Saturday, January 21, 2017

Saint Agnes Put Jesus First

Saint Agnes and the "Lamb of God"
Agnes of Rome (c. year 304) was a young woman who put Jesus Christ first in everything, and neither the allurements nor the violence of the powers of this world could take Him away from her.

"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" (antiphon for Saint Agnes, January 21).

Friday, January 20, 2017

Becoming King....

"The order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our author and our end.

"Now what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, tilting at the ring, etc., and fighting, becoming king, without thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man."

~Blaise Pascal, Pensees 146

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

If God is With Us, Why is Life So Full of Darkness?

I have been reflecting recently on the theme of "epiphany," which indicates that the Mystery--the infinite, inexhaustible fulfillment of meaning, goodness, justice, beauty, and happiness that our hearts are made for and that all reality points toward--that this Mystery beyond our understanding, beyond the reach of all our striving, has become manifest, has appeared in the world.

He has indeed revealed himself by taking flesh and dwelling among us, by becoming fully human: Jesus of Nazareth. In the coming months we will reflect upon the whole unfolding of God's revelation and communication of himself to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In these events, God, without ceasing to be the Mystery, enters into the depths of human history for the salvation of a world that not only does not fathom him, but that also fears him and rebels against him. God has redeemed the world.

Because of all this, we proclaim that Jesus is Lord. He has all things. He is the meaning of the universe, the meaning of history, the meaning of today, this day, this moment, now.

But that doesn't mean all our problems "go away." The redemption is not magic. It's not a formula for worldly success. It's not a way of escaping the struggles of being human. It's not about protecting us from suffering.

It's about love. God's love, which is the real truth, the real meaning of history, of this moment, this "now."

Jesus's death happens in a moment in time; his resurrection reveals that he has encompassed all of time and embraced the life of every person in his redeeming love. Jesus enters into our "now" and transforms it into an invitation to respond in love to the mystery of his love. His presence empowers our hearts and draws us to respond more and more in love to his love, to abandon ourselves to his love.

The Source of all things, who sustains all things and "saves them from nothingness," is here. He is with us. His presence and his promise touch our hearts. Yet he remains the Mystery and our lives remain mysterious, full of perplexities, tensions and changes, the foretaste of eternal joy, but also (in what can seem contrary to it) our own insoluble problems, our own pain and suffering.

Human beings live in fear of the mystery of life; they flee from it because it appears to them to be a gaping abyss of darkness. The Christian proposal for our lives does not deny this mysterious abyss, or seek to replace it with some ideology or cheap sentiment. True Christian faith lives the mystery of being human all the way to the abyss and suffers its darkness. Christian faith knows that Jesus is here too, and above all.

Jesus has fathomed the abyss of our own mystery, and calls upon us to trust in him because he encompasses it all in the Mystery itself, in the greater abyss that is Eternal Love. This abyss is an infinite Mercy that will finally take us beyond yearning and longing, beyond ourselves and our limits and into the fulfillment for which we have been made.

He is here and we will be saved if we adhere to him and hold onto him and never let go.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Power that is Good

Remembering on this day the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These simple words have not lost their relevance.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Do I Really Believe in Him?

What does this man Jesus of Nazareth propose to his disciples? And what does he offer to my life, in response to my aspirations, my questions, my struggles with my own limitations, my suffering?

He offers himself. "I am the way and the truth and the life," he says. "Believe in me, follow me."

Do I really believe in him?

Jesus claims that he is the reason why I exist, that I was created so that I might be his brother, the brother of God the Son--the Word made flesh--and thus come to be, in union with him, a child of the Father in the Spirit. This is why I exist; this is the foundation of my identity and destiny as a created person. God made me because he wanted to love me and to give me the power to love him. I was created so that I might be raised up to share in the life of the Trinity.

And this is true for absolutely every human being without exception. It is at the very core of the humanity we all share. Every person is, by the mystery of God's mercy, on a path of life that leads ultimately to an encounter with Jesus, even though so many know nothing about him right now. This is why our lives and words witness to him, Jesus, always, even as we respect people of other religions, engage in dialogue with them, and learn many beautiful things from their stories of seeking truth and longing for goodness and beauty, from the genuine wisdom embodied in their cultures and traditions, and from the mysterious ways God has drawn them and worked in their lives. As we accompany others, collaborate with them, live in friendship with them, and witness to them, we are servants of the grace of God at work in them and in us.

Jesus wants to share his burning love with others, through us. Jesus wants everyone to meet him and to discover that he is the only answer to the search for meaning and the yearning for love that God has fashioned in the depths of every human heart. Only Jesus really knows me; only he can answer for me the question, “Who am I?

At this point, I feel that I have to ask myself: Is this something I really believe? Is it the concrete, motivating impetus of my daily life? Do I experience the presence of Jesus and his real love for me? How do any of us answer these questions?

If we are Christians, we want to say "yes" in some way, however fragile, however buried beneath distractions, obscured, forgotten, or mysteriously at work in deep places of our darkness. If we do not know this joy, how will we share it with others?

We must grow in this awareness, for our own sakes and for others. We must beg the Lord to deepen the conviction and the ardor of our faith and love, so that we will perceive more concretely that the glory of Christ is the real, superabundant, unimaginable answer to every human misery, every human cry of anguish, every authentic human desire for something more than the limits of this world can give.

We Christians: we need this capacity to see life as it really is. Then we will be able to serve others as witnesses, to give love, to bring healing, to meet human needs with God's mercy.

Going out to the margins, the places of anguish and loneliness, becomes possible and vital as we become more deeply aware of the fact that Jesus himself corresponds to the mystery of the human heart -- my own heart, and the heart of every person I meet. We must beg God to give us the grace to see our world, our circumstances --vividly --in light of this truth.

We must beg God to teach us how to pray, to open our eyes and our hearts to recognize his presence, to be changed by his "humble glory." We must seek him in the life of the Church, drawing strength from the Eucharist and the sacraments, and from one another in the companionship that is born from this new unity we share in his goodness and love.

In this begging, this prayer that adheres to the Lord only to long for him all the more, it becomes clear that every person really is my brother or my sister, that we all stand together in need of his mercy.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Christmas All Through the Year

Detail from Ethiopian icon
Although the great feasts of the Christmas season culminated this past weekend, some of us will keep our lights burning through the rest of the month until February 2. Thus the glow of our Christmas cheer will continue to brighten the often gray wintry days and the long cold nights of January.

Ultimately, however, "Christmas" indicates a fact that shapes all of our days and all of our years: God has come into the world.

From Bethlehem to the Jordan, we have celebrated in these recent weeks God's "opening up of himself," his giving of himself to us. He who is the Mystery that every human person seeks, who is on "the other side" of the More that every person pleads for in front of reality: he has done something beyond all of our dreams and our myths and our philosophy and our striving. He himself--the Infinite Mystery--has come into our reality, into actual human flesh and blood.

God is with us. He had made his dwelling among us and remains with us. He has intervened directly and totally in the story of the human race. God himself dwells among us, in the midst of our human weakness, our self-indulgence, our cruelty, barbarism, blindness, idolatry, and willful ignorance of his compassion and love.

God has given everything; he has poured himself out in love, and in so doing he manifests his ineffable glory, for God is Love. The fullness of the revelation of God is in this love that overcomes sin, that embraces us and saves us, redeems us and heals us. The Infinite Mystery is Infinite Mercy.

And Divine mercy has a human face and a name: Jesus.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"My Faith is My Whole Life"

Seven Months.

"My faith is huge to me. It's not like, 'Oh it's just a section of my life.' No, my faith is my whole life" (Christina Grimmie).

Monday, January 9, 2017

Looking For the Meaning of Life? Listen to Him.

Baptism of Jesus, detail from Ethiopian icon.
"A voice came from the heavens, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'" (Matthew 3:17). And then again, at the Transfiguration: "From the cloud came a voice that said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him'" (Matthew 17:5).

“Listen to him.”

Is it not a wonderful thing that there is Someone to whom we can listen?

It means that our lives are not meaningless chaos. All the uncontrollable circumstances, the violence, the disappointments of our lives are understood and taken up by Someone who turns everything to the good, who draws the whole of this crazy life towards a purpose, a fulfillment in wisdom and love.

And if we listen to Him we can enter into that purpose and discover therein redemption and mercy.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

In a New Year, the Problems and Possibilities Remain

Late afternoon Winter sunlight in Marlow Heights.
We have finished the first week of 2017 already, and I am still debating whether I want to actually make any retrospective remarks on the year that has just past. It was a "remarkable" year for me, this 2016, a painful and profound year.

So much happened. So many processes rooted in last year are still unfolding for me, our family, our growth in faith, our nation (the USA), and the world. I'm not sure I can say much about them yet, because I don't know where they are leading, I don't yet know the shape or the depth of it all.

There's not much point in simply reviewing the all the events in the news: the wars and humanitarian catastrophes, terrorist attacks, racial and social tensions, murders, not to mention the distressing election year in America and all the ways we failed one another in charity, justice, and courtesy. The larger events of the year were personal for many of us, in different ways, and of course we had our own particular dramas and difficulties and burdens to carry.

And though we mark time with numbers, there was nothing magic about midnight on January 1 that made our problems go away. Both the problems and the possibilities remain with us.

What can I say at this point? Like many people, I would have to say that the year 2016 was an exceptionally hard year. Not all of the "hard," however, was "bad." Some of it was clearly very good. Some of it was mysterious and paradoxical. Some of it was just plain crummy, but I am (very slowly) learning to "stay in the crummy" and "walk with it" in hope.

I have good reason for hope, and as I grow older this conviction has only gotten stronger in spite of all my inconsistency and forgetfulness and even my efforts to run away. I am not the source of this confidence; rather it is a stubborn thing that persists beneath my anxieties and problems, an impetus that always urges me to get up off the ground, to go further, inch by inch if necessary. I go on because of the One to whom I belong. In every moment I am held in the hands of that Mystery who makes me and calls me, whose light is greater than all darkness, whose torrents of love water the driest deserts.

There were some pretty dry deserts in 2016. There were new and wonderful discoveries too. I studied quite a bit, researched and wrote my articles and other material, and overall learned a lot. I continued to rediscover music and the arts, photography, and the fascinating details of nature that are accessible to me in the beautiful place where I live.

I also "wrestled with the angel in the night" (see Genesis 32:22-32) yet again, finding myself greatly blessed while also "limping" even worse than before. It has been a very long wrestling match this time, but the broken, crippled man who is emerging from it moves forward and uses all that he has left with a greater urgency. The fire in him is deeper, brighter, more ready to forge anew everything that is drawn into it.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Twelfth Night

"O God, who by the Nativity of your Only Begotten Son
wondrously began for your people the work of redemption,
grant, we pray, to your servants such firmness of faith,
that by his guidance they may attain the glorious prize
you have promised."

The Christmas Season reaches its high point in the days of the Epiphany, when we remember the wise men of the Gentiles who followed the star to find him, and John the Baptist who drew him up from the waters as the Spirit came upon him and the Father's voice was heard.

It is Twelfth Night. The Magi have arrived and have found the child with Mary his mother.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A New Year For the World, a New Year For Me

The days of Winter are slowly beginning to grow longer again, even as the air grows colder.

It's a new year for the world and a new year for me too. On January 2, I turned 54 years old.

Thank you, God, for my life.

It hasn't been an easy life and certainly not a "normal" life. It is rich with beauty and fragility, hints of joy and wounds of failure, so many rewards and so many changes, and all the love for things and for people that rises up like a flood only to find that it is not enough to fill me, but only to make deeper my cry for "something more"...

That sweet, awful pain. I keep trying to forget it, but I always find it again, growing secretly, inscrutably, slowly making me ready for You.

I thank You, God, for my life. Through all of it, You have been good.

Our family has some big adventures coming up in 2017. The kids have grown so much since I began this blog nearly six years ago. They will be taking up new challenges this year, some of which I will describe in more detail soon.

And our poor world struggles in so many places, in so many ways. We are all mysteriously bound to one another in this journey. We depend on one another. It would be overwhelming, were it not for the fact that Jesus is with us.

Jesus is with us. God became man, took flesh to dwell with us. I pray that we can all know more fully what this really means, or at least that we can know enough to hold onto Him and trust in Him and let Him carry us.

Dear Jesus, open our hearts to Your presence in this new year, that we might recognize You and love You in every moment, in everything.

Grant that we might be reconciled to one another.

Console and bring healing to those who are suffering, protect human life and the dignity of the human person, especially among the poor, the displaced, the refugees, the oppressed, the lonely, and the victims of every form of violence.

Bring peace and spare us from the scourge of further war.

Place in our hearts worship, adoration, wonder, and committed love for You, trust in the wisdom and goodness of Your will for our lives, and love for one another.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

The year comes to an end, finally.

It was a year of unprecedented violence and destruction, with the news and everybody talking about how many people died.

No one expected there to be so much death.

Still, there was much good in the year. Ordinary people went on with their daily lives, grew in so many ways, and overcame all sorts of obstacles. This was a year to treasure the small victories, the resilience of human beings in the face of all kinds of pressure, the vitality of youth, and the blessings of every moment.

People still celebrated Christmas and the holiday season in this year. Take someone like Roy Armstrong, a teenager who sent a message to his Mom saying:
We went "to a party that the ladies had arranged for us. They had quite a spread in the Connaught Hall & afterwards they gave a concert which was sure worth hearing. One of the ladies invited me to her home anytime I wish to go & I sure am going as, well, she has a swell looking daughter."
It was a difficult year for Roy Armstrong, but these are words full of hope.

At the end of every "bad year" there is hope. The next year is a brand new slate, bearing the image of a newborn baby. A new start. Shake off all the dust of old '16 and move on to '17.

Hope for the new year. Right? Hope for the new year, a century ago, the year 1917?

It was hard, very hard, for people to be hopeful on New Year's Eve in the year 1916. A great portion of the world was helplessly mired in a terrible war, far more horrible and destructive and futile than any war that had ever been fought before.

A lot of people died in 1916. One million soldiers died on the battlefields of Europe. In one year, the names of places and things, towns and rivers suddenly became brand new synonyms for hell: trenches, Verdun, the Somme.

And there was no end in sight.

Then came 1917. Was it better or worse than the previous awful year of 1916? In a way, it was both. It brought more destruction, anguish, and futility, and something new beyond all of that: the collapse of Russia into an unprecedented kind of revolution and the dawn of a new system of human power dedicated to fundamentally altering the very structure of human nature, by whatever means necessary.

Yet on the night of New Year's Eve a hundred years ago, Vladimir Lenin was smoking cigars on his terrace in Zurich. He was a balding intellectual living in exile in Switzerland with nothing but notebooks full of scrawl, a head full of dreams, and the mysteriously faithful Nadya Krupskaya to listen to his rantings and sew the holes in his socks.

1917 was destined to be one heck of a year for Lenin.

War dragged on in Europe, while in America the man who was got himself (re)elected President in 1916 by promising to keep the United States out of the war (his slogan, literally, was "He kept us out of war") very promptly brought America into the mess by April of 1917.

Roy Armstrong, after his Christmas in England in 1916, spent the following year on the Western front with the Canadian Expeditionary Force until he was killed in battle on October 30. He was 19 years old. He never had the chance to get to know that swell girl. Neither did millions of other men of his generation.

The violence of the war intensified into a relentless slaughter even as Russia fell into chaos. Yet 1917 also gave us a new hope.

Three peasant children in a small town in Portugal saw a woman in white who promised peace. She told them that people must pray the great prayer that ranges over the life of Jesus and the birth of the Church, the prayer that was like the New Testament in a string of beads that the most humble person could hold in their hands, that could awaken the message of the Gospel in the mind of a child.

In the year 1917, the world was given a promise for which they were invited to pray. Pray for peace. Pray for Russia, the land of so many tears, so dear to the heart of the Mother of God. Pray the prayer of the Gospel with Mary. Enter into her way of "dwelling on everything in her heart." Pray the Rosary, pray with Mary the Mother of God, the Mother of hope.

But the invitation was drowned out by the guns of war and the ambitions of men. We know the fruit born of this negligence.

Yet Mary did not forget her children. In time she led God's People into her prayer; she raised up her own heroes in the darkness, especially the man in white who was felled by a bullet and soaked in his own blood but didn't die, the man who taught us how to pray, how to be Christians--indeed, how to be human beings.

In our time Russia has been relieved of the long horror of totalitarian communism but remains in turmoil, and much of the world that the Great War created a hundred years ago is now collapsing in ashes and blood. The land we call "the Middle East" is hemorrhaging, its ancient cities in ruins, its peoples driven to wander the roads of the world in desperation.

In the West, we have become more callous to murder and murderers, more corrupt, more foolish because "we know not what we do." Love is lost to us in ambivalence, buried beneath our astonishing wealth and comforts and the vast new powers that we don't understand how to use.

Thus we have arrived at the new year of 2017.

We still long for love. We are desperate for love. There are moments of clarity in events, in life and death, when love shows itself to us like burning fire. How can this kind of fire become the light and warmth of our days?

We now stand at the beginning of 2017 wondering whether love will really prevail, wondering where we can place our hope.

The place of our hope remains the same, and the promise of 1917 remains to be fully realized in our historical time.

We need to pray, to enter more into the heart of Mary's prayer, to be drawn into the light that heals us and can help heal the world.

2016 was a difficult year, and yet the promise still lives, the hope stands before us. Now it is the year 2017. Let us pray.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Putting Our Faith in Worldly Order


The Fifth Day of Christmas also commemorates the bishop and martyr St Thomas Becket, the famous Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century who spoke truth to power, who courageously opposed his friend King Henry II on laws that would have hindered the freedom of Christ's Church.

The Church must never allow her witness to the Gospel to be subordinated or her place co-opted by the violence or seductions of the earthly city. As another English Thomas would point out three centuries later, we truly serve our country and/or any other worthwhile cause or political or social movement in this life only if we serve God first. When we acknowledge God, our own freedom is secured.

"Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder,
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt."

~Thomas Becket in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Thirtieth Anniversary of My First Book, "Fishers of Men"

This book was published in December of 1986. It's hard to believe that it has be thirty years.

Before this month ends, I want to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of my first book, Fishers of Men, by Trinity Communications.

I was a 23 year old graduate student and aspiring writer and research journalist in the Summer and Fall of 1986. Thanks to a grant, I was able to travel to different parts of the country to interview priests about their vocation and ministry, and then publish a collection of "profiles" in a book for Trinity as part of a program geared to fostering vocations to the priesthood.

Are you finished laughing? Okay, the photo is overexposed; thus my "heavily tanned" look. Otherwise, this kid is me!

I have such great memories of this adventure, which really enlarged my horizons and gave me a broad experience of the ministry of the Catholic Church all over the United States.

And, though the book was popular and inspirational in genre, it did stimulate my very young theological reflections about the mystery of the Church in the best way, by bringing me into contact with the flesh of Jesus Christ present and at work in the Church's life and mission in the world.

One can see--for example in these pages--that I have already begun to reflect and write about the themes that still concern me today. Other than having a lot more experience and a lot less energy, I don't feel so different than the young man I was thirty years ago.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas 2016

The Janaro family wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy Christmas Octave and Christmas Season.

We weren't able to get our usual family Christmas picture in our dress outfits after getting home from the Midnight Mass. Instead, here (above) is a collage of kids and grownups in pajamas or house comfy clothes opening presents after a good sleep.

The little "atrium" corner is clothed in "white for celebration":

And we had a lovely Christmas dinner with all the kids home and around the table. Here below, at least, is a picture of the table. You'll have to take my word for it that the food and the company were very special.

I didn't take many pictures this Christmas. I haven't been feeling well and don't have much stamina. I have had to take things as easy as this particular time of year will allow.

Still, it's a great blessing for the Janaro family all to be together, once again, for the holidays. It's something we never want to take for granted, but rather to cherish with gratitude and with a place in our hearts for those who are afflicted with sorrow for so many reasons at Christmas, particularly this Christmas of the year 2016.

Christ is born. Glory to Him!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

O Holy Night

A child was born in a cave one night, long ago,
at the end of a weary journey,
to a family cast out from all comfort,
driven off to a damp cavern in the fields,
out into the dark cold ground of rock
and sparse stubble,
where there was no one to welcome the child
except for the lowest miserable exiles of the night,
the poor of the earth's crusty ground,
burdened with the weary weight of restless watching,
wandering in worn crack-heeled sandals
beneath the clouds, searching
for pale green shoots amidst the sand and stones,
to feed the hunger of their skeletal beasts.

He was born in this wild place,
barely sheltered from the windy sky,
first found by these grizzled ancient forgotten men
who had no reason to think
that anybody loved them or cared for them
or knew the lines of their faces.

But it was to them that he came.

And they found him, the child born that night
under the light of a star
that burned in its core with fire.
And the fire was kindled in their hearts, 
awakening something new,
burning with a joy and a hope
they had never known before.

Tonight that fire burns again in hearts all over the world,
burns with a life greater than all death,
burns with a peace that no violence can take away,
burns hot enough to melt our sorrows,
burns in the deep darkness of the night,
high beyond the reach of our own designs and efforts,
a bright beautiful star lighting up unknown roads ahead,
drawing us to walk through the limits of our fears,
leading us to the love that risks everything
to give itself as love and love alone.

Tonight I am led back to Christmas 2011, when this 17 year old girl belted out her own soulful arrangement of O Holy Night and set YouTube on fire.

It was a spark of that great fire of utterly defenseless, utterly unconquerable love, and it has become a light in many hearts at the end of 2016, a fire that burns with a life that is greater than death, a peace that prevails over all the horror of violence.

Listen below to O Holy Night, produced, arranged, and performed in 2011 by Christina Victoria Grimmie (March 12, 1994 - June 10, 2016), an ordinary girl full of an amazing music, a spectacular voice, and an extraordinary faith:

Friday, December 23, 2016

Support Indie Artists: They Give So Much To Us

The other day on my social media accounts I gave a special shout out to Audrey Assad, who uploaded to her Soundcloud page a quick song she recorded at home (in a few moments she had to spare after finally getting her two year old son to sleep). She set Wordsworth's famous Christmas poem to music, and the words have a deep resonance this Christmas for the daughter of a Syrian refugee of the last generation, who holds the suffering of her father's people close to her own heart.

She has the freedom to do things like this, not only because of digital recording technology and the internet, but also because she has been an "independent artist" since 2013. A revolution has been taking place in the "music industry" over the past ten years, and it can seem very confusing. But it's also an environment where a proven and dedicated artist can find more possibilities to make the kind of music she wants at her own pace and with a deeper connection to the people who recognize its real value.

The easy access to media is used by many different people in different ways, not all of them constructive. But we can only be happy when an artist of Audrey's stature and capability uses diverse media platforms to share her creative process with us.

Seriously, follow Audrey Assad on Soundcloud (see the link below). She posts songs here that she calls "living room demos" -- they are only available streaming on Soundcloud (which is free). She also streams videos and studio music tracks on her YouTube channel. This is why we have to support our INDIE artists - they're doing this for something more than money (though, obviously, they need money, which is why we have to be more than just "fans" -- we have to be collaborators in a community united by a common appreciation of beauty).

Sunday, December 18, 2016

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 preparing to celebrate in the coming days. 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 today's liturgy. 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 Zeffirelli's movie Jesus of Nazareth [and he must have said it, because we saw it], "That's too much for any man to believe!" But still, he was a nice guy so he was willing to 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 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. Last week we read the first 17 verses, which are a genealogy from Abraham through David (the King to whom the promise of God is given) to Jesus. When I hear the genealogies being read, 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 (and might cause consternation) 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.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Cold, Windy Morning

Here's the Janaro Estate on a cold, windy December morning. Nevertheless, the sun brightens everything up now that our usual leafy canopy has fallen off the trees.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

More Bombs, More Sorrow: The Middle East Continues to Bleed

Lord, have mercy.

Here are some of the faces of those killed in the terrorist suicide bombing on November 11 in Egypt. Twenty three Coptic Christians died and many others were wounded in the attack at St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo.

So much violence: it is heart-rending to see the faces of these victims, especially the young faces. Among the dead were two teenagers and a twenty year old. May the Lord give them peace in His presence, and may He console the families and bring healing to the wounded.

It is ironic that in a relatively isolated terrorist incident, victims can be identified and--thanks to their own shared images in social media--their faces can be seen by the world. Perhaps they can stand as symbols for all the unknown dead of this region that suffers from the strange fever of a relentless war.

Let us remember that every victim of violence has a human face, precious, worthy of love, just like the human faces of those who mourn them and weep tears of sorrow, just like the human face that God shaped for His Only Son in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

Monday, December 12, 2016

We Are All Her Children

We have arrived once again at that wonderful celebration of the very precious gift that the Lord has given us in taking flesh and being "born of a woman." This woman is the one who helps us in a unique way in our journey with Jesus. She is the great companion who has gone before us, our Mother Mary.

How striking she appears in the image of the tilma of Juan Diego, the mysterious image through which she communicates her presence at the center of the American continent and indicates her openness to every person and to all peoples.

Our Lady of Guadalupe is with us above all to draw us into her tenderness. She wants us to give her our burdens and sorrows and to listen to her so as to discover in a new way that each of us is loved, personally, intimately, by her Son Jesus.

Each one of us matters. Each one of us has a purpose. Above all, each one of us is the child of a good God who will not fail us in time of need.

Our Merciful Mother gives us Jesus her Son and our brother. And she knows and cherishes each of us as his brothers and sisters, as her own children, and she attends us with great compassion throughout our lives.

Nuestra SeƱora de Guadalupe, pray for us.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Searching to See the Face of Love

Dear Jesus,
I sometimes feel a whole world that cries out for You
but does not know Your name.
So much goodness in souls,
so many hearts that run up against limits
and barriers,
and why are they so restrained?
Why do they not see you?

It is not because You do not love them
with all Your infinite compassion.
You know and hold the hearts of each of them.
And You know the things that prevent them
or hold them back from explicitly recognizing You,
and You know what is their fault,
and what they cannot help;
You know what is beyond the reach
of their present human circumstances.
You know the obstacles that not even heroic goodness can overcome.
You know the searching, the desire to see You, to see the face of Love
that burns deep in their hearts,
even when hidden from their own ordinary awareness.
You know all, and You look upon all with infinite compassion,
with patience;
yet also with the ardent urgency of a Lover
who longs to lavish Himself completely on the one
(each and every one)
that He loves,
and to be fully known and loved in return,
so that love might become unity
and communion between God and man.
Each man.
Each woman.

You have this embracing Love

and yet only a few seem to recognize You,
and even fewer to love You
or find any space at all for You in their hearts.
We do not understand how Your love works.
We only know that it works for each and all
with tenderness and passion,
with mercy and forgiveness,
with all the attention of a particular love;
We know that for You,
every human person
without exception
without exception
no one is excluded
every human person
is a Love Affair for You.
That is what the Cross means....

Thank you Lord for showing to us the love of Your heart
and moving us to desire that all the world know You.
For this desire is only a faint echo in us
of the mysterious call You utter in the heart of every person.
Why have You revealed Your love to us?
Not so that we might feel superior to others.
But so that we might be the servants, the messengers,
the images in the world of that Love;
so that every person who encounters us
might meet in that moment some small flash
of the radiance of Your Infinite Love.
So that each person You send us
might have a taste of the mystery,
of the truth,
that he or she is loved by You.

Such is the love You have entrusted to us
and we feel utterly beyond this task;
we feel overwhelmed by the vocation
to bring Your love to those we meet,
to the world.
But praise be to you, Jesus,
for we do not carry this love by ourselves.
Because it is the Cross,
it is carried by You in us,
and we are given the grace to share with You
the wonderful burden of this Love.

We are called,
and this is Your work.
You have wounded us with Your Love.
We have heard You whisper, "my Beloved,"
and we can no longer look at any human being
without hearing that same voice
and feeling that same beautiful pain in our own hearts.
You have given us this road of suffering.
You give us this share in Your enormous hunger and thirst,
Your drawing close to every human heart that suffers
and searches for You.
And so we walk the roads of the world together,
in love,
with all people, with all our brothers and sisters.

By Your grace, and Your inexhaustible Mercy–
for we shall often fail You–
draw us along the road of this Love,
unite us to You,
carry us,
for we ourselves are frail,
we are weak and need healing,
we need to be borne completely in Your Loving arms
in the steps of this life You have prepared for us.
Convince us, O Lord,
that You will never fail us.
Your grace and Your Mercy are always sufficient for us.
Take away our fear.
Give us complete trust in You,

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Six Months Later: Remembering the Smile of Hope

I read a portion of a sermon earlier this week, from the Wednesday address of Pope Francis, and I could not help but associate it with a very particular face.

This face. This smile.

It is the smile of hope.

Christina Grimmie was murdered six months ago at the age of 22. But her face, her smile and her whole joy-filled, passionate personality have "written hope" into the hearts of countless people all over the world.

The music and the incredible singing, of course, are the most obvious features of her enduring legacy as an artist.

But people still seek out her smile, the natural, unselfconscious smile that flashes thousands of times on seven years of YouTube videos. What makes her smile so compelling?

It communicates hope. It hints at a joy that cannot be killed, that endures beyond even the most incomprehensible violence because it comes from something greater than this whole world of brutality and evil and destruction.

Christina did not have an easy life. She was a regular girl with all the ordinary problems of girls growing up. Throughout her own life, she also suffered for her mother who has been four times treated for cancer, who no one imagined would outlive her daughter (but who has lived to mourn and grieve and raise a heart-rending lament to God that still remains full of faith). Christina was a complex, vulnerable human being. She was a great artist--arguably the greatest pop vocalist of this generation--struggling to break through a corrupt music industry without compromising herself. She endured anxieties and disappointments, made mistakes and had failings.

But she also had hope.

Last Wednesday, Pope Francis made this important point:

"One of the first things that happens to those who drift away from God is that they are people without a smile. Perhaps they are capable of great laughter … a joke, a laugh … but the smile is missing. The smile gives hope: it is the smile of the hope of finding God. Life is often a desert: it is difficult to journey through it, but if we entrust ourselves to God it can become beautiful and wide as a highway. It is enough never to lose hope; it is enough to continue to believe, always, in spite of everything."

It is enough never to lose hope; it is enough to continue to believe, always, in spite of everything.

In a violent world, the smile of Christina Grimmie remains as an icon of hope.