Sunday, December 29, 2019

Merry Christmas 2019- Change and the Holy Family

Merry Christmas! I've just returned from a week long trip visiting family and so it is fitting that today's feast- the first Sunday after Christmas- we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family.

I want to get into today's gospel in a bit, but first, I want to back up and focus a little on the feast of Christmas itself. This year's Christmas was a little different for myself and my family. Despite my best efforts to launch into Advent, I'm not sure that I did. I did, however, spend a lot more time discussing Christmas and Advent with my students this year than I have in the past. I chalk that up to Thanksgiving and Christmas break being a little later this year and therefore needing to add in a few extra lesson plans before the break. But I am glad that I spent some time discussing the readings and symbols of Advent and Christmas as usually we are all so rushed into these seasons.

This year, I was struck by the gift of the Baby Jesus more so than I have been in years past. I believe that is due to the fact that I had a powerful experience in Bethlehem this year. I had not expected to be so taken by the cave and the Church in the place of Jesus' birth- Bethlehem- but I did have a moment of experiencing God's presence while there and so I believe that is a little bit of what has changed in me this season.

We also had some changes in the family as we lost my Babci this year. Christmas already had to change last year since she couldn't leave the nursing home, so it wasn't too different this year, but of course, we all couldn't help but notice and feel her absence. It is obviously hard when we lose loved ones, but I also believe some of us have a hard time with change. We love our traditions of Christmas. They are developed over time with love and family, and so when we have deaths or births or marriages or moves of any kind in regards to the various life changes, change can make Christmas hard.

So we have to be careful not to put more trust in the traditions than we do in the gift of Christ. I think the reason everyone loves Christmas so much are the traditions and traditions are human and ritualistic and good. But we can't put our trust in the tradition or ritual itself. Rituals and traditions can change. The thing that makes them powerful or special is Christ's presence in them. And so we need to focus on His Presence no matter what the tradition or ritual.

That brings me to today's gospel and the feast of the Holy Family.

In today's Gospel, we get the story of the Flight into Egypt. Jesus has been born and Mary and Joseph are still in Bethlehem. Herod, however, is on the lookout  for this deliverer that has been prophesied about. Joseph has a dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod's killing of any newborn Hebrew male children. After Herod dies, Joseph receives another dream to go back to Israel with his family, but to go to Nazareth.

Having been to Israel this year, not only can I now picture some of these places and landscapes, I have a better sense of the distances. As you can see, Bethlehem and Nazareth aren't exactly next to each other. Nazareth is much further north. But as it says in the Gospel today and the prophet Isaiah, the "deliverer" or "savior" was to come from the region of Galilee. Nazareth is up by the Sea of Galilee- a place I was also blessed to have visited and where Jesus spent much of his childhood and ministry.

I am also struck by the parallels with the Old Testament. Old Testament Joseph ( of Technicolor Coat fame) also communicates with God in dreams. It's his dreams that send his brothers into jealousy and ultimately lands him in Egypt, interestingly enough, kind of similar to Jesus and Joseph of the New Testament. Moses is another "type" of Christ in the Old Testament. In his timeline, the pharaoh of Egypt is also killing newborn male Hebrew children because of a star and a prophecy of a deliverer. In Moses' case, however, his mother and the pharaoh's daughter save him from harm.

The thing in common with all that I am sharing today is trust in God's presence. The Holy Family ( as the priest at Mass today pointed out) suffered and struggled just like we do. Moving is not easy, nor is change, and I imagine having to move quickly as Joseph and his family did in the Gospel was additionally stressful. This story always makes me think of the refugees we have around the world- fleeing their homes in order to escape danger and protect their families. Many of us have not had to suffer like that, but The Holy Family did. Yet they trusted completely in God's Will and His Presence. So did Old Testament figures like Joseph and Moses and their families.

As I mentioned earlier, it's not the traditions that make Christmas, it is God's Presence. For without it, what would we have to celebrate? We celebrate this Christmas season God making His Presence known in human form. We have much to contemplate regarding that gift. So no matter your traditions or your struggles or the ups and downs of family, we have God's Presence to contemplate and give us peace.

I pray that we all experience that Joy and Peace of Christ's Presence among us this Christmas Season. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 7, 2019

A Voice Crying Out in the Desert- Advent Week 2

The first Sunday and week of Advent came and went. I had high hopes as I do every year that I will enter into Advent with great gusto and devotion, but this year, my excuse is that I was overcome by the post-Thanksgiving plague. I was out of commission and could do almost nothing else but move from my bed, to school, to couch, to bed again.

I did take one hour or so, however, to visit with a friend who was passing through town this week. I almost didn't because I was so congested that I didn't think I would be good company. I'm so glad that we did make the time, however. This is a friend that 10 years ago, we both had made major life changes and started teaching. We both were unsure of what our futures would bring. We found ourselves kind of in similar states again, but even amidst the suffering and uncertainty (my suffering was just physical as I couldn't breathe; theirs, a much deeper and holy suffering). However, both of us once again were discussing faith and how in the times of loneliness, it is the one thing that gets us through.

The homily I heard today for the 2nd Sunday of Advent echoed this point that my friend and I were discussing early this week. The Gospel for the 2nd Sunday features John the Baptist, wandering in the desert, preparing all who would listen, to receive the Messiah. John the Baptist is such a great character. He fits the bill of crazy prophet complete with his camel hair attire and diet plan of locusts. His love for Jesus is so strong, though. He obviously knows Him on a more intimate level since they are cousins, yet, John reveres Christ so deeply he announces that he is not even worthy to touch His sandals.

I loved the homily because the priest connected John the Baptist and his wandering with the Old Testament. And you know your girl is a Scripture nerd. Even though I teach and study Scripture, I didn't realize that from the prophet Malachi- the last prophet in the Old Testament- to John the Baptist that there hadn't been a recorded prophet for 400 years. I guess I consciously knew it, but certainly had never connected it to the fact that the Israelites were also in Egypt for the same amount of time. In both scenarios, the Israelites were left waiting for news of a Savior. They would eventually get their savior in Egypt with Moses and then again with John's foretelling, but both ultimately pointing towards Jesus.

When Joshua in the Old Testament brings the Israelites into the Promised Land after wandering for 40 years in the wilderness (the number 40 always represents a time of suffering in Scripture), he brings them to the Jordan and eventually into Jericho. When we meet John the Baptist in the New Testament, guess where he is preaching? At the Jordan, outside of Jericho. When Jesus starts his official ministry at age 30, guess where he does it? Yup. He is baptized in the Jordan and then goes up into a mountain outside of Jericho for 40 days and 40 nights.

You can think that these things are coincidences or that the authors of Scripture were just really, really good at analyzing all of this symbolic literature. I choose to look at it through the lens of faith. How beautiful to have these parallels line of so completely. How perfect to see how Christ completes the stories and promises made centuries before.

When Father was sharing about the Jordan and the desert outside of Jericho, I had the benefit of being able to picture it this year. One of the couples who went with my group on the trip were also at Mass and we immediately rejoiced in being able to recall images of these places as Father spoke today:

 The place of St. John the Baptist's birth (above) somewhere in Judah
 Jericho and the mountain Jesus went for 40 days and 40 nights (above) and the Jordan River (below)

What does John the Baptist and Joshua and Jericho all have to do with my friend and my conversation this week? And why are the Jordan and Jericho such special spots? Well, the wilderness was not a fun place for the Israelites, nor John the Baptist nor Jesus. The desert brought doubt, temptation, and isolation. However, it was in the wilderness and in the desert that these people heard God. They needed to be in isolation and in this period of waiting in order to speak and grow closer to God.And Jericho is recorded as one of the oldest cities in human history, period. It is not only a city of great religious significance, but anthropological and scientific significance as well. Coincidence?

This time of Advent is know as a period of waiting. We have the benefit of knowing that our Savior has already arrived and set us free. But there are still periods where we may not "feel" God's presence. Yet, it is in these desert moments in the wilderness that He is preparing us for something and we can grow closer to Him and hear His voice if we listen.

Happy Advent!