Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The End of 2013: We Have Grown in This Year

It is New Year's Eve.

Has the year gone by quickly? No way! I feel like we've lived through a decade. On New Year's Eve of 2012, I would never have imagined what kind of a year this would be. So many things happened. But just look at 2013 in terms of its most public drama.

Twelve months ago, if you had asked me, "who is the most famous Argentinian in the world?" I would have said, "Lionel Messi, of course!"

[He's a soccer player, just in case you don't know...]

Jorge who?

My gosh, no one saw that coming.

I woke up one February morning, opened up Twitter and saw *Pope Benedict Resigns* on someone's tweet, and I thought, "Yeah, right! What's this, The Onion again? Or someone is spreading pseudo-news on Twitter. Some joke! I'm not fooled, no sirree, not me, I'm know how this goes, ha. ha. ha. ..."

Here was Pope Benedict on Twitter, just the day before. What could be more solid that that?

My main man! The Pope who reassures me every day about God's mercy.

There were so many days when Benedict had words in a tweet, or a homily or one of his encyclicals, that would pull me out of my deep hole! I would come out of the funk, at least a little, enough to say, "Yes, this is reality. God is here. He loves me. I can trust him."

Anyone who thinks that Benedict XVI was some kind of dark, somber pope has obviously either never listened to him or has never been in the dark.

Resign!? No way, that's crazy, that can't possibly happen, that's just....

But I kept seeing the tweets. There were lots of them. Do you remember seeing this for the first time? This was not a joke.

It was only February 11, 2013.

Resign. He was letting go, not out of fear but with trust in the mighty power of God's mercy. Benedict was moving forward, with confidence that the Church is always in the hands of the Lord.

This blog has covered the events that followed. We experienced the first digital interactive multimedia conclave. We watched and prayed with the cardinals right up until the doors closed in the Sistine chapel. And then we stared at the live stream videos of the smoke stack, and then after that we waited forever at the window of St. Peter's until Franciscum Georgium Marium somethinorother was announced and millions of people went:


And we had our first, unforgettable look at this man. We thought we had finally reached the end of an extraordinary ecclesial event.

It was only the middle of March, 2013.

We had no idea what was still to come.

I'm not talking about the media attention, the "controversies," or even the controversies-about-whether-or-not-there-should-be-controversies. I'm talking about the challenge that this man's witness has introduced into our lives (I should say, first of all, into my life). It's a challenge that comes from the distinctive "accent" that he brings to his way of living the gospel and looking at human beings. It has been impossible to ignore.

The Lord has been using him to provoke us and to change us. Sometimes we wrestle, in different ways, but none of us can really deny that we are wrestling with the vocation to grow more profoundly in our confidence that Jesus is living in His Church and guiding her in the Holy Spirit.

What awaits us in 2014? What awaits me, our family, our home, our community? Each day it will unfold, along with the promise of Jesus, the promise that sustains us, the promise that we must always remember: "I am with you always...."

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Economy: What's the Big Picture?

Look! Money! Lots and lots of Money!
Now that I have your attention...
2013 hasn't been a banner year for most people's economic confidence.

We're worried about stuff. We're worried about debt, taxes, monetary policy, China, debt, mandates, bad websites, education, debt, downturn, outsourcing, China, debt, unemployment, under-employment, debt, foreclosure, products, China, energy reserves, resources, climate change, pollution, China, poverty, debt, heathcare, trade, China, wages, benefits, stock, retirement, debt, bankruptcy, fiscal collapse, bailouts, treasury bonds, China, politics, debt, debt. debt, DEBT... TRILLIONS AND TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS, and.... (wait, how many zeros does a trillion have again?)

Is "it" all going to come crashing down? Or is "it" just going to crumble slowly? You know, our "way of life"....

The Janaros are struggling, economically. We're pinching pennies and just getting by. We're not rich. We make a lot of sacrifices. We manage, somehow.

Then I put things in historical perspective. It doesn't really make me feel better; I like the life I have; it's the only way of living I have ever known. I'm used to living the way I do, and I consider it normal.

But there is nothing "normal" about it, really.

This is the fact: as 21st century Americans who are (broadly speaking) "middle class" we are -- BY FAR -- among the richest and most comfortable and (in our possibilities for for so many life choices) most "powerful" people who have ever lived in the history of the human race!

Just think about it for a minute.

Look at this house I live in, this house that is "much too small" for our family. Ha ha ha! Emperors in all their glory had nothing like the power that is accessible to me at the flick of a finger. I command the light, the water, and even the air temperature of my dwelling. I am master of my realm. And then I have two blazing chariots ("used clunkers," but they still go), that can transport me vast distances in any direction I choose.

If Odysseus and his crew found themselves at my house, all I would have to do is flick on a light switch and they would fall on their faces and worship me as a god! (Granted, I can't turn them into pigs. But I can give them television and nachos and microwave popcorn and beer....)

But never mind the ancients. What nobleman, what lord, what king, what rich smug capitalist from a hundred years ago can say what the average middle class American can still say today, namely, that with a computer, a credit card, and an airline ticketing website, we can travel anywhere we want on this planet within seventy two hours. Decide now, and We can be there in three days. Australia? Non-stop. India? Non-stop. Timbuktu? Okay, that's a bit of a challenge. First we change flights, preferably in Paris. From there we fly to the international airport at Barnako, Mali, which has domestic flights to Timbuktu. Assuming there's no civil war going on, I can book the tickets NOW. The connection in Mali might be a bit unpredictable. But that's why I said "three days."

Are we not, materially speaking, the richest and most powerful people who have ever lived?

My little house has magical gadgets that never occurred to Kubla Khan in his wildest dreams of Xanadu. Here, right now, I am sitting in front of the glittering computer square that can make the space between me and anywhere else in the world evaporate.

Louis XIV? Bah! He would have envied my bathroom.

So what is my point? Many in the world today live without what we commonly consider "necessities." Indeed, our loaded lifestyle has its polar opposite in the hunger and sheer misery of millions of people. Still, our society is capable of opening up these possibilites to anyone. 200 years ago no one lived with anything like the material comfort that we possess. We are uniquely endowed with wealth, and with a "living network" that puts colossal possibilities within our reach.

But with all our material strength, we Americans have difficulties. Some of our difficulties are fundamental, and it cannot be denied that the vast power we possess has also created new problems that our ancestors never had to bear. Life remains hard, because the human person is so much more than material wealth and power. It can be overwhelming. People become dizzy with so many choices and experiences that can be multiplied without ever bringing satisfaction.

My son astutely observed that "today, life is easier physically but harder mentally." We can cure so many diseases today, and yet our "way of life" has made us vulnerable to new diseases that we hardly understand: diseases that kill us or drain us or rob us of our minds. Everyone is under stress to be productive in a way that can be quantified -- a way that expresses and extends our material power. The inner development of the human person is not seen as an end worth pursuing for its own sake, but at best as a means to make human beings more coherent and imaginative, and therefore more productive of new ways to dominate the material world. Everything is an "industry." I work in the "Education Industry," which surprised me when I first found out. I thought I was a teacher.

These are great difficulties. But they do not cancel out the fact that material progress has brought many blessings to daily life. In principle, it has the capacity to free us for a deeper cultivation of understanding and freedom, and to be able to perceive all of our work as service, as an expression of self-giving, and as a participation in the interpersonal relationships that give rise to a real human community.

When I think of my relationship with God, my opportunities to educate my children and to share life with others in community, it is clear that these are the true riches. I want my living environment to help support these riches (and it can, in many ways). But if it hinders or distracts me from living like a human being, then it has really become a form of poverty.

I know for sure that, to be human, I do not need as much material power and possessions as I can possibly acquire. What I need is "enough," which means enough material wealth to be able to fulfill my vocation and to assist those who are deprived of what they need.

Indeed, humans are blessed with material wealth (just as we are blessed with personal talents) in order to give to one another, to help sustain one another as human beings, to be bonded together in the sharing of concrete human life.

In this manner, we store up a treasure that will endure in the face of any economic crisis, a treasure that moth cannot eat and thief cannot steal, a treasure that survives the rise and fall of nations, a treasure that does not depend on our power because it is perfected in weakness.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

What Shall We Offer You

O Christ,
what shall we offer You
for Your coming on earth as a man for our sake?
Every creature that has its being from You
gives thanks to You:
The angels offer hymns of praise,
the heavens give a star;
wise men present their gifts
and the shepherds, their wonder;
the earth provides a cave
and the desert a manger.
As for us,
we offer You a Mother,
a Virgin Mother.
O God who are from all eternity,
have mercy on us!

--from Christmas Vespers, Byzantine Liturgy  

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Celebration of a Miraculous Birth

Here is something from the time capsule that is pretty well done. On Christmas Day, December 25, 1990, young JJ penned a theological meditation on the much-neglected mystery of the birth of Jesus. Here it is, from the archives:

Christ is born of the Virgin Mary. Come, let us adore Him.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas: We Cannot Calm Each Other's Restlessness

Merry Christmas 2013! Praised be Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, the Prince of Peace, God-With-Us, our hope.

Ok, Teresa too. My little girls.
We had a quiet Christmas at home this year. Well, it was as quiet as Christmas with five kids can be. They still have plenty of enthusiasm, even if Josefina is the only one still young enough to have that little kid sense of wonderfulness that is practically bursting out of her.

We went to the morning Mass, and then came home to take our annual Christmas photo before changing into comfy clothes and opening presents. That picture has circulated plenty among friends, but I'll post it again here for the record:

The Janaros, Christmas 2013
Presents: lots of things to eat and small items. We did get a new microwave oven, thanks to a gift card from Eileen's brother. Uncle Walter came and added to the fun (and the stash of presents). Then we had a really good dinner.


Even in difficult times, this day in December has a hold on us. It won't allow us to lose our sense of wonder.

But as we grow older, the celebration of Christmas is more and more filled with memories that are precious and tender but also irrevocably past. People who shaped this day for many years are no longer part of it. The present time, and (God willing) the times to come will bring fresh memories, but we become more aware of how fragile they are.

It is not so much that we learn to take nothing for granted. Rather, we learn that everything is granted. Everything is a gift. We pass through life, through time and pain and aching loss. Past memories and present suffering can cause us to weep, and we learn how poor we are in front of one another.

All of our gifts and all the efforts of our love fall short, and we cannot calm each other's restlessness.

Still our present moments and our memories have a warm glow like garland when we remember that they reflect the light that is leading us home.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Joseph Might Not Have Thought What We Think He Thought

Everyone is familiar with the Gospel reading from Sunday'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. He will assure that Mary is protected, no doubt by someone worthier than himself. The only role he 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 19, 2013

In the Father's Hand

I need to print these words out and hang them up, like, right in front of my face; i.e. I need to remember the truth that is expressed here, again and again and again.

      "Become like a child
      and lay your life
      with all the searching and ruminating
      into the Father's hand."

Still, even this beautiful advice (that St. Teresa Benedicta [Edith Stein] wrote to a friend) can become abstract. "Lay my life into the Father's hand"... what does that actually mean? How exactly am I supposed to do this?

Something struck me today that helped me get past all of that, and remember how very simple it really is.

A child in a father's hand... I remember what it was like to hold a very, very little child in my own hands.

I've held five little children in my hands, and I cherished each one of them. I even made up little songs for each of them, and I remember looking at their little eyes and singing their songs to them.

The youngest of my children was particularly small, helpless, and vulnerable. How did I carry her in my hands? What did I expect her to do for me in order to "earn" my love? How ridiculous! I know that the father who held that tiny, imperiled child couldn't even imagine such a question.

My gosh, I just wanted her to live! I wanted to love her, all the more because her life was so fragile. My child! I am bending over, in the picture above -- bending down to put my face next to hers. She is helpless, and so I do everything I can to draw close to her. My desire is to pour out everything I have so that she will live and grow and become herself.

Of course, I am a selfish man, and I rarely live up to this desire in the daily circumstances of raising my own children. But I try. I know something of what a father's love is meant to be.

I try to give what is good to my children.

"How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:11)

Stop being afraid. Stop trying to comprehend it. Stop trying to justify yourself. You know that a father's strength is in his tenderness, and all his ardor is for your healing.
"Become like a child and lay your life with all the searching and ruminating into the Father's hand."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dear Young Adult Singles: Some Words About Marriage (link)

Yesterday, I posted about marriage as a guest blogger on the excellent blog of Arleen Spenceley. You can read the post by clicking HERE.

As a college professor, I feel in my element getting to know young people and encouraging them as I see their talents and creativity unfold. Blogging and social media have opened up new possibilities for collaborating with the next generation and learning from them too. I have made the acquaintance of some terrific people who are doing a great deal of good both on the "digital continent" and beyond it. It is a privilege to contribute to this good work and to support it.

Arleen Spenceley is a remarkable young lady who has education and experience in the mental health field, and who is a journalist with the Tampa Bay Times. She blogs on human sexuality, relationships, and the true meaning of love, and she's bringing the wisdom of Blessed John Paul II out there, into the dialogue with evangelical Christians and also the secular media. Presently she's writing a book that will be coming out next year.

I was glad to do a guest post from the perspective of some older folks (but not that much older) who can relate to the experience of many of her readers, but who have also gone somewhat further down the road.

My wife Eileen and I both know what it's like to be young twenty-something singles in graduate school and working, and also what it's like to be married for a decent stretch and to struggle with difficult circumstances that have taught us much. One thing we've learned is just how real the marriage vows become in life, and how great is the strength of the sacrament.

But there is no need to rewrite the whole thing now; if you haven't already done so above, go ahead and read the piece (and check out Arleen Spenceley's blog) by clicking HERE

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How Can I "Rejoice" When I Feel Miserable?

Today we rejoice because the light of Christmas is on the horizon. Recently we found flowers in the midst of winter, and now we see early roses bloom. Let us be glad and....

Wait, hold on. I don't feel "glad" or "happy" or in a "joyful" mood. I feel crummy. I feel fuzzy headed. My legs hurt. My fuel tank is empty. I don't even know why I'm writing this post.

Maybe I just want to note that joy -- the joy of a Christian -- is a mysterious thing. Certainly, joy can involve a self-conscious flood of positive emotions, like bright flowers blooming inside us. But even when we don't see flowers, the roots are still there. And the roots are deep.

If we nurture those roots, flowers and fruits are poured forth in ways that we may not see or feel at all. That's a mystery. Am I exaggerating? Look at Mother Teresa. She radiated love and joy, and enkindled it everywhere she went. Yet, as we now know, she felt nothing inside herself for forty years.

She felt no joy. Everything that came forth from her rootedness in the love of God was poured out and given away. She was a fire of joy in the hearts of others.

Of course, Mother Teresa was a saint and a mystic.

I'm plugging along, hoping desperately in God's infinite mercy. Do I have "joy"? Given the Pope's recent text on The Joy of the Gospel, it's a question worth asking.

I beg the Lord to give me joy, to fill my heart with joy.

Yet discouragement is always just outside the door of my heart, making snarky comments about the whole thing. Cynicism proposes itself as a sickly sweet substitute for my emotions. I want to indulge in it, and sometimes I do.

Lord Jesus, forgive me. Never let me give in to discouragement or cynicism.

Well, I still feel crummy, but there is something down there that holds off discouragement; indeed something inside me refutes it, counters it radically with a conviction, something that I know from my encounter with reality.

We don't rejoice because we think it's a good idea to rejoice. We rejoice because of something that happened. We rejoice because a child is born. An event has happened and continues to "happen," because God has really entered history. Jesus. God is changing history, and I have been embraced by that change.

I don't say, "God is Love; God loves me" because it's a sentiment that makes me feel good. I say "God loves me" because He really does love me. He creates my being in every moment. He calls me to Himself. But to help me to discover, remember, and dwell with this ever-faithful love, He has embraced me with a human heart. He has become a little child, a man, my brother. He has made his dwelling with me, with us, with all of us His brothers and sisters.

So I rejoice, because I cannot deny this joy, however strange its ways may be on the bumpy road of the present moment. The light that is the cause of my joy is real. He is here, and His light is not obscured by any difficulties. Sometimes it is an ember burning deep in the dark, faint to my own afflicted eyes, but with enough brightness and enough heat to remind me to keep breathing moment by moment; indeed, to remind me that every moment is worth it!


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why the Virgin of Guadalupe Means So Much to Me

I must have been a child when I first heard of the event of December 12, 1531. Back then, we didn't see the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe much. There weren't many new immigrants of any kind in those days, and our Catholic forebearers had brought their own Madonnas with them (there are so many ways that Mary has drawn close to her children in different places).

It was in college that I learned about the history, and this man named "Juan Diego" (I remember wondering -- in those long ago days -- why this guy wasn't a saint or a blessed or anything). I learned about the extraordinary conversions, the inexplicable nature of the image and preservation of the cloth, and that the shrine still existed (somewhere down there, down down down... down there, somewhere).

I don't recall being taken by it in any personal way, however. Like many Americans, my first experience of a Marian shrine was in Europe. I went on a pilgrimage to Fatima in 1987, and it was a profoundly moving experience. Then I began to realize that we had a Marian shrine of our own right on the campus of the Catholic University of America. It may have been at the National Shrine, in the midst of so many chapels dedicated to Marian traditions throughout the world, that I first became drawn to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (reproduced in a mosaic in the Guadalupe chapel there).

As a professor I became more familiar with her place in the history of the hemisphere, and I couldn't help noticing the special attention of Pope John Paul II to the Guadalupan shrine. And of course, Mexican and other Latino immigrants had arrived in abundance even in the Shenandoah Valley, and we had a convent of bilingual Mexican religious sisters in the area who dedicated themselves to working among these immigrants (while also studying at our college). They showed me Mary's maternal love in action, and they also gave us the large "official" reproduction of the image that still presides over our dining room.

It was only in January of 1999, however, that I finally made a trip to Mexico City. Even here, the point of my travel was focused on the visit of John Paul II (yet again) to promulgate the document from the previous year's "Synod of the Americas" (although the Pope was insistent and emphatic about using the term in the singular, referring to the entire Western hemisphere from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego as "America" -- this was an important feature of his perspective on the history, present, and future reality of America).

I also hoped to make a pilgrimage to the shrine and see Our Lady of Guadalupe. This was just after the birth of our second child, and I had a lot to pray for and also to be grateful for.

What I was entirely unprepared for was what happened to me when I actually found myself in front of the real image.

I had met many people in my life. I had been captivated by the radiance of extraordinary human personalities and experienced their intangible but unmistakable attraction. I had met and conversed with saints (Mother Teresa, John Paul II, and others who have not yet reached ecclesiastical honors) and had been taken by surprise at their capacity to see me personally, understand me and show compassion to me.

But nothing prepared me for what happened when I brought my distracted humanity into what is perhaps the most widely visited religious shrine on earth.

I looked at her and everything fell away: my thoughts, my intentions, my whole understanding of what I was doing there. All that time I thought that I was going to see this artifact. But suddenly I realized that I was in the presence of a person who wanted to see me.

In retrospect, I might be inclined to consider this a matter of my imagination; however, so many Guadalupe pilgrims I have spoken to understand exactly what I mean, and have had very similar experiences.

She is there. I am sure of it. I met her.

I felt an entirely unanticipated silence in my soul. I had come to talk, but now I found myself listening.

And what I heard was something completely simple: "You are very much loved."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I'm Dreaming of a White... Advent?

Casa Janaro: Only in Virginia do they close schools for this bit of powdered sugar.
So we had some snow! It wasn't that much, but one of the nice things about living in "the south" is that the schools were closed anyway. The kids like that and Eileen likes it especially.

We had two snow days, which meant that everyone was home and everyone had at least some fun in the snow. There were bundled children and snowmen and hot cocoa and all that good stuff. We have a child young enough to still find the whole thing magical, and older kids who have fun helping her, and kids in between who can do fun and interesting things on their own.

Yesterday was a sunny day and not too cold. Our front yard looked like a picture on a postcard (indeed, our lawn looks best when it's covered by snow, haha). When Josefina woke up, she could hardly wait to go play. She got herself prepared with lots of warm clothing:

She says, "I'm smiling but it's behind that!"

I think this outfit was mostly for dramatic effect. She took off the face wrap when it came time to get down to business outside. With the help of eldest sister, Josefina built what Agnese described as "a hobbit hole." (Of course, hobbits are on everyone's mind these days!) I would think that a hobbit hole would be more roomy, but this one was only big enough for one hobbit:

Once upon a time, in a hole, there lived a hobbit!

She had fun with her big sister, who gave her help (and maybe even the idea).

Meanwhile, Teresa came in at one point and asked me if she could have eight almonds. I know she likes almonds, and I'm happy to share them, but this was an unusually precise request. When I went out a little later, I found out why:

It's a Snow... uh... Person! After it melts, it will be a healthy snack.

Well, we certainly had fun. Snow is very entertaining and stunningly beautiful... once or twice a year. I've had my fill for the year, and now I'm ready for 60 degrees in the day and an early Spring!

The problem is that Winter hasn't even started.

That's okay, because everyone else around here disagrees with me anyway.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Born of a Woman

"Mary, I surrender myself to you. I am all yours and all that I have is yours!"

This entrustment is a work that is always growing. I find myself saying, "I give to you especially the fear that keeps me from really giving everything. I give you my unwillingness to give everything to you -- my continued holding back."

I believe that this makes sense, somehow, in the mysterious logic of prayer. In the end, I must not be afraid of fear, or let any hesitation prevent me from turning to the Lord and begging that He might create within me that which I do not yet possess in my soul and that I cannot produce by any effort of my own.

This is clearly seen in my approach to the Mother of God. "Why Mary?" The question pops up for so many of us, in one way or another. And yet, going to Mary makes me step outside myself and enter into a real history. God is born of a woman.

Mary's motherhood bypasses all my ruminating and the weakness of my nature and the pride of my theories; She says, "Here is my Son. Here is Jesus."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent: Playing Games With Jesus

"Stir up Your power, O Lord,
and come to our help with mighty strength,
that what our sins impede
the grace of Your mercy may hasten
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

-- Collect, from Week I of Advent

Here we are, beseeching the Lord that His power and His mighty strength might enter our lives in the form of mercy, and that this Divine Mercy might bring about by the miracle of grace the transformation of our lives by overcoming all our efforts to stop it.

Hasten (bring even more quickly) the very thing that our sins impede (the thing we try so hard to push away, run from, or ignore). Bring about by the grace of Your mercy that relationship of fulfillment for which our hearts were made, but which we cannot achieve or even understand by our own power.

I think I want to hold onto my own power and remain within the limits of what I can achieve, but He has already placed within me a deeper desire; His grace has already awakened within me the desire to be brought beyond myself to know and love Him.

This mysterious game that I play with God.

I want me to lose. I want Jesus to win.

Dear Jesus, defeat my selfishness, break down my pride, outwit my foolishness. Jesus, win me for Yourself! Make me the person You will me to become in Your wisdom and redeeming love.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Woo Hoo! My Son the Basketball Player!

John Paul Janaro on the basketball court
Ah, the basketball season has begun!

Yes, I know that the big guys in NBA and NCAA have been playing for awhile already. I'm talking about the basketball season that matters, namely, Chelsea Academy's basketball season.

John Paul decided to go in for basketball this year, and he's on the JV team, which means he'll get to play... at least sometimes.

I can go back in my mind to a windy March day in the year 2006, when I set up a basketball hoop in our driveway. Back then, I had to put it on the children's height level (which I think is seven and a half feet). It was great because at that level I could do slam dunks. But it was pretty high for an eight year old boy and his little sisters. Over the years, they have thrown various spherical objects at that hoop: kid sized basketballs, soccer balls, volley balls, or any kind of bouncy ball that was handy. We probably have twenty five deflated balls somewhere in the carport.

(We have a barbecue grill out there too)
At some point (I don't remember exactly when), we raised the height level to ten feet.

Over the years, the kids have improvised many games on that driveway, but often the old hoop was neglected. It was hard to throw a ball all the way up there.

But it was there. A basketball hoop in the driveway: my monument to The American Dream.

John Paul in the scrum.
Now, late in the afternoon I hear <bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce> and I go outside and John Paul is popping shots from all over the driveway. Along with tennis and baseball and street hockey with roller blades, John Paul has gotten pretty good at basketball. Of course, he's not six feet nine inches tall, so this is not likely to be his road to riches and fame. That's just as well; we can focus on the fun!

High school basketball at this level can be a lots of fun. One reason is that hitting a shot and scoring is a big deal in these games. It is by no means to be presumed that a well executed setup will result in two points. The final scores are like 22-18. The kids have plenty of teamwork but no sharpshooters. As a result, the game resembles a soccer match except with a lot more goals: hard play, running, passing, getting into position, and then the shot which goes in... once in a while. And when it happens, we've got something to cheer about!

This is a good sports program for a small school, and especially for an academically intensive liberal arts academy. The kids get lots of exercise, learn how to work as a team, and have just enough competitive challenge to make it fun. It's a game, like it should be. Their lives don't depend on it. Nevertheless, they're playing the game because they want to win! No doubt about that.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Charles de Foucauld and the New Evangelization

It's December 1st again. This year it's the first Sunday of Advent, but it's a day that will always draw my mind and my soul to the memory of this great heart burning in the desert, who poured out his life's blood 98 years ago today.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld sought Jesus by dwelling in the midst of the poorest and most forgotten peoples, and dedicating himself to their service. He lived as the presence of the love of Jesus among the desert nomads at the margins of the Islamic world.

He took the lowest place and became the servant of everyone, calling himself the "little brother" of Jesus, and in his lonely and obscure death he sowed in that mountainous desert the seeds of those ways of witnessing to God that we are searching for today. We must follow him by seeking Jesus in prayer and love, in the Eucharist and in the face of every human person.

"We are all children of the Most High. All of us: the poorest, the most outcast, a newborn child, a decrepit old person, the least intelligent human being, the most abject, an idiot, a fool, a sometimes sinner, the greatest sinner, the most ignorant, the last of the last, the one most physically and morally repugnant - all children of God and sons and daughters of the Most High. We should hold all human beings in high esteem. We should love all humankind, for they are all children of God."
-- Blessed Charles de Foucauld