I. The magi, as their “magical” label suggests, were sorcerers: astrologers, stargazers, sages. With only a rumor to go by, and that alluring star, the threesome were headed to Jerusalem, the center of power—but they ended up nine miles south, in Bethlehem, the center of nothing. They stumbled upon Jesus and were dazzled by God’s unconventional manifestation in a feeding trough. It may have been a “chance” encounter, but it was anything but casual. They couldn’t dismiss this compelling epiphany: they couldn’t go home again, they had to go another way, transformed by the encounter.
II. A signature theme for Pope Francis is his call for a “culture of encounter.” A culture of encounter reaches out, fosters dialogue and communion among different cultures and ethnicities, and especially with the struggling, the alienated, and the poor. For him, encounter, or encuentro, isn’t just a meeting, but a communing: a meeting of minds and hearts. While so many encounters in life are casual, one now and then can be an epiphany. We cannot dismiss it: we can’t go home again. We have to go another way, transformed by the encounter.
III. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops has designated today as “Immigration Sunday,” the start of “National Migration Week.” This year’s theme is, “Creating a Culture of Encounter.” What a singular opportunity we have at Ascension to champion such a culture. Here’s one opportunity: after next Sunday’s 9:30 Mass, we will have a forum here in the church to help us to learn more about the situation of our immigrant parishioners. Call it “Immigration 101.” Our presenter will be Catalina Morales, from ISAIAH, a faith-based organization that works for racial and economic equity in Minnesota. As the new year begins, it is my hope that our entire community will work together to walk with and protect those immigrants among us who feel threatened and afraid. Ascension has been a safe and loving home for immigrants and refugees since 1890. This can’t be accomplished without an “encounter” with the immigrant, without dialogue and communion with them, without loving them. When we know and love them, we will walk with and protect them.
Before we ditch the poinsettias and wrap up our Christmas journey, let’s resolve not to return to our post-Incarnation lives unchanged. The incarnation of God in the flesh is not merely an idea or an event, but an epiphany. We can’t go home again. We have to go another way, transformed by the encounter.
I. Like those whose birthdays fall on major holidays, Jesus has to share his big day. This Octave of the Nativity was traditionally the Feast of the Naming of Jesus, until it became a celebration of Mary’s motherhood. Then the World Day of Peace was added. Most of us simply consider it New Year’s Day. It’s four feasts in one.
II. First, Mary: She deserves her own big day for all that she’s been through. We’re told today that Mary pondered all these amazing happenings “in her heart”—not in her mind or head, but her heart—in her body, her flesh. Jesus cannot be relegated to our thoughts, theories, or theologies. He lives in our flesh, our actions, our lives.
III. The Naming of Jesus: At a Jewish boy’s circumcision, eight days after his birth, he’s given his name. And so, Jesus became Jesus: a name that declares “God saves.” The name of God was not spoken by the Israelites: it was deemed too holy to utter, too transcendent to be translated into human language. Our relationship with God is forever changed: we’re now on a first-name basis, intimate, immanent — God-with-us.
IV. In his message for this, the fiftieth World Day of Peace, Pope Francis reflects on what he calls “active and creative nonviolence” as a style of politics for peace, as a way of being an “artisan of peace.” He quotes his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who said,
For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behavior, but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone. Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the “Christian revolution.”
V. It’s appropriate to ponder all these facets of the Christmas mystery at the start of a new year. A line from the Rule of St. Benedict is appropriate: “Always we begin again.” Our resolution as Christians is always to bring what we ponder to reality, to incarnate Jesus’ presence in the flesh, to resolve to be Christ-bearers, like Mary.
“Always we begin again.” Happy New Year!
I. I was seven years old when the great tornado of ’65 struck Minneapolis. My Dad wasn’t home but working his night job, so my Mom took my brothers and me next door to ride out the storm with the Ballangers. Huddled in the eerie green glow of the basement, we were silent, frozen. Serious voices and gloomy music came from a crackling transistor radio tuned to ‘CCO. Then it came. It really did sound like a freight train. We were afraid.
Later that night, Mom assured us that the storm had passed and we were safe. So, even though lightning continued to flash, we reluctantly headed up to bed. Sometime later, I was relieved to hear my Dad’s muted “late-night voice” downstairs. Only then, did I fall asleep.
II. “Don’t be afraid.” How many times have we heard that in the Christmas story? The angel tells Mary to not be afraid — just before he tells her she’s pregnant — with God. Then the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid — just before he tells him that he’s God’s stepfather. And today a whole swarm of angels swoop down on the shepherds, who were struck with fear, shaking in their sandals. “Don’t be afraid.” Seriously? “Don’t be afraid” are code words for, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
III. “Don’t be afraid.” How many times have we heard that in our lives? What do we have to be afraid of?
Perhaps it’s being powerless in the face of forces beyond our control.
Or whatever or whoever is unfamiliar.
The state of the world or the state of your family.
Trying to raise a kid.
The cancer, depression, addiction or death of someone we love, or maybe our own.
The loss of the safety of a home, or the security of a job.
Separation or deportation.
Having to stand with, step up, speak out.
IV. The familiar Christmas carol sings, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” Jesus meets us with all our hopes and fears. He lands in a manger, a trough, because he comes to feed us. He saves us by empowering us with a strength beyond our own because our own securities and capabilities cannot save us. But now and forever we are never alone. God has entered and will always continue to enter our time and place. In light of the Incarnation, there is no longer any such thing as merely human. When we welcome the Savior, open our lives to the presence, the grace, the companionship of Jesus, we are something more. That’s why he has the authority and audacity to say, “Don’t be afraid.”
V. According to the writer Oscar Hijuelos,
It is difficult to be religious, impossible to be merry, at every moment of life… Festivals are as sunlit peaks, testifying above dark valleys, to the eternal radiance.
In the face of anything and everything that threatens to take us down, despite life’s twists and twisters, we still keep the festival, rekindling the radiance. So, when an angel tells you to birth the Radiant One, the Savior, fasten your seatbelts—but don’t be afraid.
I. A couple of years ago, some Kindergarteners shared with me their take on the story of Jesus’ birth. Maggie wrote,
The angel came to Joseph and said, “You will be Mary’s husband.” He was scared at first because he didn’t think Mary would be that nice. [But he] still married her.
Matthew’s gospel, like Maggie’s version, tells of the annunciation to Joseph. And it’s equally as succinct. Matthew announces the birth in one-and-a-half matter-of-fact verses.
II. The angel announces to Joseph, “Do not be afraid.” (Now whenever an angel shows up and says that, we’re in for a real corker.) All that’s happening is beyond imagination and expectation: the dream, angelic communication, Mary’s pregnant, there’s no father, divine intervention, a plan. God is doing something completely new, utterly original, beyond all calculations, dazzling. It changes everything. Whether we’re anxious or afraid, hopeless, hungry, hurt, dying or dead, we’re not on our own: God is with us.
III. Today, an angel of God announces to us, “Do not be afraid. God is with us. God is with us.” With all else that dazzles as we stand at the edge of Christmas, let’s allow ourselves to be dazzled by that.
I. The story is told of a guy who believed himself to be John the Baptist. He was well-known in the neighborhood. One day, as a man approached, John declared, as always, “I’m John the Baptist! Jesus Christ has sent me!” The other guy said, “No, I didn’t.”
Most of us would find John the Baptist outlandish and disturbed: smelly, mouthy, a wild and woolly bug-eating nut. John is clearly not a company man. He bursts onto the religious scene to shake up the status quo: it all started in the womb. God’s forgiveness of sin had always been meted out, painstakingly rationed, by the scribes. John makes that forgiveness as accessible as river water. He’ll baptize anybody who’s ready and willing, stripping away the old, washing off the toll of desert wanderings, returning them to the way, shaken up, but reset and strong, more alert than ever to God’s approach.
II. I am hearing the cry of John the Baptist more clearly than ever this Advent. I’m hearing his cry from parishioners who face the daily fear of imprisonment or deportation. I’m hearing his cry in people of color who ask me, one more time, “Will you ever get it?” Repentance isn’t enough. “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance,” John says. “[Because] every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.”
III. John knew his limits. His role was to whet appetites, to arouse hunger and desire. He himself is not The One: John only points to the Savior and promises that he’s there. That One will bring absolute help. But the cries I am hearing from John and so many prophets this season are doing their work to shake me from my status quo, my apathy and indifference and ignorance and paralysis. The fire of the Spirit in the prophets’ cries are working to not only burn my sins away, but even my virtues.
Baptism with the Holy Spirit’s fire. Shaken up, but on the way, reset and strong, more alert than ever to God’s approach. There’s my Advent: not so peaceful or pretty: more wild and woolly.
h/t: Richard Rohr, Carol Woodson
I. This past week, I received a note from my esteemed predecessor, Michael O’Connell. Among other things, he wrote, “I want to take every opportunity I can to thank you for agreeing to pastor Ascension. It is one of the great satisfactions of my life that you are the pastor of one of the most sacred places on earth.” “One of the most sacred places on earth.” North Minneapolis? The statement both startled and captivated me.
II. The coming of the Son of Man doesn’t worry me. If it were to occur tomorrow, I imagine myself running down Broadway gleefully yelling, “Finally!” Just when will we encounter the Lord? Where is the Promised One to be found? Is Isaiah’s mountain, the place of God’s presence, in some faraway place far into the future? Because of the Christ who has already come, the place of God’s presence is here and now. The Son of Man is coming, yes, but he’s always coming. Advent calls us to journey deeper into our lives, not outside of them; to venture deeper into our world, not outside of it. We can’t hunker down and mark time until the Lord comes and puts us out of our misery. The Lord comes, not after misery has passed, but in the middle of it. Now is the hour to wake up, St. Paul writes, to be alert and attentive, so that we will discover God in our lives, as ordinary or tedious or challenging as we may think they are. Salvation is near.
III. So, when will we encounter the Lord? Where is the Promised One to be found? One writer suggests we look,
in the neighborhoods that we tell our children not to go into…
in the people we ignore because fear holds us hostage…
in those who dress differently and speak with an accent, who we claim have no right to be in this country…
in communities that challenge us to confront our privilege…
The Son of Man comes now, in flesh. He comes here, one of the most sacred places on earth.
h/t: Dianne Bergant, Cathy Woodson
I. “Do not be terrified, Jesus says, “for such things must happen.
It’s only coincidence (or is it?) that this gospel, with its talk of wars and insurrections, earthquakes, and false prophets, comes on the heels of the election. By the time this gospel was written, these were not predictions: the calamities had already happened. The gospel is intended to assure the disciples, and us, that in the face of whatever threatens us, God prevails.
II. The world can be brutal. Consider the daily calamities faced by the battered in Haiti, the devastated in Syria, the homeless in every city in this country. While we may not share their fate, our own worlds crumble in personal ways: the death of dear ones, family divisions, the loss of one’s home or job, illness or abuse.
To persevere in the world, we don’t need signs in the heavens as much as signs on earth. We should expect to see and hear those signs, those assurances, of Jesus’ saving presence at Ascension. I am here because my survival depends on you. Here I expect to find words and wisdom to survive and thrive. And more than mere talk. Witnessing to Jesus Christ means living in a way that wouldn’t make sense if Christ were not present in us, dying and rising in us. Just as Jesus stays with us, so we’ve pledged to stay with one another for the long haul, in good times and in bad, encouraging and faithful.
III. In light of the election, and the resulting fear and uncertainty, I am impelled more urgently than ever before, I think, to take up the causes of justice for immigrants, justice for the poor, and racial justice. This critical time calls Christians to zealously live the Gospel of justice, and to be more engaged than ever in the politics of this nation. Throughout this long campaign, immigrants have endured threats of deportation and closed borders. Now we fear that those threats will be carried out. Ascension must protect and advocate for our immigrant brothers and sisters, and always be a safe sanctuary for them.
We’ve come this far by faith. Even in the face of wars and insurrections, earthquakes, and false prophets, we cannot give in to despondency, or paralysis, or fear. There’s simply too much to do.
I. This past Monday, Halloween night, we celebrated a memorial Mass for five-year-old Victor Uriel Uriza, who was killed crossing a street on Halloween last year. On Friday, the young son of a friend died suddenly. While looking square into the eyes of death is uncomfortable, the Church traditionally does just that throughout this month of November: a month of remembering, the month of “holy souls.” Questions, theories, and doubts about death and the afterlife have been around since the beginning of time. We all have ideas about just what heaven might hold: what it looks like, whether my friends will be there, whether my dog will be there. Today, Jesus responds to those ideas by saying, in so many words, “You have no idea.”
II. Though we may be able to acknowledge that there is something for us beyond all this, our approximations of what it may be are, well, approximate—at best. Theologian Karl Rahner maintains that we can’t begin to know the radical rupture that death is. He says that we can “dress up” eternal life with images, models, and schemes that are familiar to us, but we cannot authentically perceive the (quote) “ineffable outrageousness of [God] falling stark naked” into our creaturehood. The resurrection of Jesus Christ exploded what is possible and knowable, the ultimate boundary-breaking revelation, a breakthrough to a radically new existence.
III. There is so much we don’t and can’t know because our imaginations are limited. More than mere positive thinking or whistling in the dark, death demands a complete surrender into the hands of God. Today, Jesus gives us assurance that, come what may, we will always be children of God, forever bound to God. By making a clear-headed and deliberate choice to take Jesus at his word, we lean on and into the transcendent power of God, who breaks into our nature and into our lives, doing, for our broken bodies and aching hearts, what is quite beyond our own power to do so. However tenaciously we may hang on to God, infinitely more reliable is God’s tenacity in hanging on to us. That is the new and everlasting covenant, the bond that can never, will never, be broken.
Without God, death always wins. We are not without God.
I. “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” That’s the first question Pope Francis was asked in his first interview after being elected pope in 2013. “Who are you?” The Holy Father stares in silence. The interviewer inquires if it’s okay to ask such a question. Francis nods and replies:
I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre… I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon… I am one who is looked upon by the Lord.
Pope Francis isn’t simply being modest, nor does he lack sufficient self-esteem. “I am a sinner” means that he knows who he is and where he stands; he’s grounded.
II. The upstanding Pharisee in today’s gospel did everything right, obeying to the letter every one of 613 laws. But he also had the annoying habit of letting everyone know about it, wearing his religion on his sleeve. The tax collector was equally off-putting, collaborating as he did with the Roman Empire to exploit the poor. The critical difference for Jesus was the latter’s moment of clarity: “I am a sinner.” He knew who he was and where he stood. While the Pharisee was full of himself, the tax collector empties himself, making room for God in his life, opening himself to God’s mercy that bridges any distance between us. Whenever we’re full of ourselves, convinced that we pray better than somebody else, we’d do well to remember this story.
III. Shortly before his death, the psychiatrist Carl Jung was asked about the progression of his life. He said,
My journey consisted in climbing down ten thousand ladders so that now at the end of my life I can extend the hand of friendship to this little clod of earth that I am.
The Latin word for “earth” or “ground” is “humus,” from which we get the word, “humility.” To be humble is to accept the truth of who we are and where we stand: extending the hand of friendship to the little clod of earth that we are, to be grounded.
Who are you?
I. Our liturgical ministers gathered on Thursday evening for reflection and fried chicken. We agreed that, carrying out our ministries up here week after week gives us a stunning birds-eye view of you and all those gathered—a privileged place. Among us might be a woman or man who that week had buried their spouse of fifty-some years; an immigrant who hasn’t seen his or her spouse in a decade; the wife and mother struggling to hang on to her marriage or children; more than a few dealing with cancer, or depression, or addiction. I’ve wondered at times, how some of them managed to get out of bed that morning. Yet, they do, and they come here—hoping that they might find something, some “manna,” anything to help them survive the wilderness of pain and isolation. We offer to accompany them and absorb in this Body the suffering and grief that might otherwise overwhelm them.
Consider the poignant scene in today’s first reading. Moses, in the midst of battle, stood and continually held up his arms in prayer. And when he got weary, Aaron and Hur got on either side of him to hold up his arms, “so his hands remained steady till sunset.” When we tire, the our faith community assists our prayer, holding up and steadying our hands.
II. This spot too, this pulpit (this music stand), this platform, is a privileged place. I am entrusted with the responsibility to speak the Word—that is, to speak Jesus. I’m charged to put on the mind of Christ, so that I can put on the mouth of Christ. It’s self-evident, is it not, that anything hurtful or demeaning is antithetical to this platform. “Who,” Jesus asks, “would hand your child a stone when he asks for bread, or a snake when she asks for a fish?” Provocative is okay. Challenging is okay. Inflammatory, disparaging, and condemnatory are not.
I apologize to all of you who were offended last Sunday by the inappropriate use of this sacred platform: inappropriate in many ways on many levels. You and I expect Ascension to be a safe, peaceable, and life-giving place. Any guest here expects the same. Here every person is reverenced as Jesus himself. We go out of our way to welcome everyone, stranger or friend, gay or straight or transgender, Catholic or Muslim or Jew, black or brown or white or purple. I must apologize for not insuring that you, our Ascension community, and our guests, would be assured a safe, peaceable, and life-giving place.
Perhaps the grace in this unfortunate event is the glaring light it shines on the need to double down on our efforts to build bridges with the other, with those who are different from us, those whom, for whatever reason, we’re afraid of. This is a safe and holy place for those on the margins, and those marginalized for knowing, loving, and living with those on the margins. Here we provide manna, something, anything, to help them survive the wilderness of pain and isolation. Here, they will find that we accompany one another, absorbing in our Body the suffering and grief that might otherwise overwhelm. On any given Sunday, the manna offered here may mean another’s very survival. Next week, it may mean our own.
III. All of us who are attentive to justice, racial justice in particular, are struggling these days with our demeaning and demented national discourse. Hate speech has become okay. In the face of it all, we Christians cannot lose faith and hope: we must persevere. It’s not so much that God is like the miserly, reluctant judge in today’s Gospel, who eventually becomes exasperated and gives into our persistent badgering. That image doesn’t make sense to me. Father William Bausch suggests that the better image of God is the persistent widow. Anyone who determinedly resists injustice, faces it, names it, and denounces it until right is achieved, acts as God does. And so we join our persistence to the persistently loving heart of Jesus, standing on the side of the widow, the poor, the marginalized, and those longing for justice.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,
proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.