” for final vows. She carried her resentment against him for years, even though she was later readmitted and went on to become a nun.

The more I tried to work with her, the more determined she was to rebuff me. I knew nothing of her bad experience with the convent chaplain, but to her I was “that priest” with another face. The more she rejected my efforts to reach out to her, the harder I tried to win her over. The more she rebuffed my efforts, the more I re-doubled them until I was so frustrated that I had to go for counseling. In counseling, I kept coming up with more ideas about how I could win her over. This went on for over an hour, until the counselor was practically screaming in my face, “When are you going to take “no” for an answer? She doesn’t want to work with you!” Shocked by his bluntness, I feel back into my chair as my mind finally “got it.” The interesting thing was, once I quit trying to work with her, did my own thing and let her do her own thing, we got along fine. The message was: there are times to fight on and times to let go.

Some of us are proud of the fact that we made up our minds about something years and years ago and that we are not about to change them now! We may even think that our inflexibility is a virtue. St. Joseph teaches us in today's gospel that, to follow the will of God, we sometimes have to be able to change our minds.

Here's the short version of how St. Joseph was able to change his mind. Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. Mary became pregnant before the wedding and told Joseph that she had conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph refused to believe it at first. He may have even showered Mary with some harsh words. In response to this unwanted news, he made up his mind to divorce Mary quietly when an angel appeared to him in a dream, confirming Mary's explanation and telling him not to be afraid to proceed with the wedding. Joseph woke up with a changed mind, proceeded with the wedding and accepted his new family. 

Changing one’s mind is so important in our relationships to God that "change your mind" is the very first challenge that came out of Jesus’ mouth when he began his ministry. We read about it every first Sunday of Lent. The word he used is “metanoiete” in the Greek text of Scripture. It means, “Change the way you look at things! Change the way you see! To see what God is up to, it takes a radical change in the way you look out at things.” By being able to change his mind and look at the Mary's pregnancy with new eyes, Joseph was able to see that he was actually part of a great plan that God had formed long ago - not being duped by an unfaithful fiancĂ©e as the situation first appeared to be!

St. Joseph teaches us this Advent that we sometimes have to “let go and let God” and find a way to embrace some very painful unwanted realities if we are to move forward in life. St. Joseph teaches us that letting go in life can be very hard, but trying to hold onto to an idea we love can sometimes makes life even harder.

If parents want their children to grow into healthy adults, they have to “give them up” over and over again. They have to put them on the school bus that first day, even though they cry and resist and every bone in their own body wants to hold onto them and keep them home. They have to “let go” when they learn to swim, when they go off to camp, when they learn gymnastics or play football, when they learn to drive, when they leave home for college and when they walk down the aisle to begin their own life. If they “let go,” new life is possible for those children. If they try to hang on to them and cling to their childhoods, they will retard any possible growth into self-sufficient adults. “Holding on” to them is also a good way for parents to avoid having to go through the hard process of starting their own new life.  Some would rather continue to meddle in their grown kids’ lives – which can be a disaster for both parents and child!

If someone is addicted and wants to be free, old patterns and old friendships and old thinking have to die and be buried before a new way of living is possible. You cannot hold onto past behaviors and take on new ones at the same time. The old way of living must die, before a new way of living can be born.

If someone is in a relationship that is not healthy and life-giving, letting go of it is very much like a death that one must go through before a new life and a new beginning and a new relationship can come to life. One must be willing to let go of familiar territory to reach new lands. The in-between time is what scares people. That’s why abused spouses often return to their abusers: this in-between time is so scary that they return to what is familiar. By holding on to the past, they actually kill any possibility of moving into a new way of living.

Sometimes we have no choice: we are forced into change. Sometimes it takes a heart attack, a terrible loss, an eye-opening accident or a terrible diagnosis, a death of sorts, before we are motivated to bury our old way of living so we can make room for a new way of living.

 In my own personal life, I have noticed that times of greatest growth and blessing have always been preceded by tough times, times of loss and disappointment. It was when I was forced to let go of some dream, some idea, some so-called need or even my beloved mother, that I witnessed unimaginable breakthroughs. It has happened so often that I can sometimes monitor where I am in the process. I have a favorite saying, “breakdown is a sure sign of a breakthrough.”