Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holy Family

Today, on the Feast of the Holy Family,
we continue to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation –
our belief that God the eternal Son,
through whom all things were made,
became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth;
in Jesus Christ God has lived a human life.
But more than that, today’s Gospel reminds us that
in Jesus Christ God has chosen
to live a certain kind of human life.

This morning St. Matthew presents us
with what is still in our world
an all-too-familiar human story:
a family fleeing violence in their homeland
undertakes a journey involving great peril
to seek refuge in a foreign land
where they may not speak the language,
where their religion and culture and ethnicity
may appear to their neighbors to be alien
and perhaps even threatening,
where whatever social or economic status
they had in their homeland
may not translate into similar status in their new home,
where they may find themselves living on the margins of society
without any way to move into the mainstream.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph find themselves
among the ranks of history’s refugees,
among the “displaced persons”
who throughout history have had to choose
between violence at home and exile in a foreign land.

There are many other all-too-familiar human stories
involving families:
families locked into cycles of poverty and social marginalization,
families torn apart by broken promises and old hurts,
families that are scenes of physical and emotional violence
rather than havens of peace.
These all-too-familiar human stories remind us
that all of us are in some sense “displaced persons”
who live our lives exiled from all that we had hoped
those lives might have been.

The mystery of the Incarnation is that God,
the creator of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible,
has chosen to live among us
and to make this all-too-familiar human story his own.
God, who is supremely rich,
the source and center of the world’s existence,
chose to be poor,
and ultimately to die on the cross.
Without ceasing to be God,
the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us,
sharing the joys and hopes,
the sorrows and anxieties,
of the human race.
As Saint Catherine of Siena put it:
“You, God, have clothed yourself in our humanity,
and nearer than that you could not have come” (Dialogue ch. 153).

God becomes human, sharing our human poverty,
so that we humans might come to share in God’s riches.
God becomes a displaced person,
so that we might find in God the place where we truly belong.
The mystery of the Incarnation is just this simple
and just this mysterious:
God has joined us in our exile
to transform that place of exile into our true home,
to make us members of God’s holy family.

And if this is true, then we ought to live with each other
in a way that reflects this mystery.
The letter to the Colossians tells us:
“Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another.”
This too is something supremely simple . . . and mysterious.

It is something simple because this way of living
has been shown to us by Jesus –
in the face of the all-too-familiar human story
of betrayal and disappointment,
he chose to live a life of openness and compassion;
in him we have been shown what a truly human life looks like,
we see what it means to find our place in God’s family,
to be sons and daughters of God.
How we ought to live together is as simple as the story of Jesus.

But it is also something mysterious,
because we know
that we can live this truly human life,
that our place of exile can become our true home,
that we can find our place in God’s family,
only if we open ourselves to God’s grace.
We can be compassionate,
only if we, as the letter to the Colossians says,
let the word of Christ dwell in us richly –
if we, like Mary and Joseph, have Jesus with us in our land of exile.
As Paul reminds us,
“whatever you do, in word or in deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In the Incarnation, God did not simply live a human life,
but God lived the all-too-familiar human story
of exile and rejection.
And the joy of Christmas is that in living that story
Jesus has rewritten it,
Jesus has transformed it,
Jesus has triumphed over it
and so has made this our land of exile
into the place where God dwells richly among us,
making us into the holy family of God.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent 3

“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
This is the question that John the Baptist,
imprisoned by King Herod and facing execution,
sends his followers to ask Jesus.
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”

This question is a puzzling one.
Why would John, whom we heard last week
confidently heralding Jesus’ coming,
suddenly seem to doubt that Jesus really is God’s anointed one?
Having proclaimed him the one who is to come,
why would he be sending his followers
to ask if Jesus is really the one who is to come?
Has he forgotten?
Does he think he might have been wrong?

Early Christian theologians were puzzled by this as well,
and tended to think that John
was not really asking a genuine question,
but was posing the question rhetorically,
for the benefit of his followers.
In other words, he knows the answer,
but he wants his followers to hear the words
from Jesus’ own lips
so that they will know, as John knows,
that Jesus is the one who is to come.

I have always found this interpretation of John’s question
somewhat dissatisfying,
probably because I find disingenuous rhetorical questions
somewhat irritating,
as if John were trying to be sly,
by pretending not to know something that he knows perfectly well.

Pope Gregory the Great, in the late-6th century,
took a different approach to this story.
As he interprets it, John is asking a genuine question.
He has no doubt that Jesus is the promised Messiah,
since he had clearly declared this at the beginning of the Gospel,
when he served as Christ’s herald.
But now, at this point in the story,
John is seeking to know something different.
John is facing execution at the hands of Herod;
he knows that he will soon depart this life
for the realm of the dead.
Thus, Gregory says, he is asking
whether he will also be Christ’s herald among the dead,
whether Christ, who had come into our world as God with us,
would also be God with us even in death.
As Gregory puts it, it was as if John were asking,
“Just as you deigned to be born on behalf of human beings . . . ,
will you also die on our behalf” (Homily 5).

I will admit,
Gregory’s interpretation might seem like just as much of a stretch
as the interpretation that says
that John is asking only a rhetorical question.
Yet there is something about it that makes sense to me.
Facing death, John is confronted with a new question:
how deep does your faith in Jesus go?
He believed fervently that Jesus had come into this world
to share our human life.
Now John wants to know,
has he come also to share our human death?
In our Gospel last week John had declared,
“the one who is coming is mightier than I.”
Now John asks, “just how mighty are you?
Are you mighty enough to conquer even death?
I am about to go into the darkness.
Will you be there?
Are you mighty enough to follow me into that dark place
and bring me back to the kingdom of life?”
Will you be there to say to me,
“Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God, he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense he comes to save you.”
John is asking for the gift of faith, to believe that,
even into the mystery of death,
Jesus is the one who is to come.
He will come with his light to dispel death’s darkness.

And as with John, so too with us:
we too ask of Jesus,
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Are you the one who will come to me
in the darkest places of my life?
Will you be there when I am in pain,
when I am alone,
when I am terrified,
when I am confused,
when I am in the valley of the shadow of death?
Are you the one?
Are you mighty enough to share my weakness?
You who deigned to be born on behalf of human beings,
will you also die on our behalf?
Joining me in death, will you lead me back to life?

We pray in this Advent that God would find us ready,
waiting to receive Jesus.
But perhaps even more we should pray
for a deeper faith that it is Jesus who is ready,
waiting to receive us.
Let us pray this Advent
that God would find us ready to believe
that no place is so dark that God in Christ is not there,
ready to meet us with joy and gladness,
ready to set sorrow and mourning to flight.