Human Violence

Sunday, January 13 (OS., December 31, 2018) 2019: Sunday Nativity Afterfeast and Leavetaking (33rd Sunday) Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, James the Brother of the Lord.

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

Christ is Born!

St Matthew’s account of our Savior’s birth is drenched in violence. For example, in his attempt to end the life of the newborn Messiah, Herod orders the slaughter of all the male children under the age of two.

Horrific as this is, there is something even more horrible that we hear in the silence of the Apostle’s account.

While Matthew quotes the Prophet Jeremiah about the depth and breadth of the parents’ sorrow, he gives no indication that they defended their children. If the mothers–and especially the fathers–of Jerusalem didn’t open the doors children’s’ killers, they certainly didn’t bar the door either.

Matthew gives us no indication that the parents resisted the slaughter of their own children. Instead, it appears as if the parents of Jerusalem, even if unwillingly, stood by and allowed their sons to be slaughtered.

Why would they do this?

Herod’s murderous order and the cooperation of soldiers makes a certain rough sense. They had positions in society that they wanted to protect. Herod especially was a man of great wealth and power because he cooperated with the hated Romans.

But why did the parents and the whole of Jerusalem not rise up in rebellion? Why did they stand aside an allow this great evil?

In the verse immediately prior to those in today’s Gospel we are told that when Herod heard about the birth of the Messiah “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3, NJKV).

As he so often does, St John Chrysostom goes to the heart of the matter. “Since Herod was king, he was naturally afraid both for himself and for his children. But why was Jerusalem troubled?”

After all the coming of the “the Savor, Benefactor and Deliverer” would be to the advantage not only of Jerusalem and the Jewish People but all humanity.

And, after all, it would be a great honor for the Savior to be born of Jewish woman; not only Mary but the whole of the Jewish People would be vindicated for their fidelity to God.

So why was Jerusalem afraid? Why did they passive cooperate with what Holy Tradition says was the murder of some 14,000 infants?

Chrysostom says they behaved as they did because they were gripped by the same “idolatrous affections” that caused the Hebrew Children to turn away in the hearts from God after their liberation from Egypt many centuries ago.

As horrible as was the killing, as oppressive as was Rome in ways great and small, submission to the Empire offered wealth to some and at least the illusion of security to all.

It is tempting to look back at Matthew’s account of betrayal and violence and think that we have somehow grown beyond such things. While I can’t speak for others, I know this isn’t the case for me.

No, I’m not violent but how easily have I become attached to my position as a priest in the Church. I wouldn’t raise my hand against others but how easily come cutting words to my lips or rise malicious thoughts in my heart.

The difference between Herod, the citizens of Jerusalem and me is one of degree. Like Herod “and all Jerusalem with him,” my heart is often troubled when God makes even the smallest request of me.

Like the Galatians, I “bite and devour” my neighbor by my lack of charity (Galatians 5:15).

Like Saul on the road to Damascus, I “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).

Like Saul, I do all this because I am more attached to the gifts than the Giver. I  love the things of God more than God Himself.

Or maybe U imagine that what I have, what I have accomplished, I have done simply on my own. Even divine grace I twist into something that I deserve, as something that is mine by right rather than from God’s love for me.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has blessed each of us with spiritual, intellectual, social and yes, material, gifts. When we forget that what we have we have as God’s gift to us, when we imagine that what we have, we have by right rather than grace, then, at that moment, we too become capable of great violence.

In His Incarnation, Jesus Christ has saved us not simply from condemnation in the life to come but freed us from the violence we see not only in the Scriptures but all around us. The fact that this violence is usually social and emotional rather than physically should not lull us into imagining that violence doesn’t mar our lives and doesn’t dwell in our hearts.

But having acknowledged this, we need not despair. Rather, we turn to Christ with repentance for our sins and gratitude for His many gifts.

If we do this, then when in response to the festal greeting “Christ is Born!” our response “Glorify Him!” will be more than words. Our glorification of Christ will have the power to transform our lives and the lives of all we meet.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Home to Bethlehem

The Acton Insitute’s Fr Robert Sirico has a beautiful reflection on Christmas. It is offered here in its entirety and without comment beyond my recommendation that you read it.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

(Acton Institute) Although the word nostalgia can be used to express a bittersweet longing for some pleasant remembrance of one’s past, it is safe to say that this is the time of the year when it is virtually unavoidable to drift into a sustained sense of nostalgia and where its experience is most intense.  This is a time when our minds go back to a younger version of ourselves: to the sights and the sounds and the smells of our mothers’ kitchens, and the excitement and anticipation of opening gifts for Christmas.

I suspect, however, that there is an even deeper meaning to this palpable experience in Advent and Christmas. I recall feeling a deep sense of longing for something in the past one Christmas evening when I was about nine years old. Once all the relatives had gone their separate ways and my mother had stored the last morsels of the feasts and restored the remains of the day and had finally gotten off her feet, a wave of reflection swept over me. How much looking back can a nine year old do, after all?

Bethlehem might be described as our common home for which we each long.

What I realize now is that I was not, in fact, surveying the previous years of so short a life. My mind, our minds, go back much further, to a home, indeed an origin we recognize as if by nature, even when words escape the description. I refer, of course to that first Christmas.  Bethlehem might be described as our common home for which we each long. And Bethlehem is itself the restoration of God’s original intention in the creation of his world. What occurs in Bethlehem, or more specifically in the womb that “yon Virgin” is the healing of a primordial scar at the base of humankind.

It is the Christian contention that the ineffable God of the universe deigns to descend into the material world so as to reconcile it to himself by the incarnation of his Son.  The experience of this nostalgia, made acute by their concrete particularity, tells us something about ourselves and our origins, not unlike but more profound and explanatory: the fond recollection of the sweet thickness of that under-crust of your aunt’s cinnamon roll, where all the brown sugar has coagulated and almost hardened; or the simple yet evocative smell of percolated coffee in one of those old tin coffee pots; or the smell of my father’s Old Spice Christmas gift (his gift every year). A grandmother’s apron.

I’m sure any number of things could account for experiences of nostalgia, but undergirding them all is some concrete particularity in which the tangible nature of our memories and their associations with things touch upon our deepest senses and longings.  To my mind this is appropriate enough because the very feast day that we are celebrating has to do with the material world, or more precisely, with the divine breaking out of our material world, and in doing so, throwing back meaning upon the whole of the human endeavor.

The incarnation of God’s Son, we are taught, by the scriptures and reinforced in the art and music of the Christian tradition, tells us of a world that was broken but has been restored.  The world spoken of and to in this telling of the story is not just some cerebral concept, or an aggregate or ephemeral yearning, but a concrete reality. Sin, after all, affects not only our souls, but our society, indeed our whole world and all of its parts.

But so does redemption, so that the very substance of the physical might become the vehicle of salvation, whether it be the water of baptism, or the bread and wine of Communion, or the act of matrimonial love; God works his love through all of these.  So too the entirety of our world may become sanctified, indeed sacramentalized.

This could include our family feasts, our gift giving and even our work, if these are offered to God for his glory.  This God, Immanuel, is “with us” in the whole of it all: from the baby’s cry in the manger to our commerce and trade, even as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said in “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise Him.

Lies We Tell Ourselves #10: “A personal relationship with Jesus is a PROTESTANT idea!”

Evangelical Christians have certainly run with the idea of a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ but this doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Together with baptism, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is the starting point of our life in Christ. This means that when we are asked by our Evangelical friends and neighbors “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” our should be to say—truthfully—“Yes!”

But remember, this is the first step and the first step isn’t invalid because it is only a beginning.

Think of it this way.

A toddler says “Mommy I love you!” This no less valid, no less true because when that same child, now as an adult, says “It’s okay mom, you don’t need to hang on anymore. Go be with dad. Mommy, I love you!”

All starting points are deficient because they are the first step. But without that first step, our relationship God can’t blossom. We can’t grow and mature in our Christian life until we take that first step and enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“From this time forth, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all.” St Herman of Alaska

For a fuller explanation of this and for the rest of my talk:

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Lies We Tell Ourselves #9: “But my priest is my spiritual father!”

It’s better to think of your priest not as a spiritual father along the monastic lines but as a coach. Yes, the problem we ALL suffer is we are willful but the solution is not to become will-less (i.e., “obedient”) but willing.

We need to become ever more willing and able to say “YES!” to God’s will for our lives.

In this process, our parish priest through celebrating the services, through preaching, teaching, in confession and by the example of his life is there to help us discern God’s will for our lives and then to help us fulfill that will.

But, as a priest, I can’t do this without your participation. This means more than just you, personally, coming to talk with me. To do my job as your coach, I need EVERYBODY to suit up and take to the field.

We must ALL want to know and do the will of God for our lives and we must ALL want to help each other discern and fulfill what God wants from each of us personally.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory