Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Saint Agnes and the Recklessness of Love

The spirit of the early fourth century martyr St. Agnes of Rome has so pervaded the Christian traditions of religious and consecrated life that we risk taking her foundational witness for granted.

This heroic young girl was more than a martyr during the last great persecution of pagan antiquity. Her motive in giving her life for Christ had a special focus: she presented in a personal and also public manner a witness to the mysterious new way of loving that Jesus had made possible for the heart of a woman. "My Lord Jesus Christ has espoused me with his ring; he has crowned me like a bride" proclaims the ancient antiphon

In another liturgical text, she speaks these words while dying: "What I longed for, I now see; what I hoped for, I now possess; in heaven I am espoused to him whom on earth I loved with all my heart."

Since the days of the New Testament, women had sacrificed the possibility of marriage and motherhood in order to follow Jesus in a deeper way. But St. Agnes gave physiognomy and voice to consecrated virginity as a marriage to Jesus, a singular spousal dedication to him that engages a woman's heart completely, beyond the competition of all human interests and even life itself.

The radiant life and sacrifice of a teenage girl, and no doubt her continual intercession thereafter, have fostered an awareness in the Church of her own deepest life.

"I am espoused to him whom the angels serve; sun and moon stand in wonder at his beauty." There are various stories about St. Agnes, but what is certain above all is the singular ardor with which she embraced martyrdom when it was imposed upon her. The words she speaks in the liturgical tradition are not attributions placed on her lips by some later "theological" development. They are echoed in the fourth century homilies and writings of St. Ambrose, Pope St. Damasus, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and others. St. Agnus was venerated from the beginning by the clergy and the people of Rome, and then throughout the Western Church and also in the Eastern Churches.

The words she speaks in these ancient liturgical texts bear witness to an extraordinary charism, to a new ideal that transcended the boundaries of every kind of human love and transfigured the openness and intensive affectivity that are at the depths of every woman. The Christian virgin was not like the pagans of Rome or other ancient cultures, when women set themselves apart only for a time, and whose service was something less that a total dedication of the interiority of their persons.

The Christian virgin consecrates herself completely. She reserves that personal secret that women possess in an especially intimate way (her "purity") for Jesus alone and exclusively, body and soul. She dedicates entirely her fruitfulness and nurturing qualities of body and soul to Jesus and the grace he gives through the Holy Spirit.

We must try to appreciate the fact that St. Agnes showed the world a kind of life, a freedom, an originality, a way of giving and loving that were new for human beings, and especially for women, in the long and tired history of the human race. She indicated that women are cherished, ultimately, in a way no one had ever imagined.

She displayed the transcendent passion, creativity, and freedom of belonging to Jesus. St. Ambrose speaks thus of her martyrdom:
As a bride she would not be hastening to join her husband with the same joy she shows as a virgin on her way to punishment, crowned not with flowers but with holiness of life, adorned not with braided hair but with Christ himself. In the midst of tears, she sheds no tears herself. The crowds marvel at her recklessness in throwing away her life untasted, as if she had already lived life to the full.
Adorned with Christ himself, she had already lived life to the full....

The witness shines brightly to the fact that for the spouse of Christ, nothing is lost. The sacrifices that are made do not express contempt for the goodness of earthly life, but rather the ecstasy of a love that seeks the Source of all goodness, and thereby finds a hundredfold of fruitfulness even for the life of this earth.

St. Agnes, a young girl, a virgin, who flew to Jesus all at once in the recklessness of love, lived so fully that her presence and solicitude continue to this day. For seventeen hundred years, women have followed her example and given their whole selves to Jesus, loving him as their Spouse in prayer and seclusion, and also by serving him in those in need.

We call them nuns and sisters. We even call them "mothers." Today, more and more, we call them our friends and colleagues too, whether in religious habit or as lay women who consecrate themselves in the context of the many new charisms that the Spirit is giving to the Church of our time.

They have sought God and followed the lamb. And in this giving of themselves, they have been the colossal protagonists, the shining stars of love and hope, the bearers of peace and compassion to this world as well.

Agnes stands as one of the pillars of the greatest "women's movement" of all time, and her witness today remains as compelling as ever. She gave up marriage on this earth and everything else even to life itself. And in Christ she became a true mother to generation after generation of daughters to this day -- of women who want to give themselves away beyond the reckoning of this age, and thus live life to the full.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Dr. King: Truth and Love Will Prevail

Crucial and compelling words for today: "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant" (Martin Luther King Jr).

Friday, January 17, 2020

Remembering Neil Peart: Musician, Adventurer, Truth-Seeker

Forty years ago, I was a seventeen year old kid who spent almost all his free time playing the guitar or listening to music. The Canadian rock band Rush pounded through my headphones a lot in those days.

Though I hadn't forgotten my classical roots and continued to play cello in the school orchestra and other ensembles, this was certainly the biggest rocker phase of my life. My friends and I would jam together often and loud. We played what was within reach of our collaborative capacities, and then we admired the music we couldn't play, and tried to learn from it. We certainly admired Rush. Many people couldn't (and still can't) get past the sheer volume and sonic complexity of what these guys put out.

But we loved it. It was terrific music.

When you perceive (aesthetically) the organizing principles of any craft, and appreciate the corresponding skills required to fashion something according to those principles, you "see" the beauty of the work. There is order, proportion, and a level of nobility (analogically speaking) in any successful craft, any work that human beings — who are themselves made in the image of God — achieve as an skillful expression of a concretely "intelligible," creative intuition.

Or, to put it more simple terms, "those dudes could play!"

In fact, those dudes — Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee, and Neil Peart — "played" together for four decades, and had generations of loyal followers. My son and his friends like Rush a lot. My daughters can't stand them! (This seems to reflect a more general pattern with Rush fans, but... that's another story.)

Right now the musical world is mourning the loss of Rush's drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, who died last week at the (still-too-young) age of 67. This came as a total shock to me and many others: his long battle with brain cancer after his 2015 retirement was not publicly known.

In retrospect, this is not surprising. For a man who makes virtually everyone's short list of greatest-rock-drummers-of-all-time, Peart succeeded in keeping his "private life" out of the spotlight. It helped that he lived without the peculiar drama of celebrity-dom, and therefore failed to draw the attention of those who cater to worshiping outsized celebrity fame and gawking at the human wreckage it all too often brings.

That doesn't mean his life was not interesting. Indeed, he shared many facets of his talent, his observations, and the reflections of his restless, searching mind.

Peart was a brilliant musician who redefined the scope of the rhythmic art of the "drummer" (really, he was a percussionist dedicated to continually improving his art). He was one of those players who was constantly surprising us with new sounds, nuances, and techniques in his performance.

He was also an accomplished author whose travel books are vivid chronicles of back roads, small towns, and vast spaces of natural beauty all over North America and other parts of the world. He was an avid motorcyclist who was bold in exploration while also being careful in how he actually handled his bike. He was perceptive, thoughtful, and had much feeling for "local things" — those things that are more and more difficult to find in the now largely homogenized U.S.A. and Canada. He knew how to find those places and appreciate them.

He also searched the cosmos and his own soul in a poignant and sincere way. There is an unusual level of thoughtfulness in Rush's lyrics, but Peart's extensive reading and philosophical turn of mind are even more accessible in his books. Here too he reveals his struggles and vulnerability in processing personal tragedies and suffering, as well as the simple joys and beauties of life.

Peart said that he "believed in the exchange of love." He also had a passion for the dignity of the individual. He did not see how these matters could have a place in a "religious" framework, and he sometimes expressed the Libertarian's distaste for conventional religions and ideas about God. He didn't seem to have much familiarity with the real profundity of religion that can be discovered in some of its specific expressions. Though it must also be admitted that there is a "cheap" side to the way we often talk about religion and God that can be alienating for people who are searching for deeper answers to the provoking questions arising from the mystery of reality and the experiences of joy and pain.

People who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics have an understandable aversion to any notions that seem to them to suggest either a "cosmic Santa Claus" or a "cosmic bully" as the Ultimate Being. Of course, these are distorted images of God, but they still have an all-too-wide circulation. Unfortunately, religious people (myself included) can easily appear to be "conjuring divinity" to escape the challenges of living or to shield ourselves from the awful implacable pain of suffering. Even the articulation of great religious experiences — the powerful testimonies to the truth about God — can pass by, unwittingly making a "bad impression" on someone who (for whatever reason) does not perceive therein the vital proximity of the transcendent mystery of God. We hardly clarify things when we act as if we have God in our pockets, or use Him to justify our prejudices, our partisanship, our own grasping for power.

On the occasion of his death, the sincerity of Neil Peart makes me want to examine my conscience on such things, and resolve to accompany the people entrusted to me with greater love.

Even with our best efforts, however, our witness to our faith is imperfect. And though the existence of the Mystery of God can be known by human reason, the practical articulation of this is a bumpy road for actual human beings trying to understand their particular and perplexing lives. Philosophy is worth studying and pursuing, but our actual understanding of even the best philosophy is imperfect, and certainly our particular ways of proposing arguments using complex and potentially confusing terms are imperfect.

Of course, we can only do our best. We speak what we know, as best as we can in circumstances, with passion and vigor certainly — but with the affection of brothers and sisters, not the pride and hostility of ideological partisan combat. We want to remember that each person is on a journey, the depths of which we do not know. We must not judge or condemn anyone, nor should we slavishly endorse what we know is wrong in order to be fashionable or agreeable.

Let's be human instead. The dialogue that will ensue is sure to be fruitful. I wish I could have had that dialogue with Neil Peart. He was a great musician, and in this respect there are few like him. But he was also like many people because he was a sincere man, a thoughtful man, a suffering man. Before such a person I can only stand with respect, appreciation, and humility. And now that his journey is at an end, I pray for him with hope that he will pass into that "exchange of love" that is greater than any of us can imagine.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Monday, January 13, 2020

"Survivor" (A Poem, New and Revised)

I have reworked and revised large sections of this poem, and it's enough to warrant presenting it here once again. It's not likely that many people read it previously (some two years ago, when it was first posted) — that doesn't bother me; in fact I hope not many people read it, because it was messy.

That doesn't mean it's "neat" now (or ever will be). In any case, I reserve the right to revise it further. This is my "writing workshop" (indeed, my creative workshop for a variety of media). Some of my posts are more polished than others.

After nine years, however, I have also begun to realize that a blog is a distinctive kind of "thing," a literary and multimedia artifact (or collection of artifacts) with an identity of its own, even though I'm not sure what that identity is.

I'm content for now to consider it a work-in-progress, and keep shaping it as I go.

Here, then, is the new and revised version of Survivor. I have come to realize that this poem, written in the first person, actually does come out of my own experience. In a sense, this poem is about me, but it's also about what is for so many people the intensity and trauma of life in these strange times. We are all the ones who are "running."

As for the ones who drive the runners on, I don't know who "They" are ... [read the poem, and you'll know what I'm talking about๐Ÿ˜‰].


I remember running;
years of slippery running on glassy ground
under an electric forest,
with whispering wirey trees
tangled together into angry knots.
And the birds did not sing,
or breathe,
but lay everywhere still,
like colored shadows in the long twilight.

Always every day the same;
always running, running, running away,
down endless twisting tunnels
of wind and echoes,
pursuing perpetual survival.

They pushed and prodded the crowd,
told us to keep moving:
"Run, scream, scream to hear the sound,
to feel the life inside you and hold hard on it.
Run fast, never stop,
or you will burn, melt, evaporate..."

I remember running
with a huge roaring crowd,
all of us with electric shoes
that jumped up and down,
each footfall shaking the floor,
a great thumping sound,
flooding the room, flooding our heads;
sound upon sound, gigantic, total,
always the same, the unceasing clamor,
clatter, crashing rush
of running to save our lives.

Their iron whips slashed into our flesh
as they ordered us to keep moving:
"Run, scream,
shout the song with synthetic throats.
Shout with the dance of the electric feet;
shout and run and stay with the beat.
Run to survive,
to power this deathless day."

One day I remember running
very early in the morning,
and the blue rain
was falling all over my face,
splashing, stinging,
vanishing into vapor,
into the florescent cyan mist
that was light to my withered eyes.
One day out of all those pallid years,
I was running
and, suddenly, I fell to the ground.

I came crashing down into a quivering heap
of skin, bone, lurching tendons
struggling, shot with pain,
pushing into paralysis.
Then stillness came upon me,
a stillness of wonderful exhaustion,
my eyes burning, staring at the sky.

No one came to help me, to carry me,
to pity me, to mourn the loss of me.
They drove the crowd forward
into a powerful terrified stampede:
"Run, run, never stop
for in stillness you will disappear
into the bottomless chasm of night.
Leave the broken ones to eat dust.
We are running into the fiery day,
the strong, ruthless day,
the day of war.
We are running with those who survive."

I was left behind,
left to be eaten by the dark.
My wounds were of no interest to Them
or Their proud plans,
and the crowd kept running,
running away from me.

I watched the crowd vanish into the horizon,
into a crack of sudden blazing light,
light glowing over the edges of everything,
casting strange shadows on the ground.
It was the herald of dreams awakening,
the unexpected ending and beginning,
the final day
of this giant city of evanescent steel and clay,
the first day dawning,
a new day.

In the stillness of that moment,
I felt the breath of Time.
I heard her whisper to me:
the time is now...”

The time is now,
in the frail moments of days and years,
shining slowly,
growing patiently,
whispering softly,
with the steady strength of a rising wind,
waking sleepers
from dreams of desperate running
under the cold dying stars.

Here in today’s time,
this strange “today” where I still live -
scarred, hungry, tenaciously breathing -
people call me a "survivor."
But in this gifted interval which I cannot hold,
I tremble and hope and speak
of what I have seen and heard.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Theophany: God Reveals Himself

The baptism of Jesus. The descent of the Holy Spirit. The voice of the Father. God reveals His mystery, the Trinity. 

It is the decisive "epiphany" of the Christmas season, and the initiation of Jesus's public ministry. The Byzantine tradition calls this feast "the Theophany" - where God begins in a new way to manifest Himself to the world, to reveal His inner reality as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

We have observed on this day the beginning of the path that will lead us to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the ultimate outpouring of God’s love through the death and resurrection of Jesus for our salvation.

May the Lord give you joy!

Friday, January 10, 2020

We Continue to Learn From Christina Grimmie

Digital design, based on photo (credit to photo owner)

It's possible to go through life knowing about (and even writing about) certain basic dispositions and ways of acting that are proper to a mature human personality, yet still not really know how to live these things in your own daily existence.

Then one day, you encounter another person who lives rightly and deeply, not out of arrogant self-regard but in a beautiful and authentic way. You almost can't help being moved by this person, and their way of living has a significant and concrete impact on you. It begins to change you, even if only by sparking within you the desire to change and grow, to see reality the way that person sees it.

Anyone whose life has been touched by Christina Grimmie knows what I'm talking about.

I have learned from her. There is no question about that. Indeed, I'm still learning from her, and I think people will continue to learn from her for generations to come. On this 10th day in the month of January 2020, I wanted to reflect a little on this point.

We can learn from her... not because she was always perfect, or totally coherent, or never did anything wrong. Not because we totally understand and agree with everything she ever said or did. Rather, we learn from the way she perceived life and the way she returned, consistently, to this awareness as the foundation of her actions and of the way she followed her own vocation.

Here are just a few examples of what Christina Grimmie has taught me to want for my life in a more concrete way, because of the way she perceived the value of these qualities and endeavored to live them. Many points could be cited here, but I will give three examples:

(1) Gratitude: How magnificent and real and human it is to be grateful. Be grateful for all you've been given, every day.

(2) Share the Credit: Celebrate the people who hold you up, help you, and support you in whatever you achieve; let them (and others) know that they share credit for whatever good you've done, and that they're beautiful and you love them.

(3) This is a very hard one... Don't Speak Badly About Any Person: Christina never spoke negatively about people (except maybe the guy in "Liar, Liar," and even there she turned it into a funny story and a great song). She never badmouthed people or put anyone down, even in general references. She spoke well about every person, and if they had troubles she encouraged them and challenged them.

I'm not very good at acting according to these examples, but I'm trying, and I want to be different in these ways more than ever.

For that, dear Christina, I will always be grateful to you.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Sacraments: Jesus is Always With Us

The Sacraments are at the heart of the Church. Above all there is Jesus Himself really and substantially present in the Eucharist, always with us, giving Himself to us.

It is the same Jesus who acts to bring healing through the sacrament of Reconciliation, where we bring our fractured selves and He floods us with His mercy. In this sacrament He restores the grace of God lost by grave sin; indeed there is no sin that is too great for His mercy.

And there is also strength to be found here for shaping living Christian hearts. There is abundant grace in this sacrament that renews us and draws us beyond the narrowness of soul constrained by all those “venial sins” that hinder (even if they do not break) our relationship with Jesus.

These are the sins that we acknowledge at Mass: "I have greatly sinned...through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault." Even venial sins are “great” and “grievous” - though they don’t separate us from God, they fall short of God’s wisdom and glory, and they distract and delay us from becoming our true selves and attaining the happiness for which God created us.

We are indeed afflicted by these "daily sins" - the fact that they are not grave sins does not mean we should ignore them. They damage us, distort us, and render our witness opaque. They wound and cripple us; how can we recover and grow? The sacraments are remedies for our wounds, and through sacramental confession, Christ's grace renders a gradual but effective service to the health of our souls.

We need to let Jesus draw us close to His heart. Confession is not a burden. It is a blessing. Bring your troubled, anxious hearts to the fountain of mercy and healing. Go to Confession! Just go. Make it part of your life!

It's a tremendous thing to realize that we don't have to "do" the work of Christian living alone, all by ourselves. Jesus is here for us. That's what the sacraments mean. We don't have to conjure up an imaginary Jesus in our minds so that we can "feel" His forgiveness and His strength. Jesus is here. He acts. He gets involved with our lives and makes things happen.

I often express my struggles with anxieties, frustration, and sometimes with a loneliness where it is difficult to recognize the hand of God at work. But this is not the central, determining experience of myself. At the center is Jesus, who has taken hold of my life through the Holy Spirit, Jesus who I first encountered in the sacrament of Baptism, and who continues to engage my life continually in my personal vocation and especially through the healing and renewal He offers in the sacraments.

Our parish church before Mass during Christmas
Above all, in the Eucharist I have been given gratitude; I have had a taste of the thanksgiving that is so much more than a polite acknowledgement, the thanksgiving that wells up in the center of life, with the awareness that I exist as a gift, in the image of God. And that Eternal Love is calling me to His embrace through concrete moments and gestures and words. I am not defined by my faults and limits (although, so often, it seems that way). The meaning of my life is this gentle calling, and the grace and mercy it contains.

It is not a one way relationship that I construct. In the Eucharist He gives Himself to me. If I allow Him to work in me, He will open my soul, and create in me the capacity to love Him.

By grace, God enables me to love Him. This is completely, radically, and entirely the work of God. To Him be all the glory. But what makes the saving work of Jesus eminently and clearly divine is that He makes me - as a whole person - a new creation in Himself, a person-in-relationship to Him and the Father and the Holy Spirit. It is my own personal love and my own personal life that Jesus gives to me, sustains in me, and perfects in me as I journey in hope toward the promise of God’s kingdom.

In the sacraments Jesus accompanies us concretely, walks with us, and makes our steps firm and secure.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Keeping the Christmas Lights On Through January

Here are some pictures of our Christmas tree, which is still standing in all the glory of its electric lights and polyvinyl chloride branches! I always like to give special attention to some of the hand-crafted wooden Christmas ornaments from Germany that continue to brighten up this time of year in our house. Our tree stays up through Epiphany week and beyond, because...

(1) ...we continue to celebrate the wonderful truth that God has come to dwell among us, and to reveal and give Himself to us. 

(2) January is dark and brutal enough to endure without having to kill the lights and dismantle our ersatz greenery. It perks up the house and our spirits during the cold month. There's no need to go through "post-Christmas withdrawal." 

(3) Our tree may be a cheap plastic imitation (aside from these nice ornaments) but it still carries our little family history and is an image of hope for the new “Tree of Life” in the eternal garden of a resurrected, transcendent Paradise for which we yearn. And we just put it up Christmas Eve. Why rush?

(4) February 2nd marks the “40 days” from Jesus’s birth to the rituals of the temple, the sacrifice of turtle doves, the joy of Simeon and Anna in seeing the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people (see Luke 2:22-38). It remains a cultural tradition in some places to mark the full 40 days as the season of Christmas and Epiphany, and the old form of the Roman liturgy marks “Sundays after Epiphany” for these weeks (n.b. we follow the current “ordinary form” of the Roman rite where, liturgically speaking, the Christmas Season ends after this Sunday’s feast of Jesus’s baptism... but we can still keep up decorations and cheer through Candlemas). We also grab all the clearance-sale Pannetone and Stollen we can.

(5) When Ash Wednesday is approaching and we’re finally putting stuff away, we only feel like we’ve procrastinated for a few weeks instead of a month and a half. By that time we’ve had enough of the tree, and are๐ŸŒฒtired of bumping into it. Also, the iconic significance of the Nativity scene (in reference to Christ's infancy) is no longer apt for the season; the Scriptures read in the liturgy have passed on to the Lord’s public ministry and Lent’s preparation for sharing in the Easter mystery. 

But by that time, we’ve been carried through the worst part of Winter’s dark days, and I begin to have the first (usually vicarious) warm feelings of Spring when pitchers and catchers report to baseball’s Spring Training camps. Soon they will be playing meaningless exhibition games that will quickly be forgotten in April, but are like water in the desert for the thirst of a baseball enthusiast in late February.๐Ÿ˜‰⚾

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Vistas of Winter

A camera can capture hints of the subdued beauty of January.

Here with my zoom lens, I try to glimpse how the late afternoon sun, with its peculiar angle this time of year, brightens the bare trees. And it's striking how the mountains are everywhere visible through the leafless branches. Of course, "late afternoon" this time of year starts between 3:30 and 4:00 PM heading into a sunset just after 5 PM. But the days are slowly starting to get longer.

These are vistas that only Winter gives us.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Christmas and the Presence that Saves Us

I spend a lot of time "inside my head." I have always been this way. I ponder things, or I worry about them. I become preoccupied with my own insecurity and anxieties to a point that hinders me from decisive action, or robs me of the opportunities for silence and peace.

Nothing is ever simple inside my head.

I would get stuck there, perpetually trying to figure things out, were it not for the fact that there are other people in my life who call me out of myself. They require me to live in the vital space of relationship, with its surprises, problems, requirements for action and empathy, joys, sorrows, moments of time, and all the features of a concrete otherness that continually provokes me to "go beyond myself."

I can be immersed in my own thoughts or worries and suddenly Josefina comes bouncing into the room (as she often does) with a question about school or with stories about what she did that day, or Eileen needs to talk about a work situation, or someone else in the house has a need for help or a gift to share. This changes the moment, and introduces something new from outside myself.

I can no longer pretend that I construct my life alone, by myself. These other people are here. They are concretely, irreducibly here, in my history, in this moment. 

This particular relationality in daily existence is basic to the experience of being human. It is necessary if we are to remain sane. It is also a sign of a greater, deeper, historical presence that comes from outside ourselves and saves us definitively.

Jesus is here.

I can't "hold myself together" with a comprehensive understanding of myself, or with the accumulation of stuff, or with anything that I try to capture with my conniving and my worrying.

Instead something happens. Someone comes. Someone Else is here.

This is what Christmas teaches me. Of all the billions of people born in human history, there is one who -- right now -- says to me, "I am the meaning of your life."

"I am what you are searching for," Jesus says. "I am the one who comes to transform your life into a relationship with me, which is the real way of living yourself. You can't 'make yourself' although you keep trying to, in an effort that leads to desperation again and again, because what you're looking for is beyond all your thinking and understanding and expression; really, you know it's out of your reach...."

"But don't be anxious. I have come to dwell with you. I am here, right now, right where you are. And I love you."

Whatever darkness you suffer, remember that He is here.

Whatever sorrow, confusion, guilt: He is here.

He wants to bring you through. He loves you.

"I have come into the world to be its light" (John 12:46).

Rejoice! It's still the Christmas season. Happy Christmas Season!

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Forty Year CHALLENGE

January 2 was Happy Birthday number 57 for me. It seems like I just turned 50 a little while ago! But much has happened in these years besides my getting older, stiffer, and whiter-in-the-beard.

I have lived these years, and I am grateful for them.

As I grow older, I feel "closer" to my whole life. I have a better understanding and appreciation of not only the limits and naivetรฉ of my teenage years, but also the aspirations, work, and achievements of that time.

So here I did a “Forty Year Challenge” (how’s that, young folks?)... well, forty-ish  close enough.๐Ÿ˜Ž The differences are, well, pretty obvious! Also I’m a bit arthritic on the guitar these days, but there are ways to “compensate” and make things work. 

What I really need is to FIND THE CASSETTE TAPE that has all the instrumental guitar songs/pieces I composed forty-ish years ago and played by memory. I don’t remember them and they are not written down.๐ŸŽธ๐ŸŽถ The tape is somewhere, but where?

I wrote music for cello and strings, but it’s not very interesting, whereas the guitar stuff was pretty good but I play guitar by ear and composed by memory  and now I have lost the memory. I could remember them if I could FIND THE TAPE!! Dang, where is it?๐ŸŽต Where did I put it?
Dear God, I thank you for my life. I thank you for drawing my heart, through the years, with all the hints of beauty and goodness in things, the signs that point to you as the Source and Fulfillment of all things. I have not been able to rest content in any of these things (for this also, I thank you) — but my restlessness is stirred by the promise inherent in them, the promise that urges me toward you, but that has only become cohesive, focused, and convincing for me through Jesus Christ. You have come to dwell with us, Jesus; you have revealed your glory through a human face.
You have made my life worth living, and you have made my journey in this world — with its trials and tribulations but also its adventures and joys and music๐ŸŽถ — a cause for wonder and gratitude. Thank you!
And dear Lord, please help me find that tape?๐Ÿ˜‰

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

God Became the Child of Mary

The year 2020 has begun. New year, new decade, but Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

"Mary is a mother who contemplates her child and shows him to every visitor. The figure of Mary makes us reflect on the great mystery that surrounded this young woman when God knocked on the door of her immaculate heart. Mary responded in complete obedience to the message of the angel who asked her to become the Mother of God. Her words, 'Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word' (Luke 1:38), show all of us how to abandon ourselves in faith to God’s will. By her 'fiat,' Mary became the mother of God’s Son, not losing but, thanks to him, consecrating her virginity. In her, we see the Mother of God who does not keep her Son only to herself, but invites everyone to obey his word and to put it into practice" (Pope Francis, Admirable Signum 7).

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A White Tree in the Barren Woods

This is a good view for the last day of 2019, which was such a hard year for me and for others in our local community.

For me and my family, there were certainly joys as well as sorrows and struggles, but in everything there was a note of change. Change, even good change, is never easy for me. But especially loss and grief are different and harder than I ever realized.

Overall, I am grateful for all the good things of this year (and ultimately everything is "working for the good," so I pray that the Holy Spirit will enkindle and sustain that fundamental vitality of gratitude and joy that dwells - often secretly - in the depths of the Christian soul). Still, there is much that is difficult to process, or that simply must be endured. Thus I feel a bit bewildered and existentially "displaced" at the year's end. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is going through these kinds of emotions.

It's difficult to find words to express the significance of so much that has happened in these months. I am pushed beyond the limits of ordinary knowledge. People I loved and saw with my eyes and too often took for granted - above all my own father - have passed behind that "glass" through which things can only be seen darkly... and sometimes it is very dark indeed.

I guess I can say that it has brought me to a "new place in life," even if it's a place that sometimes looks so barren and dry, like a Winter that never ends. But, I tell myself, it’s just a new and rough stage in the journey of life (oh, that sounds so clichรฉ, but still...). My faith promises to me that Winter will end, the trees will blossom, the White Tree will spread its canopy of leaves again. And so it will remain forever, when at last the turn of the seasons reaches its end.

I'm still searching for metaphors. Maybe it's because the darkness is just too much for me to bear.

It is too much. That is why God sent His Son into the world. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5). The Word became flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, and took up His dwelling with us. He remains with us, living in the midst of the people He has gathered together (ekklesia, "church") to follow Him and be His witnesses to the whole world.

His presence is encountered through abundant signs and symbols, and especially through the mysterious way that He reaches me here and now through His glorified humanity. Jesus who is Lord of the universe takes up earthly things, gestures, and words, and makes them instruments of Himself so He can touch my life: this is the miracle of the sacraments. These are not like the metaphors I grasp at when I am lost in the dark woods. They do not come from my mind or my imagination. They are given to me.

He gives Himself in the sacraments. He is the Eucharist, present for me, offering Himself to me. I feel blind, powerless, dispossessed. But He still wants to be with me. When I have nothing, He is still "here," and He holds onto me though I know not where I am going in the days, months, and years ahead.

As I have said elsewhere, Jesus Himself is my hope. In my darkest obscurity, He finds me through His presence in the Church, through prayer and the sacraments. Lord, whatever you are doing with me, wherever you are leading me, I pray that I will never give up trusting in you.

"God is good. All the time." Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Three Days in a Monastery Thirty Years Ago

As long as everyone is being retrospective about "decades," here's an old thing that takes me back three decades, to the last three days of 1989. These are some notes from a retreat I made at Holy Cross Abbey — the Cistercian monastery in Berryville, Virginia — on December 29, 30, and 31, 1989.

It was quite simple: the weekend was spent at the retreat house on the property of the monastery. Guests were fed, and an old monk was available for spiritual guidance insofar as anyone wished to receive it (and I recall having a good, down-to-earth meeting with him). The rest of the retreat was unscheduled, other than an open invitation to participate in all the liturgical offices of the monks, throughout the days and nights, in the abbey church.

I remember these three days of prayer and silence as being reflective, serious, and helpful regarding some important decisions I had to make at the time. Unfortunately, these notes don't shed much light on the decisions or the circumstances which, after thirty years, could use a little brightening up in my own mind. It's not until you're older that you realize how valuable a written journal can be for stirring up your own memories. I wish these pages were more useful to me in that regard.

I was a few days shy of turning 27 years old, which — even in these days of "extended adolescence" — usually signifies that a person is, finally, an adult. Yet I was still very much a dreamer, an abstracted academic, and (especially since that Summer) a person much taken up in my own imagination. I had written a small collection of poetry which I felt good about (only one of those poems I might still consider "passable" today). At the time, I had "literary sensibility on-the-brain."

I was far from finding my own voice, however. That is probably why these pages seem so affected to me now. It reads like I was trying to imitate Thomas Merton's journals (or even unconsciously plagiarizing from them, since I was strolling through the woods and fields of a Trappist monastery).

I don't know what to make of all this. But anyway, here it is:

This does show the manner in which I used to write in the old days, in long hand, direct from my mind onto the page, with much more legible handwriting than I have now. As far as I know, these are the original, unrevised pages. The ideas and images are alright, but they are strangely "polished" for notes. I had skill at drafting my thoughts quickly, but this lacks a sense of spontaneity, and gives little insight into what I was learning through the retreat or actually dealing with in my life at the time.

"What I want, what I thirst for, is to be alone"? Really? It seems like I was writing what I thought I was supposed to feel like — being an earnest and grave young man — after a weekend with the Trappists. If there was something real about this thirst for solitude, I don't remember it. I had no desire to enter the monastery. I don't know what I was getting at, and I can't help thinking that I was just trying to reassure myself that I had had a "deep" experience.

Perhaps I wanted to "want-to-be-alone" because, at the time, I felt very much alone. Maybe I was even a bit depressed (though I did not yet know anything about mental health in those days). I was in any case given to overusing metaphors in what were supposed to be my own retreat notes.

I might have been just pitching out themes and images for a poem that never got written.

I certainly was not settled in the direction of my life. Many of us in the academic world were adrift or lonely (or both) in those days. We were unevenly formed (at best). We lived very much in our heads. I suppose to some extent I still do.

Unlike the notes, the retreat was substantial. Perhaps I'm being unduly harsh about writing that doesn't sound that much different from what I churn out now. One never really does very well at understanding oneself (which is why writers need editors and people need... other people).

What is interesting is that 1990 proved to be a crucial year for me. In the first few weeks of the new decade, I met some new friends and the beginnings of a much more secure, much less lonely path on which to travel.

One of those friends, who I met for the first time shortly after this retreat, was a girl named Eileen.๐Ÿ˜Š 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Face of God

"For us God is not some abstract hypothesis; 
He is not some stranger 
who left the scene after the 'Big Bang.'
God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.
In the face of Jesus Christ we see the face of God.
In His words we hear God Himself speaking to us."

~Benedict XVI

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Decade of The Washington Nationals

Since we're all doing the "Decade Retrospective" thing in these days, I want to share my statistical doodling that I recently undertook in order to procrastinate from working pass a few leisurely moments. It pertains to the phenomenon of this past decade that my son and I will always be able to look back upon as bathed in the warm light of ultimate success. Moreover, it is a success that came at the end of the decade, just in time to rescue us from having to look back on these same numbers with cold cynicism.

The 2010s were The Decade of The Washington Nationals.

For us as Nats baseball fans, literally one game (game 7 of the 2019 World Series) made the difference in our experience of this decade as being a thrill of victories rather than an agony of defeats. That doesn't seem to make sense, but ultimately sports are not about the exercise of reason in the exact manner of a science. They are about play. Within the "realm of the game" (admittedly minor in relation to other, much more important realms of life, but also a realm that has its own integrity) the "thrills" and "agonies" have their own significance, which we must not underestimate.

Players and their performances on the field are a big part of this, of course. This is the decade that began with Stephen Strasburg's 14-strikeout major league debut on June 8, 2010 and ended with Stephen Strasburg's winning the World Series MVP on October 31, 2019 (and going on to sign a long-term contract with the Nationals this past month — for us fans that means he's staying on our field for a long time). Ryan Zimmerman, a career Nat, played frequently injured during the decade, but made it all the way to being a clutch factor in the playoffs and World Series. Max Scherzer: all the great seasons, the two Cy Young awards, the strikeouts, the no-hitters, and... winning the World Series.

There was much that was memorable during all the seasons of the decade, even if four of them ended in first-round playoff disappointment. Pitchers like Jordan Zimmerman and Gio Gonzalez gave us great years, and then Jayson Werth — who played with the Nats from 2011-2017 — did so much to build the fighting spirit of the winning team they became two years after he retired. Werth also hit the game-winning home run back in 2012 that kept the Nats alive in their first playoff series (before this year, that was the top highlight of the Nats' post-season play).

Am I forgetting anybody?

Oh... there was that dude who hit lots of towering home runs and then decided to play for the Philadelphia Phillies... what was his name again?๐Ÿ˜‰

But here's another thing: the game of baseball is not just played on the field. It's a game that involves a combination of luck and a diversity of skills. And while the most important skills, no doubt, can't be "measured" in any simple way, many aspects of baseball performance can be quantified in a set of statistics that provide significant and detailed information but also can be understood and calculated by a 10-year-old.

Kids in the U.S.A. often "discover" mathematics through baseball. Arithmetic becomes fun when you're figuring out batting averages, won-lost percentages, and cumulative career numbers such as can be found on any good baseball card. Some people go much further into it (maybe too far — SABRmetric people, whoa!). But for many of us the ordinary statistics of a 162 game baseball season that first fascinated us at age 10-or-so still resonate with us and spark our interest even after many years.

Sports in our society today — like everything else — are excessive enterprises, but as long as the game is still played, they will fascinate kids and reawaken the discovering, adventuresome child in all of us. Baseball, for me, will always evoke Spring and then Summer, sunshine, ball fields, balls and bats and gloves, as well as childhood and fatherhood (from my grandfather to my father to me to my son). It also still puts some sparkle into numbers, even after all these years.

Obviously, the numbers are sweeter when you win!

Here are some numbers from the Nationals Decade, 2010-2019:

2010: 69-93 .426 5th
2011: 80-81 .497 3rd
2012: 98-64 .605 1st* (NLEast)
2013: 86-76 .531 2nd
2014: 96-66 .593 1st* (NLEast)
2015: 83-79 .512 2nd
2016: 95-67 .586 1st* (NLEast)
2017: 97-65 .599 1st* (NLEast)
2018: 82-80 .506 2nd
2019: 93-69 .574 2nd (wildcard
Total 879-740 .543 (quite good overall)

•Four National League Eastern Division Titles
•One National League Pennant
•Four second place finished (one wild card)
•Won at least 80 games nine seasons
•Finished over .500 eight seasons
•Finished at least 10 games over .500 six times
•Won more than 90 games five seasons
•Won more than 95 games four seasons
•Finished over .600 one season

~Won one Wild Card playoff (2019)
~Lost four NLDS (2012, 2014, 2016, 2017)
~Won one NLDS (2019)
~Won one NLCS, i.e. “the Pennant” (2019)
~Won one World Series (2019)

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Christmas is a Season

“On the second day of Christmas...”๐ŸŽถ

Remember, Christmas is not over! We have just begun the wonderful Christmas Season

Today is the Second Day of the Christmas Octave (as well as the feast of Saint Stephen, the first martyr whose story is told in the New Testament, in Acts 7). We are in a season of celebration, to commemorate especially the events in which the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us, save us, and show us the face of our God who is Love.

It is a time to rejoice in the Lord, be grateful, extend ourselves with compassion toward those in need, and care for one another.

Merry Christmas Day Two!!๐ŸŒฒ

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas 2019

This First Day of Christmas was a bit chaotic.๐Ÿ˜ฎ 

The water line got shut off somewhere on our block, but eventually it came back on. The town must have taken care of it. Utility workers are on call, apparently, even on Christmas... and now we know why. God bless them!

Also, some of us in the family are "under-the-weather" to varying degrees (although, the actual weather was really nice today). We had to attend Mass in two shifts. We had a lovely meal in the evening, thanks to Eileen and others who were healthy.

In any case, Christmas is Christmas. Christ is born. Glory to Him! We thank God for His mercy in sending His Son, and we are grateful to be all together as a family. I did think about my Dad a bit (and pray for him) — many old memories of Christmases past were stirring in my head (more on that another day). 

With all the peculiarities of the day, there was no chance to take the Christmas family picture. So instead there's a collage (above) for our Christmas (Virtual) "Card" 2019 along with a few other images from the day (below). 

Our parish church altar decorated on Christmas morning

We only finished doing our tree last night. Putting on "the Star"

We wish everyone a Happy Christmas Season. Keep celebrating!๐Ÿ˜‰

Sangria was refreshing...

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"He Comes to Save You"

"Be strong, fear not! Here is your God; he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you."

Christmas Eve. The vigil approaches, when we will keep watch under the night sky. The Lord is near....

He comes as a child. He brings healing. He reveals the unconquerable power of God's love that sets us free.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Joseph May Not Have Thought What We Think He Thought

Because this post never gets "old," I like to run it again from time to time, especially when we read the one text in the New Testament that gives us some idea of the perspective of St Joseph when he first found himself caught up in the events we are about to celebrate. Thus once again I present, for your reading (or rereading) consideration, this bloggy "digest" of some of my old undergraduate lecture material, entitled "Joseph May Not Have Thought What We Think He Thought."

Everyone is familiar with the Gospel reading from yesterday's liturgy for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It was all about Jesus being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary... from the perspective of St. Joseph. We think we know what is going on in this passage, but perhaps we assume too much:
"When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins'" (Matthew 1:18-21).
Ah yes, that "touchy" little situation.

Thus we are introduced to St. Joseph, and the testimony of Divine Revelation to this greatest of saints after Mary herself is largely contained in these first two chapters of Matthew (along with some references in Luke 1-2). Indeed, this is one of his most important moments; it is the moment upon which his vocation is founded. What do we learn about him in this passage?

Perhaps it is something a little different from what we initially think. For a person like me, this story might enter into my mind and get mixed around and end up sounding something like this (note well -- the actual words of the Scripture are in bold type; the rest is JJ's imagination coloring in the details):
Joseph her husband, when he realized that Mary must of been... well... unfaithful to their betrothal (which really surprised him since Mary had been so completely, astonishingly, immaculately good up until then) since he was a righteous man, yet [YET?] unwilling to expose her to shame, (in other words he was "righteous" but he wasn't like "crazy righteous" -- the Law said an adulterous wife should be stoned to death [see Deuteronomy 22], but he decided to ignore the Law and let it slide because he was a nice guy,) decided to divorce her quietly. (Mary had this story about an angel and a miracle and the Holy Spirit, but as Joseph himself said in Franco Zeffirelli's movie Jesus of Nazareth [and he must have said it, because we saw it on TV], "That's too much for any man to believe!" But still, he was a nice guy so he was willing to hush things up and break it off quietly.) Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David [why did he call him that?], do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. [PERIOD! That means the angel finishes his sentence here. Then he takes a deep breath and continues with the next sentence...For (in other words, after have taken his deep breath, the angel proceeds to explain to Joseph what really happened, setting the record straight that Mary was telling the truth after all) it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." At which point Joseph goes <FACEPALM> "If I had known, O angel, that Mary was really bearing the Messiah, the Son of God, in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, I would never have 'divorced her quietly'! Oh no, I would have taken her into my home and taken upon myself the earthly responsibilities of fatherhood for... you know... God Incarnate...."
Okay, JJ... enough snarkiness. What's the point? Well, the point here is that if I step back and examine what seems to be the common sense interpretation of this text, it starts to raise all sorts of problems. There's not a whole lot of bold type in that long paragraph. I have to make a lot of assumptions, which is not unreasonable since these assumptions are generally made even by theologians (generally, but not universally, and -- as we shall see -- there is good reason for a different reading).

The interpretation fills in details that are precisely not mentioned in the text, but that seem necessary to make sense of it. The thinking is that Joseph is divorcing Mary for infidelity, and he is assuming that her pregnancy is a result of that infidelity (maybe she tried to explain it and he didn't believe her, or maybe she said nothing because of humility, in which case he still must have been somewhat flustered). He is a "just man," so he's not interested in getting revenge against the perpetrator, nor does he want to "press charges" according to the Law, but he also has no intention of covering the whole matter up by taking her in as his wife and presenting himself as the child's father. Then the angel appears to him and tells him not to be afraid to marry Mary because she is innocent and the child has been conceived by a miracle. The child, in fact, is the Savior. Problem solved. The marriage is back on.

Problem solved? On closer inspection, maybe not. Actually we have several problems here. The underlying problem is that we interpret this whole event based on a presupposition that is not in the text. In fact, a closer look at the text reveals that our presupposition (that Joseph is divorcing Mary because he thinks she's pregnant by human agency) is not supported; indeed, the implications lead in another direction entirely.

What I'm presenting here is theological and exegetical opinion, which has been much more precisely expressed by theologians and biblical exegetes (such as, for example, John McHugh, in his fascinating book The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament [1975] and Giorgio Buccellati, longtime professor of Ancient Near Eastern studies at UCLA [see e.g. "The Prophetic Dimension of Joseph," Communio, Spring 2006] -- just so you know that my ramblings here are backed by scholarly heavyweights). Scott Hahn refers to the two opinions on this text as the Suspicion Theory (Joseph thinks Mary committed adultery until the angel reveals otherwise) and the Reverence Theory (which is... well, let's see). Scott himself doesn't "take sides" here, but (to my reading) he also leans in the direction of the latter theory (see The Gospel of Matthew, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p. 18).

That will have to suffice for scholarly "apparatus" in what is a decidedly non-scholarly blog post. JJ just wants to outline why he now sees this event in a different light, not only because it makes more sense, but also because St Joseph is his homeboy. (Really, I don't know where I'd be without him.)

Let's take a closer look at this text. Mary "was found with child through the Holy Spirit." What does this mean? Exactly what it says (also in the Greek). Before Joseph took Mary into his home, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Once again, note well that does not say that she was "found with child and claimed that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit." We might assume that the point here is that Mary was "found with child" and that Matthew just adds the Holy Spirit parenthetically. Is this assumption warranted? Let's examine further and see if we really need these invisible parentheses.

Clearly, Mary is with child and Joseph wants to end the relationship. He has no choice but to divorce Mary, since the betrothal is already a binding legal commitment. But he doesn't want to "bring shame" upon her (stoning to death and all that), so he decides to do it "quietly." And all of these assumptions hinge on Joseph being a "just" or "righteous" man, which means that he is a man devoted to the Law (hence divorce) who is simultaneously a man willing to set the Law aside (hence "quietly").


The quiet divorce is something of a head-scratcher. Our lectionary translation gives us something that is appropriately bumbling: "Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly." Since? Yet? He was righteous, but...? And while we're at it, let's look at this term that Matthew decides to toss in here: dikaios. This is Greek for the Hebrew saddiq. Such a title is not awarded lightly in the Scriptures. This is a profound and full sense of righteousness, such as is attributed to Noah and Abraham. This is the kind of "justice" out of which radical foundations can be made. Here is Joseph the Righteous.

And Matthew has introduced this term to explain to us (while also confusing us further) the reason why Joseph decided to be kind and merciful to his adulterous wife? Assuming that there's some wiggle room in the Law for this kind of arrangement (and we all assume this, of course), it would seem that a decent man could take this road without much heroic virtue. It hardly requires the righteousness of Noah or Abraham to walk away from an unfaithful spouse, without obligations and with a spotless reputation. The betrothed woman is allowed to live. We assume (again) that the "quiet" will succeed in smoothing over the situation for everybody, whereas in fact it refers only to refraining from filing a public charge. In such circumstances, the woman is still socially disgraced and even cast out of home and family, shamed for the rest of her life. It's not like she can go abroad for a year, have the baby, and then come back with nobody knowing anything about it. This is not the Hamptons. This is a Palestinian village. In 4 b.c. Everybody in the village knows everything. As for Joseph? Not his problem anymore.

But, Matthew tells us, Joseph is not the average man who wants to cut his losses and get out of town. He is saddiq. He is just. He is righteous. The angel in the dream does not rebuke him nor cause some great moral conversion. Joseph is already the quintessential steadfast man. Still, given what we assume to be his understanding, he's not doing anything "wrong." (Or is he being shifty with the Law? Isn't there a better way? Oh gosh what a mixup!)

What's wrong with this picture?

Perhaps we can keep all these human assumptions (as many, but not all, church fathers and many, but not all, interpreters have) and still squeeze it all together and make it fit. It's all a big misunderstanding that the angel clears up, to our great relief, by telling Joseph the truth.

If only Joseph had known from the start that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit, then it would have been.... ? What "would it have been"? What if?

Consider this possibility: What if Mary told Joseph about the Annunciation, and Joseph did believe her? What if Joseph, the righteous man, totally, totally believed her?

Here also, we are assuming (or hypothesizing) something that the text doesn't come right out and state. But why do we assume that it didn't happen this way? There is nothing implausible about this communication between these particularly extraordinary betrothed spouses. I would think that Joseph would be the first person she would tell. What we do know of Mary from the Gospels indicates that she was humble and obedient, yes, but not timid. She was also practical.

This was something Joseph needed to know. I see no reason why Mary would not have told him the whole thing, right away.

And how far have we really departed from the text in "assuming" this? Matthew 1:18 says "she was found with child through the Holy Spirit." Matthew is giving us Joseph's perspective here (is any other person mentioned?). So who "found" out that she was "with child"? Joseph. And how did he find out? Mary told him. Is it possible that what Joseph "found" was that Mary was "with child through the Holy Spirit"?

"But, but..." we might say, "if he had known, there wouldn't have been any thought of divorce, right?"

On the contrary. In these circumstances we have precisely what we need to make sense of the "quiet 'divorce' of the 'just man'" -- this is where lots of pieces fall into place in a way that I find compelling. It is precisely at this point that Matthew tells us that Joseph is saddiq, that he is righteous with that sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of God; in fact he is one in a million, the man to whom the Lord had already entrusted His most magnificent creation: the Immaculate Virgin Mary. But what has Mary just told him? She has been "overshadowed" by the Most High and has now become, in a new way, the dwelling place of the Holy One. (When Mary asked the angel, "How?" in Luke 1, she got a very clear answer.) Both Mary and Joseph recognized in these terms the references to the Shekinah, the Glory of God who descended upon the Ark of the Covenant, who dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple.

Only those called specifically by God to the Levitical priesthood were allowed to pass beyond the veil and enter the Holy of Holies. But what was this that had happened to Mary? The Glory dwells in her. It is precisely because Joseph is "Just" according to God's own heart that he would never presume that a human betrothal gave him the right to take the New Ark of the Covenant by his own authority into his home. (I know, I'm coordinating Matthew and Luke here, but I'm one of these people who actually believes that, whatever literary genres are being employed in these narratives, their purpose is to convey to us stuff that really happened.)

Joseph learns that Mary is "with child through the Holy Spirit" and that she has received a new, divine vocation. But he has had no revelation from God, no new vocation that corresponds with Mary's. What can he do? He is a "righteous man" and is able to understand that Mary has become a bearer of God's Glory. Surely, the Lord will make His will known for Mary and this extraordinary child. The Lord will assure that Mary is protected, no doubt by someone worthier than Joseph himself. The only role Joseph sees for himself here is to release Mary from the obligations of the betrothal (yes, the word for "divorce" can be understood in this way) to make room for whomever God chooses. Of course, Joseph will do it "quietly," secretly, because it would be manifestly more than unjust to expose Mary to shame. It would be wicked. "Joseph, since he was a righteous man" (1:19) would never do such a thing. He will release her right away, and keep her secret to himself.

For his own part, Joseph is filled with awe and humility. He is full of that eminently righteous gift which is the fear of the Lord. No doubt he wonders about many things, and is probably confused and "afraid" in the emotional sense. But above all, he is surrendering Mary to the mystery and the freedom of God's plan.

This is his intention when the angel appears. And here more things start to make sense. The angel says to him, "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home." The "fear" indicated here is the kind that the human person has before the mystery of God. The "Suspicion Theory" has no way to explain this fear. If Joseph thinks Mary's pregnancy is ordinary, it's hard to see what he would be "afraid" of even in a purely human sense. He would be opposed to taking an adulteress into his house, not for any reasons of fear, much less the fear of the presence of God. He would be concerned for her dismal future. He would have no fear about himself; he has done the right thing.

But the angel invokes that fear in the presence of God and relates it directly to Joseph taking Mary into his home. That would make perfect sense if Mary in fact has the presence of God within her in a wholly new and unimaginable way.

But how do we account for the angel giving Joseph the news of Mary's miraculous conception in a way that seems "fresh" if he already knows about it? Isn't there a divinely inspired PERIOD that divides 1:20? "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her." These two sentences do sound like the angel is relieving Joseph's "fear" by informing him that Mary's child is in fact of the Holy Spirit. But we've seen that this fact is the only meaningful reason for Joseph's fear in the first place.

Here's where we must realize the limitations of translation. The New Testament was written in the common Greek of the first century, with no word spacing or punctuation. Many terms that have various possible renderings get standardized by translators for a variety of reasons. Frankly I'm not a New Testament scholar or a Greek scholar. But here I'm relying on John McHugh (see above) who is both. McHugh says that it is legitimate to read this verse in a different way, pulling out the punctuation that isn't there in the first place and using some unwieldy clauses which don't sound great in English but render the sense more accurately.

The result is that the angel's words to Joseph actually emphasize that Joseph's knowledge of the miracle is the cause of his fear. What we should read here goes something like this: Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home on account of the fact that it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. Now that makes sense.

And there is a hint here too of what the angel's real purpose is in this vision: "Joseph, son of David..." he says. It's interesting that this narrative begins at verse 18. The first 17 verses of Matthew's gospel are a genealogy from Abraham through David (the King to whom the promise of God is given) to Jesus. When I see the genealogies in the Scriptures, I am tempted to zone out. I am even tempted to open Matthew's gospel and just start at verse 18. But this genealogy does catch my attention because after all these carefully recorded names we arrive at "Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born" (1:16).

Wait! If Joseph is not Jesus's biological father, then what good is the genealogy? In fact, it's a lot of good, and it sets the stage and indicates the focus of the narrative that follows. Kingly inheritance passes from father to son in the Hebrew tradition. Mary's lineage has no legal significance and it is the legal claim to be a descendant of David that is necessary for Jesus to inherit the Davidic kingship and fulfill the promise.

But there was no human father! The inheritance can only be handed on if a descendant of David steps in and acts as father to Jesus (we say that Joseph "adopts" Him, but I'm not sure that we have an entirely adequate term to describe the sui generis role that Joseph is called to play).

"She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus" (1:21). Now we know what this angelic visit is all about. The angel is giving Joseph his specific vocation; he is conveying God's authorization (indeed His command) that Joseph enter into a unique service to this new Shekinah, this new presence of God in the world: that he take his wife into his home without fear, because he, Joseph, is the one called by God to take on this responsibility. And he is called to this because he is a "son of David" and he therefore passes on the earthly line of the Messianic king to Mary's son, to whom he gives the name of Jesus.

Personally, I'm convinced. This has gotta be it. Remember that Scott Hahn called this the Reverence Theory, and I think we understand why. It's simple. It makes everything fit together. It's consistent with the details Matthew gives us and fits better into the context. It explains Matthew's statement that from the beginning Mary was "found to be with child through the Holy Spirit." It accounts eminently and in every respect for Joseph's title of saddiq, right in the place where Matthew introduces it (without resorting to casuistry about the Law, or a murky sense of what Joseph was up to or what human problem he was afraid of, or having to posit this odd, tense, and mistrustful beginning of the Holy Family).

The "Reverence Theory" corresponds to the singular sanctity of the man, St. Joseph -- always obedient, always steadfast, always following God's will and trusting in His wisdom. That is the St. Joseph I know, and I have no reason to believe he was ever otherwise.