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 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.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Saint Juan Diego On the Fridge

The Guadalupe Festival 2016 begins with the feast day of my friend Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin.

Juan Diego and the Madrecita are all over the house, but I decided to feature from our collection of home iconography this fridge magnet:

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Matchbreaker: Christina Grimmie's First and Last Movie

We watched The Matchbreaker the other night. I didn't really expect much from this indie film. The trailers seemed a bit awkward to me. But I knew it could not possibly disappoint me. Christina Grimmie sings and walks around and breathes in this movie. That alone makes it worth watching.

In fact, The Matchbreaker is actually a cute, entertaining romantic comedy. It is, of course, Christina Grimmie's only movie, filmed last year. Though she didn't live to see the big screen premiere and limited theatrical run this Fall, she did get to see the final cut some weeks prior to her murder at the hands of a deranged gunman after her concert in Orlando, Florida on June 10, 2016.

The movie has various light-hearted endearing facets so that you can enjoy it without being entirely heartbroken anew over the tremendous loss of this magnificent young woman (even if, like us, you wouldn't have even heard of the movie, much less watched it, if it weren't for her). She sings parts of four classic-style jazz songs flawlessly and gently (and sings the full songs on the soundtrack). She also plays her role very well, but the goofy antics of Wesley Elder's character and some of the supporting roles draw more attention and are on the whole a nice surprise.

The Matchbreaker is just a light comedy that doesn't try to be anything more. Still, it's Christina Grimmie and if you love her you will feel heartbroken when you watch it, but not entirely heartbroken. You will laugh, and be grateful for yet another precious gift from her, another part of her cherished legacy.

Christina is not the center of this movie. She shines the spotlight on others here... but of course, that's what she always did. That, ultimately, is what made her so great: she always shined her light outward, beyond herself.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Last Lonely Leaves of Autumn

As December begins, most of the trees are done shedding their leaves, but these big maples are still hanging on for a little longer.

Here's me and one of the last leafy maple trees. I've been letting the beard grow, but it might be time for a trim. Geepers, there's a lot of... umm... "silver" hair there. Some folks have said that if I let it grow a bit longer, I could pass for Santa!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Saint Nicholas Day


"We humbly implore your mercy, Lord:
protect us in all dangers
through the prayers of the bishop Saint Nicholas,
that the way of salvation may lie open before us."

~Collect for the Feast of Saint Nicholas

Monday, December 5, 2016

Someone is Present Here and Now, and Loves You

We are made for love. We want to love one another with all sincerity and earnestness. In fact we are called to real self-giving love, here and now, in the circumstances of our daily life.

But here is the rub: we seem to want anything other than the actual life we have, with its often obscure challenges and demands. Why do we always look for ways to escape?

Lets face it. When we hear about "real loving," we say "yes, of course, that's wonderful," and yet we still try to run away, or else we chafe under the weight of what seems like an imposed task. Why are we burdened? What are we afraid of?

Perhaps we are afraid to love because we think we have to make it happen by ourselves. We find no power within ourselves to love. We want to, but we can't. Everything in us feels bent, distorted, tainted by the monster of our ego. And we think that all we have is our own brokenness.

But this is not true. We are not alone. First and fundamentally, before and within everything else, we are loved. We begin to give ourselves in love when we say "yes" to the love that is being given to us.

There is a Someone, right now, who says to each and every one of us, "I love you. You are precious to me.You are beautiful." We cannot begin to imagine how much we are loved and cherished in this very moment. 

Our hearts are not lying to us. The Other we are seeking is already with us, and begs us to open our hearts.

"You are beautiful."

"But I don't deserve to be loved," you say. "I am full of my own guilt."

But you are loved by Someone who is forgiveness and mercy, who will forgive everything. Everything.

Let yourself be forgiven and empowered by the One who has come into the world and history so as to be present in your real life, to be with you.

Open your heart. Let yourself be loved.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Come to Our Help

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 the First Week of Advent

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Lord of Every Heart

I believe that Jesus is always, everywhere, trying to draw every human person to Himself by grace. So where people do not know Him, He works through whatever is true and good in their lives, their hopes, their experience, their prayers.

I sometimes wonder if there are a great many people--simple people especially, poor people, suffering people--who are very close to Christ, who really do know Him and love Him in their hearts, even if they can’t express it, even if it's a secret, even if it's so secret that they themselves don't "know it" in a discursive, reflexive way.

If they love God as the Mystery beyond their own ideas and understanding, it must be Jesus who is empowering that love and drawing it to Himself.

And I am not saying this as a way of saying, "in the human competition over which religion is true, my religion wins!" No! How silly! The point is not about a controversy between different positions or different cultures.

It's about a fact: Jesus is God! He is the Lord of every heart. Wherever there is any good, He is at work.

How could it not be true? Jesus really is God--we must never forget this. This is not "our position"--this is a fact; the central fact of the whole universe and all of history and every person's actual life. It's really true. To affirm it is to recognize a fact. If He is really God then He is really at work, in every person, in every circumstance. Because He loves us. Really!

What a blessing it is to KNOW Him, to recognize His face! The God whom my heart longs for, whom I find a taste of in everything that is beautiful and good: that God has shown His face. To know Him means that He has said, to us, personally, "follow me!"

He calls every person to follow Him, on a journey that begins from many different (and sometimes distant) places. He wants us Christians to be His witnesses, to go onto all the roads and meet the others in their searching, and to walk with them.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

One Hundred Years Ago: A Single Shot in the Desert

December 1, 1916 was to all appearances not a particularly eventful day in the history of World War I. On the Western Front, the battle of the Somme was over and England was in the midst of forming a new government in Parliament. The slaughter at Verdun was nearly exhausted at last. On the Eastern Front, the Russians and the Germans fought on, while the Habsburg Federation was less than two weeks into the reign of Karl I, last of the Emperors and the only ruler in Europe actively dedicated to seeking peace.

The desert sands of what was then called "French West Africa" were mostly quiet. French troops were needed elsewhere, and had moved back from the more remote outposts of the Sahara, which were left for a time at the mercy of tribal militias, partisans, and bandits. At a ramshackle fort in Tamanrasset in Algeria, the only Frenchman remaining was an old half-crazy hermit.

His name was Charles de Foucauld.

On this strange day, one hundred years ago, bandits raided the fort where Charles was watching over the food supply of the Taureg people and their black African slaves. The bandits tried to capture the defenseless Frenchman, but in the course of their own confusion one of them decided simply to shoot him in the head.

There was scarcely a place in the European-dominated "world" more remote than Tamanrasset, more seemingly insignificant for the emerging era with its turmoil and its new kinds of power that were destined to be the engines of genocidal wars, totalitarian police states, and unimaginable riches.

But in fact, in the blood-soaked sand of this forgotten place, the man who called himself the "universal brother" fell into the earth like a grain of wheat on December 1, 1916.

His ten years among the Taureg came to an end: ten years of unconditional love and service to people on the margins of the world, with no program other than sharing their lives and being their little brother. It was enough that they were human, and that Jesus had identified Himself with them. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.

A hundred years later, this way of loving, this brotherhood of service and solidarity, remains the great hope for the peaceful and constructive use of the unprecedented power that has connected and woven together the entire planet and the whole human race. But this love is possible only if it opens itself to the One who is greater than all our power, who gives us a reason to want to live and work together as brothers and sisters, in peace.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld is sometimes viewed as a pioneer of interreligious dialogue and coexistence between peoples. This description alone falls short, however, of expressing the heart of his mission and charism. For Charles the heart of dialogue and coexistence is love, and the heart of love is Jesus: Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus in the fullness of His self-emptying gift, and Jesus in every person.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

It's Finally Feeling Like November, and....

Now this looks like NOVEMBER! (Finally, on the last day of November.) Gray skies and rain on bare branches.