Sunday, September 29, 2019

Closing the Gap

(Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on September 29, 2019 in Primavalle-Rome, Italy; See 1 Timothy 6:11-16 and Luke 16: 19-31)

There are three gaps or separations that we find in the readings for this weekend.  The first one is rather obvious, and Jesus mentions it specifically in the Gospel.  It is a gap revealed as a permanent separation between the rich man and Lazarus.  Immediately following the death of that poor man, Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. Seeing him there from his own sorry space in the netherworld, the rich man implores Abraham to send Lazarus to console him.  Abraham responds that no such connection will be possible, because of an eternal gap: 

“Between us and you a great chasm is established   to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours” (Luke 16:26).

That is the first gap, and we can come back to that one at the end.  For now, I would like to look at another, very different, gap.  It is the one that St. Paul alluded to in our Second Reading this morning, in His First Letter to Timothy.  He describes Christ as “King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light and whom no human being has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:15).  There is an infinite space, then, between God and humanity.  He alone is immortal, unapproachable.  There is nothing that we could ever do to close that gap.  It is a total separation that no human ingenuity, no amount of goodwill or benign intention could ever remedy.  

But there is something God could do, and has done, to close the gap.  By a completely gratuitous act of self-giving love, the infinite and immortal God steps into time and becomes man.  It is the miracle of the Incarnation, and in the person of Christ the God “whom no human being has seen or can see” suddenly stepped into our world and changed everything.  He made it possible to live and love again, and he brought humanity into communion with God and with each other.  

Of course, because we are free we do not have to recognise that communion.  We could choose to remain separated from God and separated from each other.  That is the tragedy we find in the parable this weekend and it constitutes the third gap: sin.  Lazarus was known to this man.  He walked by Lazarus each and every day, but he deliberately choose to do nothing to alleviate his suffering.  We often make the same choices, remaining distant from those around us, and failing to close the gap.  

It can certainly happen when we fail to recognise Christ in the poor and the afflicted.  That is the very point of the Gospel for this weekend.  But it can also happen in the life of community, or in a lack of love for those we are called to serve.  It can happen by our neglect of prayer or an unresponsiveness to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  Christ has come into our world and into our lives to bring us closer together and closer to God.  The Sacrament of the Eucharist that we celebrate is the greatest sign and reality of that communion.  Christ comes before us in all humility, making himself poor even like Lazarus, inviting us in the gentlest of ways to close the gap while there is still time.  

Which brings us back to that first gap once, again, the “great chasm” established between the rich man and Lazarus.  It is not surprising that the rich man, from his place of condemnation, can no longer do anything to change his lot.  It does come as a bit of a surprise, though, that this lack of mobility extends in both directions.  There is no longer anything Lazarus or Abraham can do, either!

This life alone is the place where we can exercise the gift of faith.  After this world, we will see God, see each other like never before; only here can we do good for the poor and needy, because in heaven there will be no more sorrow, no more pain (see Revelation 21:4).  Which means that we must use all the time we have, sparing no effort to love, to live completely our faith, and to allow God to close the gaps that still remain in our lives.  This is the only chance we will ever have to do that.  

What are some of the very practical ways that we can close the gap?  First and foremost, we pray.  We open our hearts to that dialogue that is always initiated by God, allowing us to become more open to the presence of Christ and the way He is revealing Himself in the world around us and in the lives of others.  Secondly, we allow Christ to close the gap through the power of the Sacraments. In the Eucharist He leaves no more space between us and God, and gives us the spiritual strength we need to live and love like never before. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we allow His healing love to reorient our lives, making us available to God and to others.  In the daily practice of our faith, and through all the opportunities that God provides for us, we seek to make the Incarnation of Jesus Christ a fruitful reality in our personal vocation, in the Church and in the world.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Christian Life: Business & Personal

St. Kathryn Drexel (1858-1955)

(Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on September 22, 2019 in Rome, Italy; See Amos 8:4-7 and Luke 16: 1-13)

There is a chilling scene in the movie The Godfather, when Michael Corleone makes the fatal decision to become committed and involved in the family “business.”  The move is somewhat unexpected, as Michael is a college graduate and decorated Marine Corps vet that seemed to be moving in a path that was legitimate and even noble.  

The context is that another crime boss and a corrupt police officer have put the pressure on “The Family” and the Corleone clan are gathered together to figure out what they should do next.  Michael calmly explains that he will arrange a meeting and shoot them both.  There is complete silence in the room until one of the members of the family begins to laugh; for a moment, they had almost taken him seriously.  The others soon join in.  Sonny, Michael’s older brother, shrugs off the idea and condescendingly suggests that Michael has taken things too personally, and that the young college grad is not capable of such a bold move.  At that point, Michael methodically explains—step by step—how he will go about the crime.  Again, there is silence, and at that point Michael takes the opportunity to correct his brother.  With a ruthless lack of emotion, he coldly states, “It’s not personal, Sonny.  It’s strictly business.”

While that calculated line from Michael Corleone is thematic in that fiction film, and the modus operandi of the Godfather, it actually comes from a real-life figure in organised crime.  Otto Berman was a brilliant accountant for a crime family in Newark, New Jersey back in the 1930s, and he is credited with coining the phrase, “Nothing personal, it’s just business.”  Like so many people involved in that way of life, on screen and off, Berman died young and violently.

How sad, then, that the pithy expression lives on and is often used as an excuse for putting profit over people.  When a large corporation has to recover from a bad fiscal year, they reduce the workforce without any concern for the future of their former employees.  It nothing personal, strictly business.  
Perhaps some high-level investor sees an opportunity to purchase a competing company and eliminate it, along with the ideals that the company was founded on.  Just business, nothing personal.   

In the political world, we also see the same mentality.  Elected officials often say things like, “I am personally opposed to . . . , but . . .”  They choose to advance an immoral agenda by subscribing to the split between what is personal and what is “business.”

Our readings for this weekend come out strongly against this separation of one’s personal life from everyday business, in Amos the Prophet and in the Gospel.  Amos presents the injustice and corruption taking place in Israel during a very vulnerable period of the nation’s history.  He sums the mentality of some:

We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating!  We will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals.
—Amos 8:5-6

Nothing personal here; they are just conducting a little business.  But this very separation between the two automatically objectifies the human person.  People are not property, to be purchased for silver or the price of footwear.  God responds through the Prophet Amos:

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: never will I forget a thing they have done!
—Amos 8:7

In the Gospel, as well, the dishonest steward has been conducting business without any concern for the impact it will have on others.  He benignly cheats his own master, being mindful only of himself.  It’s strictly business, nothing personal.  But suddenly his deception is discovered and his “business” is about to come to an end.  At that point, he becomes deeply involved on a very personal level!  He works overtime to build relationships that will earn him dividends when the stewardship runs out.  

Jesus commends the man, not for his dishonesty, but for the way that he became fully committed and personally involved in every dimension of his work, so that every possibility for gain will be fulfilled.  “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light (Luke 16:8), Jesus comments.  Would that all God’s people were fully committed, personally involved and able to make prudent choices in spreading the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the early 20th century, as Otto Berman’s life was coming to a close in Newark, a young woman named Kathryn Drexel was coming into her own in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Born into one of the wealthiest banking and finance families in the United States, Kathryn and her two sisters inherited millions of dollars after the untimely death of their father and stepmother.  Of the three, Kathryn was the most business savvy.  As her sisters were being introduced into the highest circles of society and beginning families, she began to invest her money and administrative resources into schools and missions for the nation’s poor and disenfranchised.  The two main communities that she advocated for were the Native Americans and African Americans.  

In 1886, Kathryn and her sisters made a tour of Europe.  Like she had done with previous trips, young Kathryn used every opportunity to raise funds and advocate for her missions and schools.  Then in January she had the opportunity of a lifetime, a private audience with Pope Leo XIII at the Vatican.  Never lacking in courage, she knelt before the Holy Father and begged him to help her with the work she was doing back in the U.S.  Would His Holiness consider sending missionaries to spiritually feed these hungry souls?  Would he send good priests, holy sisters to work diligently in the missions.  His response was a resounding, “Yes!”  Fixing his gaze on the young millionaire, he said, “I am sending YOU!”

It is told that when Kathryn left the audience she was physically sick and completely overwhelmed.  She, a millionaire, to become a nun working each and every day in the schools and missions she had founded?  Was she now to take a vow of poverty?  Hadn’t she given enough?  Perhaps Jesus would have responded, “No.  It’s not just business, Kathryn, it’s personal.”  Whatever transpired in the depths of Kathryn’s soul, she began to discern a vocation to religious life and in 1889 renounced everything she owned, dedicating all of it to the work of the Gospel.  

Kathryn made her first vows in 1891, and not long afterward she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, dedicated to the service of Native Americans and African Americans.  In 1915, she founded Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic University in the U.S. for African Americans.   She would go on to found more than 60 schools and some 50 missions dedicated to her vision of equal dignity and equal opportunity for all.  On March 3, 1955, Mother Kathryn Drexel died at the age of 96.  She was Beatified in 1988 and was Canonized St. Kathryn Drexel on October 1, 2000 by St. John Paul II.  

How is God challenging us to become more completely involved in the work of the Gospel, to be prudent and ardent children of light in our own place in this world?  May we also conduct our Christian lives and the business of the Gospel in a more deeply personal way as we live out our own vocation in the everyday experiences of life.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

God's Creation: Visible and Invisible

Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jan Wijnants (1670)
(Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on July 14, 2019 at St. Paul's Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Colossians 1:15-20 and Luke 10: 25-37)
Every Sunday we profess our faith in “one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”  We believe God made everything that is—the entire universe we live in—out of nothing.  He made “all things, visible and invisible.”
God created the entire visible world: he made the sea and the land, the mountains and the plains; God made the creatures dwelling across the face of the earth and in the depths of the ocean.  As the pinnacle of His creation He made you and I, man and woman, in His own image and likeness.  All of this creation can be seen and observed, appreciated and accepted with a sense of awe and wonder.

But God also created all things invisible.  What does that mean?  Each of us has a spiritual soul.  You cannot see it, yet it exists.  We are made of body and soul, and our spiritual soul is invisible. God made the angels. We cannot see them either, but they are constantly around us.  Each of us, we are taught, has at least one guardian angel (see Matthew 18:10).  If you were to count the heads in the Church this morning you would have to multiply by at least two, because that is how many beings—human and angelic—are present here right now. 

God created all of these, visible and invisible.  St. Paul, in the Letter to the Colossians this morning, explains it this way:

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible.
—Colossians 1:15-16

Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God.  God is purely spiritual, and He cannot be seen.  He is the infinite and invisible God.  But suddenly He became visible when Christ was born in Bethlehem.  The God, “who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16) became visible to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, and then to some shepherds, and finally, to an entire host of angels.  He later became manifest in Galilee and healed the sick, and forgave broken people that the world had forgotten.  Thousands of people saw Him.  They watched Him suffer and witnessed His body fastened to the wood of the cross for the forgiveness of sins.  They saw the God of love pouring Himself out in agony, and they watched His body laid to rest in the tomb.  They saw Him after He had risen from the dead, and watched Him ascend into heaven.

St. Paul calls Him “the firstborn of all creation” and “the firstborn from the dead,” because He is the first one to rise from the dead, the first of many!  It is in Christ, says St. Paul, that all things were created, visible and invisible.

St. Thomas Aquinas, often referred to as the “Angelic Doctor” for his teachings on the angels,    along with many of the great teachers of the Catholic faith, speaks about what could be called a hierarchy of being.  While it is true that all men and women are created equal, not all beings are equal!  For instance, God is greater than all beings, whether visible or invisible. God has always existed, from all eternity.  There never was a time that God did not exist.  While everything and everyone came to be at some specific time, God simply is.  Before all things came to be, God is.

Angels are like God in that they are spiritual and invisible, but there was a time that they did not exist.  God created them, and they came into being.  They are greater than us, because they are purely spiritual, and are not limited physically like we are.

Next, of course, is humanity.  We are like the angels in our spiritual souls, but we also possess a  body.  In our corporality we are limited.  An angel can move from here to California in a moment. If you and I want to do that, we have to take a airplane or a really long road trip!  Jesus says that angels can always behold the face of His heavenly Father; we are not granted that amazing privilege here below.

The remarkable truth about our redemption in Christ, however, is that when God chose to save us and to open the gates to eternal life, He did not become an angel.  God did not descend one level down the hierarchy of being (that itself would have been a tremendous act of divine humility).  No, when God came to save us He descended two levels to become a man.  As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews expressed it, “But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering and death, so that by the grace of God he may taste death for every one” (Hebrews 2:9).

The breathtaking reality of our redemption is that Christ united Himself to our humanity, and then ascended into heaven, taking humanity with Him!  In the resurrection, we ascend with Christ and are united with God even above the angels.  This is the meaning of St. Paul’s bold assertion in 1 Corinthians 6:3: “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?”  What an amazing exchange, and it all takes place through the body of Jesus Christ!  The early Church Father, Tertullian, explains, “Caro salutis est cardo.”  The flesh, or body, is the hinge of salvation.  God has thrown open the gates to heaven, and He has used the body of Jesus Christ to do it!
Back down to earth, this amazing truth about our redemption reminds us that everybody, and literally every body, has the same value and dignity of God.  Every terminally ill patient being cared for by hospice has infinite value; every unborn child has the same dignity and value as Jesus Christ; every young person, every elderly person, every man and every woman, is as valuable as God’s own Son.  The tragedy in our Gospel this weekend is that the priest and the Levite have failed to recognize that; or having recognized it, they failed to act on it. 

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan the priest and the Levite come upon this unfortunate victim of robbers, a person left half-dead on the side of the road.  Not wanting to get involved and not willing to help him in his dire need, they both “passed by on the opposite side.”  How different, the response of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus says that he “was moved by compassion” when he saw that unfortunate man, and at length he helped him in practical and caring ways.
St. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, says that the Parable of the Good Samaritan belongs to the Gospel of Mercy.  What an odd thing to say!  The word “Gospel” means “good news.”  How can there be “good news” in suffering?  The good news, of course, is that God has redeemed us, and He did it through the generosity of the cross.  His willingness to suffer and die for us reveals God’s great mercy towards suffering and sinful humanity.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan, by comparison, does the same.
There are two things that the Good Samaritan teaches us, says St. John Paul II, two essential responses that we must embrace when it comes to the suffering of others.  The first is that the Samaritan was moved to compassion.  The suffering that we witness everyday should move us, should motivate us; it should leave a deep impression on us because every body, every individual person, matters.  Secondly, not only compassion but also availability must be our response to those who are suffering (See Salvifici Doloris, #28).  The Good Samaritan made himself available to this man who had fallen victim to robbers.  He approached the man, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them; he brought that broken man to an inn, and paid for his convalescence (see Luke 10:34-35).

Salvifici Doloris offers a thorough theological explanation of suffering and highlights the central point that the cross is a mystery in our lives, not something that can be easily answered.  We do not know all of the reasons why we suffer.  One meaning that is essential for us as Christians, however, and something that communicates beautifully this compassion and availability that should motivate us to action, is the universal call to love.  St. John Paul says that suffering “is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one's "I" on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer (Salvifici Doloris, #29).  Those who perhaps would not ordinarily be willing to love are drawn to that generous gift of self in the face of suffering.
In my own family we see this mysterious reality at work on a regular basis.  My nephew suffers from a rare illness that caused him to go blind when he was still a small child.  He has difficulty walking, speaking and doing most things that children his age accomplish quite easily. Caring for him is challenging for my sister and her family.  But when they take him out to any of a number of local restaurants or shopping centers, it is often as if Taylor Swift just walked into the room!  People that have seen him before, those who have laughed and joked with him, cannot wait to come over and say hello.  They want to place their hand on his shoulder, and talk to him, listening to what he has to say.  These are often young people who ordinarily spend long hours staring into their smartphones, but suddenly they are drawn out of themselves in order to love and care for another person who is suffering.   Suffering is “present in order to unleash love in the human person.”  
Where is Christ calling us this week to show compassion for those who are suffering around us, and challenging us to be available as he draws us more deeply into love?  He has given each of us a soul that is invisible, and surrounded us with angels that we cannot see.  But we all have people in our lives right now that are suffering.  We can see them, and should see them, clear as day.  It could be a physical illness or setback; it might be a personal crisis or a financial one.  People that we know and love may be suffering from a mental illness, something that sadly remains somewhat of a stigma in our culture, only adding to the weight of that person’s cross.  Whatever it may be, God calls each of us to love in the midst of suffering, to be Good Samaritans is a world where the Gospel of Suffering continues to open hearts to the mystery of God’s healing grace. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Via Dolorosa, Road to Glory

Women Following Jesus on Via Dolorosa, Pietro Lorenzetti-1320

(Fifth Sunday of Easter-Year C; This homily was given on May 19, 2019 in Rome; See Acts 14:21-27, Revelation 21:1-5 and John 13: 31-35)

There is a powerful scene in the movie, The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus is carrying the cross on the way to Calvary.  The Blessed Virgin Mary is following Him closely, attending Him with great love and unfathomable sorrow.  Suddenly He falls beneath the weight of the cross.  The sight of her son falling to the ground brings Mary’s memory back to a similar incident when Jesus was a child.  The scene changes in the film to a much more peaceful moment—perhaps in Nazareth—but Mary experiences that same anxious concern as she sees her child fall to the ground with some force.  She runs to the little boy, who is somewhat shaken but otherwise perfectly well, and she embraces him with tenderness and relief.  

In the film, the scene then changes back to Jesus, struggling to get back up on the Via Dolorosa.  Mary has run over to Him, helpless to stop the agony of that present moment.  Jesus, as if sharing the same earlier memory with her, turns to her and affectionately says, “See, I make all things new.”

It is a strange scene in several ways, because that Scripture passage being referred to, this “making all things new,” is not technically from Jesus’ passion but is aligned more closely to the Resurrection.  It is found in the Book of Revelation, and we listened to it this morning on the Fifth Sunday of Easter.  Speaking about the new heavens and the new earth, the risen Jesus, seated on His glorious throne, says that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  In the triumph of the resurrection He announces, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

Nonetheless, the scene from The Passion of the Christ is very fitting because it is only through the suffering of the cross that we are given the hope of a new heaven  and a new earth.  It is only through the Via Dolorosa that we find the road to glory.  The suffering of Christ has indeed made all things new.

This same paradoxical coupling of suffering and glory is found in the Gospel this weekend.  Jesus has gathered together with His disciples for the Last Supper, on the night before He will offer His life in sacrifice on the cross.  We hear that Judas Iscariot has just left to betray Him, and we know that the darkest moment of Jesus’s life has arrived.  Remarkably, Jesus says to them:

Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
—John 13:31

Now?  Really?  It would make sense to say “After this entire ordeal is over, then will the Son of Man be glorified,” or perhaps even “In spite of all this betrayal and suffering, God is still glorified.”  But Jesus says neither of those things.  “Now,” He says.  Now.  

St. John’s Gospel makes it very clear, many times, that the glory of God is revealed at the cross.  It is not the case, of course, that God is glorified in suffering.  Suffering is not glorious or valuable in any way, in and of itself.  The truth is that God is glorified in His generous outpouring of love in the midst of suffering.  In the cross of Jesus Christ the tremendous love of God is revealed.  The sacrifice of love on the altar of the cross is what makes all things new.

St. Paul and St. Barnabas, in the Acts of the Apostles this weekend, communicate this same difficult yet liberating reality.  We hear that they had preached the Gospel in a certain city, and “made a considerable number of disciples,” but chose to return to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch instead of remaining in that place.  Acts gives us two specific reasons for their decision: to strengthen the spirits of the disciples, and to exhort them to persevere in the faith.

They “strengthened the faith of the disciples” (Acts 14:22), of course because it had been weakened. It was flagging.  They were struggling, and Paul and Barnabas wanted to make sure their faith would endure.

Secondly, they “exhorted them to persevere in the faith” (Acts 14:22).  Apparently, they had become discouraged or were perhaps in danger of giving up.   Making sure that they did not mistake the trials they were facing with the notion that something had gone wrong or that God had forgotten them, Paul and Barnabas encourage them to persevere and help them to see the connection between suffering and eternal life, between the Via Dolorosa and the road to glory:

“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
—Acts 14:22

Are we sometimes tempted to see the trials and the crosses of our lives as a sign that something has gone wrong or that God is absent?  Do we become discouraged and weakened in our faith when we see the challenges before us or go through difficult moments?

In conclusion, there is an amazing species of trees found predominantly in the Western area of the United States and Canada called the Lodgepole Pine.  It is very much like other pines trees with one significant difference: its cones.  Year after year, the pine cones drop from those trees but they are unable to open under normal, natural circumstances.  They simply fall to the ground and eventually become covered over and forgotten.  The only thing that can open them is intense heat.  But when a wildfire devastates the forest in which they are located, destroying everything in its path, the cones of the Lodgepole Pine will open, and release the seeds that will become new trees able to provide the shade in which everything else can begin to grow again.

The trials of life are not easy to endure, and the way of the cross is hard.  This weekend we are reminded, though, that we are never alone in our suffering.  God is present and guiding us through all the trials of life.  “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), but the Via Dolorosa will guide us surely on the road to the glory of God, to the place where God will make “all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Virtues of Family Life

The Holy Family, by Michelangelo

(Feast of the Holy Family-Year C; This homily was given on December 30, 2018 at St. Paul Church in Cranston, R.I.; See Luke 2: 41-52)

The opening prayer that we say at the beginning of each Mass, in liturgical terms, is called the “collect.”  It’s purpose is to “collect” or gather the congregation together around a central mystery or celebration.  For Christmas, the “collect” focused on the mystery of the Incarnation, God made flesh, and the celebration of the Child born in Bethlehem.  For our Mass this weekend and the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family, our collect includes not only Jesus, but the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, as well.  In fact, it even broadens to include each of us and our families!  At the beginning of this Mass we prayed:

O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life . . . 

The virtues of family life.  A great question we could ask, though, is “Which virtues?”  There are numerous virtues that we see at work in the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the Sacred Scriptures.  

Certainly the virtue of courage is one obvious example.  What could have taken more courage than for a young girl to say, “Fiat! Yes!” and give birth to the Eternal Son of God?  In the same way, St. Joseph shows tremendous courage when he consents to take Mary and her child, Jesus, into his care.  Specifically, he is told by the angel of God in a dream that King Herod is seeking to destroy the child, and that he will have to flee to a foreign land with Mary and Jesus to avoid this peril.  

Likewise, the virtue of chastity is one we find beautifully embraced and wonderfully exercised in the life of the Holy Family.  Holy Mary remained a virgin, our faith teaches, before, during and after the birth of Christ (in ancient iconography, there are always three stars displayed above the Virgin Mary to express this great mystery).  Mary and Joseph lived together and loved each other deeply, but were never physically together as husband and wife; they lived in chastity and in a state of celibate love.  They teach us much today by their virtue and love for each other and for God.

The Holy Family would have also possessed what Aristotle called the “charioteer” of the virtues, prudence.  In their choices and their actions they were prudent, choosing the good in exactly the right measure and magnificently showing those around them the power of human freedom and the wonders of a virtuous life.

One could fill volumes describing the virtues lived out so gloriously in the life of the Holy Family.  But there are three specific virtues that they would have possessed in abundance, virtues that are central to our own families and to our own Christian lives.  These virtues are called the Theological Virtues, for they unite us most closely to the life of God Himself.  The Theological Virtues are faith, hope and love.  

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the Theological Virtues form us “for participation in the divine nature...They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity” (CCC, #1812).

In other words, when we choose to believe in what God has revealed, when we choose to place our trust in the God who governs all things and to hope in Him, when we love in all the places where it may be difficult or daunting, when we practice these virtues, we participate more completely in the life of the Holy Trinity.  We begin to live more closely united to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  When we choose to act in faith, trust to hope, and will to love, we become more and more open to the power of God working in and through us.

In the Gospel passage for this weekend, the mysterious finding of the Child Jesus teaching in the Temple, we can see these Theological Virtues practiced and developed in the life of the Holy Family. 

The Catechism teaches us that FAITH is to believe in God and what He has revealed (CCC, #1814).  More than that, St. James teaches us in the New Testament that faith is not really faith, but remains just an empty sham virtue unless we act on it: "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:17).  The Holy Family believed all that God had revealed to them, and they acted on what they believed.  

St. Luke relates to us this weekend that “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover” (Luke 2:41).  Why did they do that?  They went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover each year because God had revealed Himself to the people of Israel specifically through the Passover event.  In saving them from slavery and death in Egypt and bringing them into the Promised Land, God had commanded Moses to commemorate that salvation through a meal in which an innocent lamb was slain, its blood shed, and its flesh eaten.  He commanded that Israel observe a solemn feast of this saving event each year.  The Holy Family  believed what God had revealed and they gladly went to Jerusalem to celebrate it.  

But when they went there, faithfully observing all that God had revealed, they discovered suddenly that they had lost their child!  Recognising that Jesus was not with them in the caravan, they returned to Jerusalem and they sought for the child . . . for three days!  It must have been a harrowing search, indeed.  But they did not give up believing that they would find Him.  They believed all that God had revealed about this child, that He was to be the Saviour, and they acted in faith until they found Him.  They did not think that God had abandoned them or that they were alone in the world, even though they could not see Him and He seemed to be absent from their lives.

Do you and I have that same faith?  Do we also believe, when it seems like Jesus is not present in our families or in our personal lives in the way we had anticipated, that He is very real and very present?  There is one word that hovers over this Christmas Season and seeks to find a home in each of our hearts.  It is the word from the Prophet Isaiah that signals the coming of the Messiah: Emmanuel!  God is with us!  Do we believe that?  Do we act on that belief, everyday?

When it comes to the Theological Virtue of HOPE, our faith indicates that one of the central components is an abiding sense of trust, placing our present circumstances and our entire future in God’s promises, and not simply relying on ourselves.  The Catechism states that “hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit" (CCC, 1817).

When Mary and Joseph lost Christ, they did not give up or become despondent.  They trusted and hoped in God, believing that somehow, somewhere, they would find Him.  What ever gave them the sense that such a hope was well-founded and not just wishful thinking?  The great spiritual writers teach us that the Theological Virtue of hope is not so much rooted in what we desire to obtain in the future, as much as it is rooted in what has already happened in the past.  In other words, we can hold fast to hope, and trust in the promises of God, because He has already been so very faithful and kind of us in the past.  

God had revealed to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, and that He would be the Saviour of the world.  She was perplexed by such an annunciation, and exclaimed, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” (Luke 1:34).  It was something that seemed impossible to her, and yet it all came to pass in a beautiful and mysterious way.  

Once the Child was born, Mary and Joseph were confronted with the overwhelming news that King Herod was seeking to destroy Him.  Joseph was instructed to take the Child and His mother and to flee to Egypt.  There would be no army accompanying them, no guide other than God Himself.  But God was faithful.  He brought them through.  It must have been extremely difficult to travel to a foreign land with a newborn child, but God had cared for them and brought them through that arduous trial.

Mary and Jospeh would have remembered these events while they were frantically searching for Christ.  Could the God who had brought them through such strange and frightening trials suddenly forget about them while they were looking for Jesus in Jerusalem?  Not a chance!  Mary and Joseph possessed the Theological Virtue of hope, trusting in the God who had always helped them in the past, and that he would be with them in their present difficulties.  Do we?  Is our hope founded on God?  Are our families founded on this same Theological Virtue of hope?

The final Theological Virtue, and perhaps the one our culture today most misunderstands, is the virtue of LOVE or charity.  The Catechism teaches that “Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love(CCC #1827).

Mary and Jospeh had great love, for God and for each other.  How painful and challenging for us this weekend, to see that love purified and raised up by God!  They believed that Jesus was in the caravan, and they trusted that He would be with everyone else when the group began to make their way home.  But Jesus, whom they cherished with love perhaps beyond our comprehension, was suddenly lost.  When they finally find Him, Mary expresses her anxious concern: “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”

Jesus’ response is perplexing, at first: “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  But reflecting on this remarkable passage we can see that God was purifying their love and raising it to an entirely new level.  To love Jesus is to also love the Father, and the Holy Spirit.  To love in a human way is wonderful and necessary.  But let us not be at all surprised when, in 2019, God begins to purify that love and raise it “to the supernatural perfection of divine love.”  

The stronger these virtues are in us, then the greater we will possess the grace to dwell in relationship with God.  Importantly, the Catechism teaches us that these virtues are not acquired by working really hard for them and they are not the reward of something earned.  If we want an increase in the Theological Virtues, then we need to begin by asking God for them: “They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as His children and of meriting eternal life” (CCC, #1813).

With living faith, certain hope and a deep, abiding love, we pray once again that beautiful prayer from the opening collect:

O God, who were pleased to give us the shining example of the Holy Family, graciously grant that we may imitate them in practicing the virtues of family life.