Sunday, December 27, 2015

Holy Family

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

When my children were little
we gave them each a copy of a book called The Picture Bible.
This was more than simply an illustrated Bible;
it was what today they call a “graphic novel”—
a thick volume containing most of the Biblical stories
in classic comic book form.
It was the perfect vehicle
for conveying the stories of Scripture to children,
and to this day there are parts of the Bible
(particularly the battles in the Old Testament)
that my children know better than I do.

But in some ways the Bible does not really make
a very good children’s book.
Take the compact little story of the birth of Samuel
that is our first reading today.
Hannah prays to God for a child and,
in gratitude for the birth of her son, promises
“Once the child is weaned,
I will take him to appear before the Lord
and to remain there forever;
I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”
Hannah makes for her son a vow that,
according to the book of Numbers,
you really should only make for yourself,
a voluntary consecration to God
that involves never cutting your hair
or drinking wine,
things that mark you out
as “set apart” from ordinary life.
Moreover, as part of her vow
she takes Samuel to the Temple
and leaves him there
to be raised by the priest Eli.
Why, we might ask,
after all she has been through to have a child
would Hannah commit him
to the difficult life of a nazirite
and then abandon him into someone else’s hands?

Moreover, whatever puzzlement this story
might cause in us adults,
imagine the effects
that it might have on a child:
your parents make promises for you behind your back
and then abandon you
with some old man who lives in a temple.
It is almost as if the story
is designed to hit the sweet spot
between children’s frustration
at their lack of autonomy
and their fear of parental abandonment.
It is more like the terrifying tales of the Brothers Grimm
than what one would hope to find in the Bible,
though given stories like Abraham’s near-killing of Isaac
and Jeptha’s foolish vow that
leads him to sacrifice his daughter,
it is actually pretty mild
(In The Picture Bible,
you may be reassured to know,
Hannah’s vow is depicted more as a simple desire
that her son be a good person
and Samuel’s leaving at the Temple
is more like him going off to boarding school,
a kind of Hogwarts for prophets).

But if it is not really a story for children,
perhaps it is a story for parents,
for the story of Hannah and Samuel captures something
that is deeply true
about the relationship of parents and children.

All parents have hopes and dreams for their children,
ideas of what sort of person we want them to be,
what values we want them to embody.
For Christians
who bring their children
to the waters of Baptism,
we promise “to bring them up
to keep God’s commandment
as Christ taught us,
by loving God and our neighbor”;
we renounce Satan
and profess our faith
in Father, Son, and Holy Sprit
and state our desire
to have our children baptized
into the faith we have professed.
We do this not because we want
to violate their autonomy
or restrict their freedom,
but because we believe
that the Gospel of Jesus Christ
will give them the freedom they need
to be truly happy.
Like Hannah, we dedicate our children
to a life of love of God and neighbor,
a life that might be difficult
in a world that often rejects God’s love,
but one that promises them a joy
that ultimately surpasses
any pain they might suffer.

We parents must also realize, however,
that our children do not remain
forever in our households.
From the outset and gradually over the course of years,
they are and become, as we say, their own people.
Or, for us Christians, we might better say
that Baptism is not simply about
our hopes and dreams,
but about placing them in God’s hands,
so that they can receive
what God desires for them.
As they, like Jesus in today’s Gospel,
“advance in wisdom and age and favor
before God and human beings,”
they might do things and make choices
that cause us,
like Mary and Joseph in today’s Gospel,
great anxiety.
We desire happiness for our children,
and we seek to teach them the ways
that we believe will lead them to that happiness.
But all along they are also teaching us,
teaching us that God’s ways are many and varied,
teaching us that the one thing we can know
is that the path along which
they will make their journey to God
will surely not be our own path.
Even when we are convinced
that they are mistaken in their choices,
once we have said our piece and done our best,
we can in the end only entrust them to God’s care,
in the faith that the God
to whom we gave them in Baptism
will never abandon them,
never let them fall from his loving grasp.

Like Hannah,
we ultimately must leave our children
in God’s hands,
trusting that they have in Baptism
become children of a God
who loves them even more than we do,
and will lead them to eternal happiness.
Like Hannah,
we hope for our children
a destiny so great
that no effort of ours,
but only the merciful love of God,
can bring it to completion.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

They killed without mercy in San Bernardino.
They killed without mercy
fourteen coworkers and acquaintances,
alongside whom they had previously
lived their lives in peace.
They killed without mercy,
seemingly in the name of God,
the God whom the Qur’an invokes
at the outset of every chapter
as “the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

He, too, killed without mercy in Colorado Springs.
He killed without mercy or discrimination
three people who happened to fall
within the sights of his weapon.
He killed without mercy,
seemingly in the name of God,
the God whom he was convinced
would mercifully cover his sins,
no matter what he did.

Some of us reacted
by taking to Facebook and Twitter,
posting and tweeting
our “thoughts and prayers” for the victims;
others of us rebuked these sentiments,
saying that thoughts and prayers are not enough,
that concrete action must be taken
to end such violence.
Many of us simply felt
immense perplexity and sadness.
We huddled,
wrapped in our robe of mourning and misery:
wanting to pray,
but not knowing what to say;
wanting to act,
but not knowing what to do;
wanting maybe simply
to hide and hope it all would go away.

I am not without sympathy
for The New York Daily News,
which responded to the politicians
who sent out their “thoughts and prayers”
with a headline that read
“God isn’t fixing this.”
I’m sympathetic because I too grow tired
of politicians and pundits
who turn prayer into a placeholder
for prudent action infinitely delayed.
I too sense with weary irony
the ambiguities of praying to God
for those who have been killed in the name of God,
by those who probably also prayed to God
before embarking on their merciless missions.

But even my weariness and my cynicism
cannot keep me from calling out,
“Lord, have mercy.”
Aware of the ambiguity and abuse
that sometimes accompanies
talk of thoughts and prayers
I still cannot suppress the primal cry
that wells up
from the depth of my heart:
“Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.”
We should never be ashamed to pray
in response to the horrors of the world,
to beg that God would have mercy on this human race,
a people that has,
as St. Catherine of Siena put it,
“declared war on [God’s] mercy
and become [God’s] enemies” (Dialogue ch. 13).

Yes, we must act to try to curb
the merciless violence
that afflicts our nation and our world,
but we must also recognize
that this violence has roots
deep within our human nature,
a nature that has been devastated by sin.
There are things we can and should fix,
but there are also things wrong with us
that only God can fix.
The large-scale acts of war against God’s mercy
that we witness in California or Colorado
grow from seeds of destruction
that we all have in our hearts:
seeds of resentment and pride,
seeds of spite and selfishness,
seeds of indifference and malice.
I, too, am at war with God’s mercy;
I, too, am a merciless combatant
in sin’s war against goodness.
Perhaps we should not expect God
to fix those situations
that call for the exercise of human wisdom
and political prudence,
but surely I must beg God to fix my warring heart.
Confronted with the darkness around and within me,
I am not ashamed to call out:
Come, God of mercy,
come and bring us back
from the darkness of our exile,
come and take from us
the robe of mourning and misery.

And so we gather together on this day
as God’s people ,
seeking God’s mercy.
And we hear in our Gospel
the voice of John the Baptist,
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths….
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
We hear the voice of the prophet Baruch,
“take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever....
for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company.”
In this season of Advent,
we light our candles of hope,
visible signs of our prayer that God’s mercy
would bring peace to our hearts and to our world.
We light our candles of hope
because we believe that God has come to us,
that in the life, death, and rising of Jesus
God has, as St. Catherine of Siena wrote,
“[given] this warring human race a way to reconciliation,
bringing great peace out of our war” (Dialogue ch. 13).
Yes, we must act to restrain
the violence that grows
from our war against God’s mercy.
But we must also pray for that mercy,
because in the end
it is only God’s mercy
that will disarm our hearts.
In the face of merciless killings
done in the name of a merciful God,
we light our candles of hope
as a sign of our prayer
that God the Compassionate,
the Merciful,
will one day reign victorious
and that we will find ourselves,
joyfully defeated,
prisoners of war
who have surrendered to mercy.