The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Homily: December 17

For the past few evenings our pastor, Father Peter, conducted a mission in the parish on the meaning and spirituality of the Eucharist. It was a wonderful mission in which he shared many insights into God's gift of this special sacrament, the "source and summit of the Christian life." Yesterday evening we completed the mission with a Mass of Thanksgiving, at which Father Peter was assisted by the deacons of the parish. I was honored to be asked to preach. The following is my homily.

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Readings: Gn 49:2, 8-10; Psalm 72; Mt 1:1-17

One of our sons is very into genealogy. So far he’s limited his efforts to my wife’s side of the family. Among her ancestors – and sadly they’re all very English – are many early settlers in Virginia, officers who fought in the American Revolution, and even an adviser to the first Queen Elizabeth.

I hope our son tires of all this before he begins to investigate my family, mostly Irish dirt farmers who probably worked as serfs for Diane’s ancestors. I’d prefer to leave them in the fog of family history.

My Grandfather, Father and Great-grandfather (1911)
And yet, our roots, even when they’re not very distinguished, have real meaning, don’t they? Indeed, one of my favorite family photos was taken over a century ago, in 1911. It’s a photo of my father, who was just a toddler, standing with his father and grandfather. Looking at it the other day, my grandchildren came to mind. For them, that same photo will be even more remarkable, since it depicts their great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, and great-great-great grandfather.

Now for the McCarthys, that’s something, since in their poverty my ancestors didn’t generate a lot of genealogical material. But that’s better than a friend. Adopted as an infant he never knew anything about his birth family. And then sadly, when he 16, his adoptive parents died in an accident. He was again an orphan. As he liked to say, “I’m a man with no roots.” He said it as a joke, but always with a trace of sadness.

I once told him he was wrong – that as a Catholic he had deep roots, spiritual roots that stretched back 4,000 years to Abraham, our father in faith. Not only that, I told him, but you can trace that spiritual lineage from the priest who baptized you, through the bishop who ordained him, all the way back to the apostles and to Jesus Himself. And from there he need only turn to the opening verses of Matthew’s Gospel and follow the path all the way back to Abraham.

Through his faith his roots are deeper, stronger and longer lasting than any family roots. Indeed, they’re so strong they’ll carry him all the way to eternal life. And do you know something wonderful? You and I share those roots, we have that same family tree.

What a gift this is! And it’s one of the key messages of the Gospel. The Gospel takes us deeply into those spiritual roots, and binds us in a living connection with Jesus Christ Himself.

In many respects, each of our four Gospels begins with the same message: each identifies Jesus, and each in a different way.

Mark, in his usual Sergeant Friday, just-the-facts-Ma’am approach, begins by saying: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” [Mk 1:1] Yes, Mark wastes no time telling us who Jesus is.

Luke, well he’s much more subtle and takes half a chapter before he finally gets to Jesus, and then he lets the angel Gabriel do the honors: “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” [Lk 1:35]

And John? He echoes the opening words of the Book of Genesis and proclaims the eternal divinity of the Logos, of Jesus, the creative Word of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” [Jn 1:1]

But Matthew is different. Writing to a Jewish audience, he offers them a very Jewish family tree of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. He begins by proclaiming: “...the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” [Mt 1:1]

Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham…These are titles any Jew would recognize, for these are Messianic titles. At the very start, Matthew is declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, the chosen one.

Then, filled with the Spirit, he presents us with a family tree, one generation after another…right here in the very first verses of the New Testament. It’s as if God can’t wait to tell us all about His family.

Realize first that Matthew didn’t intend his genealogy to be complete. And his Jewish readers would know this too. No, Matthew wants to make a point. He wants his readers to understand and accept Jesus’s messianic roots. And so he divides his genealogy into three sections of 14 names, or 6 sections, each with 7 names. To the Jew 7 and 14 symbolized completion or perfection. And so Jesus would complete this by being the first and only name in the 7th group. For a Jew that was about as perfect as you could get.

Many of the names we recognize, although some sound a bit strange to us; but they’re all real people and they give us a glimpse into the entire history of God’s People. As we run through that list of names we encounter every aspect of human life, and not just the good parts, but also murder, treachery, incest, adultery, prostitution…

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Mary
Among these names are those of 5 women, not something often found in ancient genealogies. The last is Mary herself, but the first four – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – are all Gentiles: 2 Canaanites, a Moabite, and a Hittite. Yes, Jesus’s family wasn’t so purely Jewish, was it? Those Gentiles among His ancestors highlight the fact that He came from all of us, for all of us.

And it was also a family of sinners. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute to fool her father-in-law, Judah, and ending up giving birth to his twin sons. Rahab was a prostitute, and yet a faithful woman. And Bathsheba? King David watched her bathing from the roof of his house, invited her in, seduced her, and had her husband killed, so he could marry her. And Solomon, their son, who started right with God, eventually joined his many wives in worshiping idols.

Some members, like Mary and Joseph, are extraordinary; others, Ruth and Josiah, are faithful; some, like Manasseh and Rehoboam, are despicable; others, like Eliud and Azor, are anonymous, nondescript, men about which we know nothing.

Yes, welcome to my family, Jesus tells us, welcome to my world. It’s the world we encounter when we open the Bible and realize how forgiving our God is. We discover that Jesus’s family is a human family and like most human families, has its share of saints and sinners. But from this, we learn that God’s plan was accomplished through them all, and that He continues to work through us, His people.

Matthew completes his genealogy with the words: “...Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” [Mt 1:16]

The genealogy relates father to son, father to son, father to son…except here. For Matthew does not declare Joseph to be the father of Jesus. Jesus, the Christ, is born of Mary, the virgin, with God as His Father.

Abba! Father!
I’ll repeat myself: what a gift this genealogy is, to be members of God’s eternal family! Indeed, what a gift all of Revelation is!

Do you realize how blessed we are to be Catholic Christians? What we believe and how we worship are not things that we’ve concocted. For Christianity is really a revelation rather than a religion. Christianity is God’s Word and God’s Work; it’s not something we came up with. It’s not a collection of man’s feeble attempts to placate some higher power. It comes totally from God Himself.

We believe that God revealed Himself to us through all those many generations that Matthew enumerates in his genealogy. It’s a Revelation that runs from Abraham to Moses to David through all the prophets and eventually to Jesus Himself – the fulfillment of it all. Yes, it’s a revelation that reaches its climax in the Incarnation when Mary gives birth, as Matthew describes it, to “Jesus, who is called the Christ.” [Mt 1:16]

You see, brothers and sisters, it’s all a gift. As St. Paul asked the Corinthians: “What do you possess that you have not received?” [1 Cor 4:7] The answer, of course, is “Nothing!”

And right there at the top of the list of God’s gifts, is that which we receive through our Baptism: the gift of adoption. We became sons and daughters of the Father, part of the Family of God. And so we can join Jesus on that same family tree described by Matthew. We become heirs and can inherit the fruit of the promises God made to Abraham and to all those who followed him. But as members of God’s family we must behave as any good son or daughter would behave. We must live in a way that honors the father, in a way that doesn’t dishonor the family.

Another great gift that comes out of this adoption is the privilege of eating at the table of the Family of God. Yes, we can take part in the Eucharistic Feast, the Mass. And what a gift this is! For here, at this altar, Jesus Christ, gives Himself to us, body and blood, soul and divinity, and allows us, members of His family, to join Him in the most intimate way imaginable. Here, as we come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we also join each other in a unique Communion.

Pope Benedict wrote that “Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us His Body and makes us one body, forever remains the place where the Church is generated, where the Lord Himself never ceases to be found anew; in the Eucharist the Church is most completely herself – in all places, yet one only.”

Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, is like a great family Thanksgiving dinner, and yet far more wonderful and fulfilling than any family meal at home.

Brothers and sisters, we are sons and daughters of God!

Let us rejoice that our names are written in heaven, as members of the family of Jesus Christ.

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