Mass on New Year’s

El Greco Adoration of the Holy Name of Jesus
El Greco, “Adoration of the Holy Name”

To start the new year of by going to Mass! To start the new year off by going to Mass in honor of our Lady! To start the new year off by going to Mass in honor of our Lady on the day when Jesus received His Holy Name! To start the new year off by going to Mass in honor of our Lady on the day when Jesus received His Holy Name, and celebrating the Octave as an act of rebellion against the idea that Christmas is over!

This is what Catholics do.

Rebelled against the dreary idea that Christmas ends when Walmart says it ends. I visited a Walmart bright and early this past Saturday morning, the 26th, to buy my nephews some light sabers. Walmart already had Valentine’s candy out in the seasonal aisles.

That’s ok. They had moved on from Christmas. So I got a life-size talking Yoda at half price!

My point is: We rebel. We say Christmas doesn’t end until Holy Mother Church says so. Which means we still have another eight days of loving baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph. WalMart thinks it’s time for Valentine’s Day, and the wise men haven’t even arrived yet from the East. Please!

…“God saves.” How do you say that in Hebrew? Come on people. This is a really easy one. How do you say “God saves” in Hebrew? The Lord shed the first drop of His Precious Blood on Jan. 1, beneath the knife of circumcision, as He received His name. God saves.

…We can’t love and honor the son without loving and honoring the mother.

Can we make a deal for 2016? That we Catholics will stop apologizing to Protestants for honoring our Lady. Ever since Vatican II, we have fallen all over ourselves… “We don’t worship Mary! We’re not Mariolaters! We’re just like you!”

How about saying—in a friendly way, of course—“Can’t understand why anyone who loves the Lord Jesus wouldn’t love His Mother also, and honor her, and carry her rosary and pray it daily.”

And we start the new year off with Mass. Someday, Mass will never end. Not that it will become oppressively boring ad infinitum. But we will, please God, have entered the heavenly liturgy. We will gaze with rapture upon the infinite glory. Until then, while we continue to make our pilgrim way, it’s a good thing to start each new year off right.

Home vs. Alone

Rey at home Force Awakens Star Wars

When Mary and Joseph found the child Jesus in the Temple, He said to them, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand.

Mary and Joseph knew something, of course. They both had received visits from an angel twelve years earlier. But we can hardly fault them for not understanding completely. They did not have ‘the typical child’ to raise. They had God incarnate for a son. Human in everything, except sin. But also possessed of the infinite depth of the eternal Word.

To Whom does the only-begotten Son of God belong? To no one but the Father, of course. Who can “house” the Creator? Where is His “home?” The only true home the infinite Son can have is the infinite bosom of the infinite Father.

But: “He went down with them to Nazareth, and was obedient to them,” like any normal good son. He Who made the world to be our home lived in a humble family home of His own, in a small town.

Let’s imagine a Nazarene townie giving a newcomer a tour: “That house? That belongs to so-and-so the weaver. That one? Oh, that’s the carpenter Joseph’s house, where the Son of God grew up.”

elgreco_holy-familyI guess by now everyone has seen the new Star Wars movie. If not, don’t worry. I won’t give much away. It’s just that one thing really struck me, about how the heroine grew up.

In the original Star Wars, back in the 1970’s, the hero Luke Skywalker lived on remote desert planet. He was an orphan, apparently. But he lived in a cozy space-age farmhouse with uncle Owen and aunt Beru. In other words, Luke had a home–where he had grown up, with a man and wife raising him.

At the beginning of the new Star Wars, the new heroine, named Rey, also lives on a remote desert planet. But she lives alone, in an old broken-down imperial tank. No family at all.

Is this difference between the movie of the 1970’s and the movie of today a “sign of the times?” Forty years ago, we Americans took for granted: a child needs a home, with a family, a mom and dad. Now? We don’t know. We don’t know what a child needs. We have managed to get ourselves thoroughly confused.

Instead of bemoaning the collateral damage of the Age of Divorce, though, let’s do this:

1. Let’s communicate what the prophets of the Bible say. After all, Israel herself, the chosen tribe, had fallen into the same homeless state as the young Rey on the planet Jakku. Friendless and bereft, an apparent orphan, marking days in misery, struggling to survive alone. Israel had become an exile, far from the Holy Land, her very identity as a people threatened. We worry about African lions going extinct. But in the sixth century BC, The People of God almost went extinct. The heritage of Abraham and Moses almost forgotten.

Therefore, I don’t think it’s a stretcher for us to say this: The words the prophets addressed to the exiles of 2500 years ago are the very words God addresses now to the lonely children of this Age of Divorce and Single Parenthood.

Prophet Ezekiel's portrait in the Sistine Chapel
Prophet Ezekiel’s portrait in the Sistine Chapel

You have a father, child! You have a birthright, and a name. Israel is no orphan! God says: You are mine. My house is yours.

2. Our second task is to build real homes ourselves. To make the parish a true home for all. And to make our own particular dwellings as much like the home of the Holy Family as we can.

What does the world need in AD 2016? Not macho men–silly boys trying to masquerade as grownups. No, the world needs chaste and strong husbands and fathers like St. Joseph. The world does not need feminists–unhappy girls trying to act like men. No, the world needs chaste and strong mothers and wives, like our Lady. Our Lady and St. Joseph did not believe in divorce, so neither do we. And, for God’s sake, the world does not need “gay-rights” advocacy, in vitro fertilization and test-tube babies with absent anonymous fathers. The world needs champions who will defend the rights of children.

We were lost, homeless, orphaned before Christ came. It’s not as if family life according to the model of the Holy Family constricts us in some stale old convention. To the contrary: divorce and broken families have been around longer than the hills. There were plenty of divorces and broken families during the Babylonian captivity. In the Holy Family of Nazareth, God has given us the genuinely new thing. He has given us the kind of home where we can hope for a better future.

AD 2016 sits before us like a sheet of blank notebook paper. Let’s write JMJ at the top. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We don’t have to live as hermit orphans, like poor Rey in “The Force Awakens.” We have a home. In the bosom of the Father. With Mary and Joseph. With Christ.

God vs. Judge Judy at Christmas

“I am unworthy to unfasten the sandals on his feet.” St. John the Baptist said this about his cousin, the Word made flesh.

For St. John the Baptist to say this! A worthy man, St. John. The greatest of all prophets. Consecrated in the womb of St. Elizabeth. Righteous as righteous can be. Even he says, “I don’t deserve even to unfasten the sandals of Jesus.”

angels nativityNow, baby Jesus had no sandals at the first Christmas. His little feet hadn’t grown big enough yet even for footie pajamas. But St. John’s sense of unworthiness: let’s strive to feel it. Because it will help us find real joy, as we make our spiritual visit to the manger.

I’m not saying that we humble human beings don’t have some things going for us. We have rights, rights which even God recognizes. He made us creatures worthy of respect.

All human beings have the right to life, the right to a decent life, the right to follow our consciences freely. We all owe each other respect and esteem.

And Christmas offers us the perfect time to beg pardon of one another for all the times we have treated each other unworthily. For all the times I have failed to recognize what every human being deserves from me.

But the coming of Christ into the world involves something way beyond what we are “worthy” of, something way beyond what we could ever claim to deserve. We creatures made of dust, prone to ignorance, cravenly selfish—what claim can we have on our Creator? What can we demand of Him as our right, something He supposedly ‘owes’ us? In the beginning, He made us out of nothing, purely because of His love. We respond by looking at our phones most of the time.

Lying in the manger, Jesus radiates peace. His peace comes from the sublime heights of His divinity. He offers to us human beings what He has as God–as a gift. He offers freely what we ourselves have no hope of having, without Him.

We, the human race, deserved to stew in our own rather-unpleasant juice. But that’s what Judge Judy would say, if she had the case to judge. God, on the other hand, judges according to the criterion of His own ineffable love.

He stays true to Himself in everything, no matter what we do or don’t do. So, in the fullness of time, He became man, born of the Virgin, to give the human race hope and peace—to give Himself, as a pure, un-merited gift to the un-deserving.

Our real Christmas joy springs from the very same place in our souls where we acknowledge just how unworthy we are to be anywhere near the mystery of Bethlehem. Men and women of unclean lips, consumed by trifles, vain and self-centered! Yet He invites us to kneel close to Him, to adore Him, to hear His gentle breathing, and rejoice that His heart beats for us.

At Christmas, God tells the human race: What you deserve does not exactly concern Me right now. I delight in you. Not because you deserve it. But because I love you.

Poem for a Warm Christmas

Dog Decembers

We have had our dog Decembers,
in the land of the Midlantic people,
muddy water wending its way
to the languid Bay.

December darkness crouching, an alley cat
malingering with clouds
that choke the blessed sun
while short daytime hours run.

Humid Floridian billows confound
the narrative: Santa in a sweat?
Eggnog can turn in this; missletoe wilt;
Ice-rinks can melt.

A dog of a Christmas, rainy like
Good Friday should be. Way too warm
for mulled cider. Too muggy
for a sleigh.

Christmas lights in a haze.

December like they had in moonlit
Bethlehem. Foggy, too. Dank and tepid.
City resistant to organization, dotted with caves.

Unlit December days plodding unmarked
towards the Purim moon. Night swallowing up time,
lamps burning unevenly. Donkey traffic.

As magical as dung. Don’t bother
pulling out your phone.
Nothing sparkles here for facebook.

But the fact remains.
Donner and Blitzen can go to the devil.
The fact remains.

The birth in stable dirt
that bridges every muddy ravine.

Zechariah and Eddie Vedder in the Desert

So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. (Luke 1:62-64)

Zechariah probably qualifies as the most famous priest in the Bible. Perhaps all we priests should take note how Zechariah spent so much time completely mute.

And all husbands maybe should note this: The boy’s name? It’s what she said.

The coming of Christ, however, loosens tongues. Faith bears witness. As we pray at every Mass during this final week of Advent: St. John the Baptist was born “to sing of Christ’s coming.”

We can only imagine the quality of the holy prophet’s singing voice. Any ideas what modern singer might have a voice like St. John the Baptist had?

Johnny Cash? Ray Charles? Roy Orbison? Placido Domingo? Springsteen?

I say Eddie Vedder.

Blessed Mother’s “Rights”

If you heard the gospel reading at Mass yesterday, it sounded an awful lot like Sunday. So we have waited two days to hear what happened next. What happened after St. Elizabeth praised our Lady’s humble faith, after Elizabeth invented the Hail Mary, after St. John the fetus leapt in the womb when Christ the embryo entered the house.

MagnificatWell, Blessed Mother finally had an opportunity to speak. So she sang of the Lord’s promises to Abraham, who had been willing to sacrifice his son. She sang of justice, arriving as mercy.

First Christmas after ordination, I gave a pro-life homily on Christmas Eve, in upper-middle-class suburban Washington. Not everyone liked it. But I still think: We face a decisive either/or here, precisely at Christmas.

Our contemporary standards would lead us to ask: What about our Lady’s autonomy? Did she get a fair deal? She woke up one day, basically minding her own business. Next thing you know, she’s eating for two. But her Magnificat reveals that the idea of “autonomy” never so much as entered her beautiful mind.

Christmas teaches us that there actually is no such thing as autonomy–not really; not in the final analysis. No one ever came into this world on his or her own steam. So, to unite Himself with us, God Himself made Himself as vulnerable as you or me or Barack Obama or Alexander the Great were during our sojourns in the womb. That is: utterly dependent. And very demanding: Doesn’t seem like our Lady had to spend the first trimester vomiting. But plenty of expectant mothers do. And why? Because babies in the womb unwittingly make unreasonable and excessive demands.

But the Divine Mercy, originally revealed in a pregnancy, transcends any and all “rights” to self-determination that any of us could claim. Did Mary have a right to the carefree existence she had before the angel came? Her Magnificat bulldozes over such a question. Bulldozes over it with a song about God.

God is in charge, and He has made us dependent on each other, and on Him. Our Lady sings: God has mercy on those who fear Him, on the lowly and the hungry, on the people who wouldn’t know what to do with a team of lawyers, even if they could afford one.

Another Interesting E-Mail

My fiancé and I are getting married in Virginia, a simple backyard wedding. Our brother in law needs a sponsor to be our minister and is already ordained. Would you be willing to sponsor him and then we would need to get approved by the county of — to perform the ceremony. Please let us know if that is possible. Thank you for your time.

Sincerely, [names of couple withheld]

Dear — & — ,

I congratulate you on your engagement. May the Lord pour out His blessings on you.

I’m sure your brother-in-law is an estimable gentleman. It would be a grave violation of our sacred trust, however, for any Catholic priest to do as you propose. We priests must always follow the Church’s laws, which require that marriages occur in a church.

Maybe you could think about getting married in church? Asking the Lord’s blessing on your married life?

If you don’t have a church you regularly attend on Sundays, you are welcome at St. Andrew’s (in Roanoke). I would be happy to meet with you to help you plan how to prepare for the sacrament of marriage. (It would involve becoming Catholic, if you aren’t already–but Catholic marriages are the best!)

Love, Fr. Mark

Taking December 25 to the Bank

In the hill country of Judah, they have the ugliest statue of Zecahriah in the world
In the hill country of Judah, they have the ugliest statue of Zecahriah in the world

Mary set out in haste for the hill country of Judah. Right before that, an angel had visited her. Which angel? Archangel… Gabriel! The angel told her that she would have… a son.

VisitationThen Mary set out in haste. Because the angel also told her that her cousin Elizabeth was now in her… sixth month! Upon Mary’s arrival, the infant in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy. Which infant is that, that leaped for joy in the womb? Yes, St. John the Baptist, son of Mary’s kin, Zechariah and Elizabeth.

So let’s have some fun and do some simple calendar math. Lord Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary when Elizabeth was approximately sixth months pregnant with St. John. Right? It’s all in the Scriptures, in black and white.

Now, do we know when Elizabeth became pregnant? Anyone remember what had happened? The archangel Gabriel had visited someone else, besides Mary… Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband! The angel visited Zechariah at home, while he was sitting and watching t.v., correct? No, the angel came to Zechariah in the Temple, while he was performing his duty as a member of one of the priestly clans.

Now, people often wonder, Can we really know for sure that Jesus was born on December 25? After all, Holy Scripture does not explicitly name the date. And maybe it would have been too cold for shepherds to couch their flocks by night on December 25?

Let’s back up. We do know that Jesus Christ was, in fact, born. So, if we knew nothing else at all, and said: He was born on December 25! we would have a 1/365 chance of being right.

But, actually, we do know a little more about it. Generally speaking, mothers carry babies in their wombs for how long? Coupla weeks? No. Nine months. So we can say: The Lord Jesus was born approximately nine months after He was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Reasonable enough, right? When was He conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Right! When Mary said Yes to the Archangel Gabriel. The Annunciation, which occurred right around St. Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy. So, the $10,000 question is: was that March 25? Or at least March 25th-ish?

The Ark and the Dove carried the first Catholics to the English colonies.  First Mass?  March 25
The Ark and the Dove carried the first Catholics to the English colonies. First Mass? March 25
You know, for many centuries, people observed March 25th as New Year’s Day. The first Mass said by an English-speaking priest in what is now the United States: March 25, 1634. New Year’s Day. (January 1 did not become New Year’s Day in the English Colonies until 1751). Who said that Mass? That is correct: Fr. White. (Fr. Andrew White.)

In ancient times, people believed that the world was created on March 25, that the Israelites marched out of slavery on March 25, and that Jesus was crucified on March 25. But: please forgive me; I digress. None of that is really on-point. Can we find any historical evidence for the idea that Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb on or around March 25?

In a word, yes we can find some evidence. Elizabeth became pregnant right after Zechariah saw the angel in the Temple. So, if we could figure out when it was that Zechariah ministered in the temple in the preceding year, we could add six months, and we would know more or less when the Annunciation took place.

Zechariah belonged to the priestly clan of… Anyone? Abijah. King David had assigned the yearly routine of service for the priestly clans, as we read in I Chronicles. The clan of Abijah came eighth in the cycle.

Now, a thousand years had passed since King David’s time. The Temple had been destroyed twice. So the routine certainly had broken down, along the line there. But a Jewish writer from the time of Christ documented some facts about the cycle of priestly service. So we know that King David’s routine still operated, more or less as he had instituted it a thousand years before.

GrinchWas Jerusalem crowded when the angel visited Zechariah in the Temple? St. Luke reports that the “whole multitude” of Israel awaited him out in the Temple courtyard. When would the priestly clan of Abijah have served during a large festival? On the day of Atonement, in mid-September, or during the Feast of Tabernacles, which followed a fortnight later.

We could do all the math together. But we don’t have to. If St. John the Baptist was conceived near the end of September or the beginning of October, then Lord Jesus was born in late December of the following year, or early January. (Let’s not forget that the feast of Christmas extends twelve nights, until January 6.)

Now, all these calendar calculations are very exciting, but let’s pause. We really cannot say for sure when Zechariah served in the Temple during the year before St. John was born. An honest historian would say: We do not know Jesus’ exact date of birth from the historical documents that we possess.

But the same honest historian would acknowledge: we have an ancient tradition identifying a particular date. And the naysaying quibbles about December 25 don’t really hold water. Palestine can have mild Decembers, just like Virginia. The original Christmas Eve could have been a lovely night for shepherding flocks outside by night.

So let’s not let any unreasonably skeptical grinches try to steal our genuine Christmas joy. If anyone suggests that we are naïve to believe everything we hear in church on Christmas, we could reasonably respond by asking: What ill-founded nonsense did you naively believe that made you start to doubt any of it?

Sitting and Talking in 1977

Star Wars Chewbacca C3P0

I know a few of you out there have yet to see the new movie, so I will reveal none of the supposedly surprising plot details. Nor will I judge The Force Awakens according to the standards of contemporary comic-book movies; I have no expertise there. The group of experts with whom I saw the movie last night all agreed afterwards that it is awesome.

Also, I freely acknowledge that I teared-up at the beginning, as the new installment opened just as the original had. I thought of how much I love the people I first saw Star Wars with, shortly before my seventh birthday–some living, some dead.

As I see it, the fundamental difference between the movie of 1977 and the movie of 2015 is this: In 1977, people sat down and talked to each other sometimes. Not so much in 2015. At least not in The Force Awakens.

In 1977, Luke sat and talked with Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen over breakfast. He sat and talked with Obi Wan in the aging Jedi’s Tatoonine hermitage. Luke even sat and chillaxed with C3P0 and R2D2.

death star conferenceThe bad guys sat and talked in 1977. Admiral Tarkin presided over a sit-down meeting on the Death Star, at which Darth Vader distinguished himself as particularly evil by not sitting down. (By the bye, Peter Cushing managed a level of sinister in 1977 that makes Domhall Gleeson’s 2015 General Hux look like Bart Simpson by comparison. But, to my point…)

In 1977, Wookie, droid, and human sat around on the Millennium Falcon and talked theology.

The only sit-down in the new movie occurs in the barroom scene. But the strange, female ET character can’t manage to stay in her seat. She insists on crawling across the table.

Meanwhile, in 1977, they sat in the barroom, and the immortal line about making the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs entered the patrimony of our English tongue.

It makes me weep a little now to think about how, in 1977, we sat and talked. We did it all the time. I became who I am sitting and talking, at the seat closest to the refrigerator, at the kitchen table, conversing with the fascinating people who lived in, and who visited, 3741 McKinley St., N.W., Washington, D.C.

The Force Awakens is fun enough. Kylo Ren actually makes a respectable, gaunt successor to Darth Vader–no mean achievement. And having the ruins of old Imperial military equipment as the furniture of life on the planet Jakko–really brilliant.

But sitting and talking beats Star Wars 2015 by many orders of magnitude, when it comes to interesting ways to spend 2 1/2 hours. After all, the real “Force” is divine love. And divine love moves people to sit and talk to each other.

Abraham, Forty-Two Generations, Christ

Jesse Tree Matthew Genealogy

Everybody know that Holy Mother Church prays all day, every day—celebrating Mass and singing all the psalms and canticles of the Bible in The Liturgy of the Hours?

Everybody know that She sings three particular canticles every day, without fail? Before bed, the Canticle of Simeon. In the morning, the Benedictus of Zechariah. In the evening, the Magnificat of the Blessed Virgin.

What do the Benedictus and the Magnificat have in common? They both mention one person in particular by name. The Lord “swore and oath” to this person, “made a promise” to him, when the great history of our salvation began.

Correct! Abraham.

The genealogy of Christ at the beginning of St. Matthew’s gospel offers us much more than just a series of tongue-twister names. It gives us the true context of Christmas.

Not that we need to memorize all the ancestors from Amminadab to Mannaseh to Shealtiel to Eleazar, instead of decorating the house. But we do need to ponder the utterly ancient tradition of faith that surrounded Bethlehem, and the manger, like an atmosphere.

At the mall, we won’t see signs that read: “Special Deals for the Fulfillment of the Promises Made to Abraham!” But if we want to know what the Bible says Christmas means; if we want to know what the saints of the all the Christian ages have thought that Christmas means, we need to imagine Abraham, forty-two generations earlier, in a world that had forgotten God.

God broke the silence of the heavens then. “Abraham! We shall be friends! I promise your people a glorious future.”

After forty-two generations of struggling to hold on, of believing in good times, and during the exile; believing during the reigns of good kings and bad; during the times of honest prophets and lying false prophets—the time finally came, the fulfillment of God’s promise.

The ancient Israelites didn’t have to hold on for 42 shopping days. They held on for 42 generations. Then, when a few of them had been trained by all this long preparation to have enough faith to grasp what was happening, God Himself became a child of Abraham.