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Friday, December 27, 2019

What Makes a Family Holy? - The Feast of the Holy Family

Note: Through Advent and Christmas, I have decided to focus these reflections on the Virgin Mary and not on the weekly Gospel reading.

What Makes a Family Holy?

There is a funny and somewhat surprising story tucked away in Mark’s Gospel. After publicly healing a man of his withered hand, Mark reports that an enormous crowd began following Jesus (Mk 3:8). Many brought their sick relatives to be cured (3:10). The crowds pressed thickly upon Jesus and he was unable to rest a moment that day. We read that it became “impossible for him even to eat” (Mk 3:20). But amidst all this fervor, we learn of an odd detail. Jesus’ own relatives had caught wind of the commotion and were ― of all things ― embarrassed of him. The text says that “when his family heard about this they set out to seize him, for they said, ‘he is out of his mind’” (Mk 3:21). The Son of God was apparently acting in a way unbecoming of the family name. 

We should not be imagining that it was Mary or Joseph who were ashamed of their son. Indeed, most scholars suspect that Joseph ― not mentioned at all once Jesus begins his public ministry ― had by this time passed away. And it was Mary who once prompted Jesus to turn water into wine at a wedding in Cana (Jn 2). Mary was not ashamed of Jesus causing a commotion. Indeed, in the story from Mark’s Gospel, we learn just a few verses later that it was probably Jesus’ cousins who came to protect the family’s reputation from any further embarrassment (Mk 3:31). 

When we celebrate today’s “Feast of the Holy Family,” we don’t usually think of Jesus’ broader family. We’re even less likely to imagine that Jesus might not have been well-liked by all the cousins. And, more than that, when we think of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph we often think of their family life as the kind of thing that should be depicted on an ornament, as something quite cozy. We imagine them gathered around a warm hearth untroubled by the sinful world around them.

On the contrary, part of what makes the Holy Family holy is that it wasn’t the kind of thing that could be depicted on an ornament. Indeed, no real family’s daily life is the kind of thing that should ever be depicted on an ornament. And the Holy Family was a real family. That means they had real relatives who really were whackos. Just like your family. Part of what makes the Holy Family holy is that they didn’t isolate themselves from that whackiness, but were in the fray.

An important detail: when Jesus’ relatives came to collect him, Mary was right in their midst. Someone from the crowd even told Jesus: “your mother and family are outside looking for you” (Mk 3:32). Whackos or not, these were Mary’s people. This was her family. She was in the fray with these cousins who were embarrassed of her son. Did she have to listen to them apologizing to those who’d gathered? “I’m so sorry for this. He’s out of his mind.” Was she admonished by her relatives? “Didn’t you teach him better than this?”

This was the Holy Family’s family, and ― odd as it may seem ― that family was embarrassed of Jesus. But Mary did not cut them out of her life, safely retreating to those people who accept her. The Holy Family would not have been very holy had it remained walled-off from the world’s unholiness, had it remained contentedly around the hearth at Nazareth. Holiness is not closed in on itself. It wants to go outside itself, even into very dark places. Indeed, the holiness of the Holy Family was not for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph alone. It was also for those cousins who were embarrassed of Jesus. 

Yes, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph lived lives of extraordinary holiness. They were the “Holy Family.” But we should not imagine that the coming together of their lives formed some sort of impenetrable bubble around their home. The bitterness of the world broke into their lives. It crucified one of them. And he left his home knowing it would. 

The world is as embarrassed of Jesus today as it was when he was causing a commotion in ancient Israel. This is no reason to cut those cousins out of your life. On the contrary, it is reason to model your family after the Holy Family, to remain close to those who are convinced you all ― like Jesus ―
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Friday, December 20, 2019

On the Face of Jesus, for Christmas - 4th Sunday of Advent/Christmas

On the Face of Jesus, for Christmas

Note: For the season of Advent and Christmas, I've decided to focus these reflections on the Virgin Mary rather than the weekly Gospel.

The Jews understood that no one could see the face of God and live to tell about it. “I pray thee,” Moses once pleaded with God, “show me thy glory!” In a beautiful passage, God proceeded to show Moses “all his goodness” but insisted that Moses could not see his face, “for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:18-23). The difference between God and humanity is too great: “God is in heaven; you are on earth,” the Book of Ecclesiastes says (Ec 5:2). Bridging that gap ― encountering him face-to-face ― would simply overwhelm us.

But the Jews were far from satisfied with this arrangement. “Show us your face!” (Ps 4:6) they pleaded all throughout the Old Testament. It was the constant petition of their psalms. When priests offered blessings, they’d say “may the Lord bless you and keep you, and may the Lord make his face to shine upon you (Nm 6:24-25). In times of pain, they could be sharp: “Are you sleeping, Lord? Wake up! Why do you hide your face from us?(Ps 44:23-24)? Their conclusion is a beautiful one. Humanly speaking, they cannot see the face of God. But, as it says in one of their psalms, “my heart says, ‘seek his face.’ And so your face, Lord, I will seek” (Ps 27:8-9). Even if God has hidden it ― even if finding it would kill them ― they will seek the face of God.

The birth of Jesus is the definitive moment. Christmas changes all this. Christmas celebrates the fact that, in Jesus, we have seen the face of God and lived. Mary, of course, was the first to see this, the first to peer into that face. We must not miss the extraordinariness of that first glance. God looked at Mary and Mary looked at God. Think about that! Their eyes rested upon each other. And what did Mary see?

How fascinating that Mary looked into the face of God and saw a face much like her own, a face that had inherited her features: cheeks like hers, eyes like hers. Indeed, it is Mary “of whom Jesus was born,” (Mt 1:16) and so it is Mary of whom Jesus received his human features. As he grew, she would’ve noticed it more. When he laughed, did he toss his head like she did? Did he lick his lips like she did? Sneeze like she did? Wouldn’t she have been the first to understand the emotions on her son’s face ― frustration, curiosity, joy ― because she knew how they played out on her own? 

In a sense, the human face is for communicating emotion. Indeed, the face conveys our personality most intimately. This is why the Jews wanted to see God’s face so badly. In the face of Jesus, God has revealed his divine personality to us. How surprising that God’s face is a human face ― a baby’s face! How surprising that he carries himself just like his mother!

Mary knew the tradition of her ancestors ― that looking into God’s face meant death. But this was her son. “Blessed is she,” St. Jacob of Serugh (d. 521) once wrote of Mary. “She has born the mighty giant who sustains the world.” In her son’s eyes, Mary did not find a death sentence, but “infinity dwindled to infancy.” Today God blinks and smiles at the caresses of his mother. That is the marvel of Christmas ― the fact that the same God whose face made the patriarchs tremble now lies gurgling in his mother’s arms. Christmas means that God is not just blinding light and unquenchable fire, but a baby in need of his mother’s tenderness. “Blessed is she,” St. Jacob insisted, “her lips have touched Him whose blazing made angels of fire recoil…. She has embraced Him and covered him with kisses.”

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Friday, December 13, 2019

"Betrothed to a man named Joseph" - 3rd Sunday of Advent

Note: For the season of Advent and Christmas, I've decided to focus these reflections on the Virgin Mary rather than the weekly Gospel.

"Betrothed to a man named Joseph"

There’s an old story about Mary that nobody really tells anymore. A text called the Golden Legend from the Middle Ages described how, when Mary was ready for marriage, a whole host of suitors ― Joseph included ― lined up before her with branches from their homes. Whoever’s branch, when laid upon the Temple altar, produced a flower would be the one she married. It was said that a young man named Agabus was so crushed by Joseph winning Mary’s hand that he snapped his branch over his knee and fled weeping into the desert. He swore never to love another woman and lived the rest of his days as a celibate monk. You can find this legend painted in churches across Italy. In Raphael’s depiction ― a copy of which still hangs in Germany ― a youthful Joseph slides a ring onto a blushing Mary’s finger as Agabus annihilates his branch in front of the wedding party. It’s all very dramatic.

It reveals something about us that we don’t tell this story anymore. We don’t usually think of Mary getting caught up in these kinds of things, of her blushing over a boy. We don’t think of her as a heartbreaker. We’re not totally wrong here. In Mary’s time marriage had little to do with love. We didn’t marry for love until the nineteenth century. The odd thing is that the medievals who told this story didn’t marry for love either. Yet they translated this story into numerous languages ― they told it far and wide. Several dioceses even held feast days for it. The point is that ― and many historians have pointed this out ― just because the ancients and medievals didn’t marry for love doesn’t mean they never fell in love. How much of their art, music, and literature is about love? 

In crafting this story about Joseph winning Mary’s hand ― even if it’s not historically true ― the medievals had grasped something profoundly true about the marriage of Mary and Joseph that we modern Catholics often forget, namely that they were in love with each other, even romantically. Even if the ancients didn’t usually marry for the purpose love, how could the Holy Family not have been a locus of real married love? Indeed, Mary and Joseph are the spiritual parents of Catholics. We should not be afraid to imagine that our parents loved each other. 

Do not mishear me. Mary and Joseph’s marriage was a continent one. The medievals held this as dearly as we do. But they also knew love and intimacy cannot be reduced to sex. Why don’t we meditate on that more often? Did Mary not find Joseph handsome? His voice soothing? His arms safe? What keeps us from imagining a Mary who can’t stop smiling when she thinks of her Joseph coming home soon? He was very much her Joseph, her beloved. And what, on the other hand, prevents Joseph from thinking he’s the luckiest guy in the world? He was certainly luckier than poor Agabus! The way her hair falls upon her shoulder, the joke she tells that he doesn’t quite get but laughs at anyway, the odd way she dips her bread in their oil. It was all uniquely her. How many times did Joseph stop at his work just to think about her? She was his Mary, his beloved. 

It was no mistake that God decided to become human within a marriage. He could have become incarnate to Mary alone, without the addition of Joseph. God could, when Joseph learned of the strange pregnancy, have let him “send her away quietly” (Mt 1:19). But God decided to enter the world in the context of married love. God wanted to be raised by two people whose hearts beat a little faster when they looked at each other, whose hearts were vowed to each other through thick and through thin. Whatever that phenomenon is ― we could call it romantic love ― God is part of it. Indeed, God decided to be born within it.  That’s worth remembering.

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Friday, December 6, 2019

2nd Sunday of Advent (and the Immaculate Conception)

Note: For the season of Advent, I've decided to focus these reflections on the Virgin Mary rather than the weekly Gospel.

On Mary's Immaculate Conception

There’s an unfortunate misconception about Mary, namely that she was a bit of a wimp. We tend to think of her as delicate, as someone who never spoke louder than a whisper. With her hands folded and head bowed, we’ve imprisoned a very fragile and lifeless Mary into our figurines and into our imaginations. Caryll Houselander was an old Catholic writer from the 1940s who talked about how, as a little girl, people encouraged her never to do something the Blessed Virgin wouldn’t do. The trouble was, she joked, “I simply could not imagine her doing anything at all.” The Mary in our minds is not very dynamic.

On account of this, the real Mary, the one who actually walked around, has become difficult for us to imagine. We forget that she was once a desperate refugee who escaped her hometown in the dead of night (Mt 2:14). We forget that Mary gave birth alongside animals (Lk 2:7). We don’t think of her as the kind of woman who, when she sings, sings about “scattering the arrogant in their conceit, throwing down the mighty from their thrones … and sending the rich away hungry” (Lk 1:51-53). Mary was no delicate little thing. When nearly everyone else fled for their lives ― even after they swore never to desert him (Mt 26:35) ― Mary remained with Jesus at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25).

This confusion about Mary, in part, comes from a misunderstanding about her “Immaculate Conception,” which Catholics will celebrate this week. We often point out that the Immaculate Conception refers not to Jesus’ conception inside of Mary, but to Mary’s conception inside her mother. Indeed, the teaching is that, from the first moment she was conceived in her mother’s womb, Mary was “preserved free from all stain of original sin.” But there is a second way of misunderstanding the Immaculate Conception that applies to our problem. We misunderstand Mary’s sinlessness if we think it makes her totally unlike us. 

We must not think that, because Mary was sinless, she was somehow unapproachable, that she floated a few inches above the dirt. No. Mary was as gritty as her neighbors. She stoked flames and carried water. We certainly don’t think of Mary as the kind of woman with whom you’d split 2 liters of homemade wine, but that is how much the average Israelite drank each day. I don’t know about you, but I can’t drink that much! 

Mary’s holiness does not make her glide above us. It is just the opposite. It is precisely Mary’s freedom from sin that makes her most approachable, most ordinary, most one-of-us. Holiness does not lift one above normal human life, but makes one more richly engaged in the ordinary world. Indeed, to be sinless is not to be inhuman, but to be most human. More than that, her holiness made her most able to endure and engage the harshest turns life can take ― she was a refugee; she endured the public crucifixion of her son. Indeed, this is precisely what makes her able to sympathize with the harshness of your own life. You can talk to her about it. She’s been through it too. 

Mary was a woman, a real woman. She was a mother ― a real mother ― who loved her real son, not in some ethereal and untouchable way that has no meaning at all, but in the same gritty way that all mothers love their children. In my experience, there is nothing delicate about mothers. Mothers are not to be messed with. She wiped Jesus up, fed him, searched frantically for him when he snuck off (Lk 2:41-52). It’s all very ordinary; it’s just like any other mother. Indeed, what makes it extraordinary ― what makes her immaculate ― is that all this ordinariness is directed toward and oriented around the most extraordinary of children. She was willing to give the entirety of her ordinary human existence to the flourishing of her Son. For this “all generations will call her blessed” (Lk 1:48).