Homilies - December 2013

Select a homily to read:
First Sunday of Advent: December 1, 2013 by Fr. Joseph
Second Sunday of Advent: December 8, 2013 by Fr. Christopher
Immaculate Conception
: December 9, 2013 by Abbot James
Memorial Mass for Claudia Baskin: December 14, 2013 by Abbot James
Third Sunday of Advent: December 15, 2013 by Fr. Peter Weigand
Christmas (Midnight Mass): December 25, 2013 by Abbot James
Feast of the Holy Family: December 29, 2013 by Fr. Boniface
Feast of the Holy Family (at Caldwell Community): December 29, 2013 by Abbot James

First Sunday of Advent

  • December 1, 2013
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Joseph

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Our violet vestments tell us that Advent is here; that means, soon, Christmas and the birth of the tiny infant Jesus. By contrast, last Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the Universal King.

It is not surprising that the gospels of the last Sundays of the liturgical year speak of the final judgment and the end of the world, as they do, but this first Sunday of Advent, also, carries forward the same theme and the need for watchfulness. This is because this season prepares for two Advents, one when Jesus first entered the world, born in the flesh of the Virgin Mary, the other when He returns to take His glorious throne as King of the Universe.

As Christians, that second coming is something to look forward to, something we should anticipate with longing. I remember a conference in which Fr. Thomas Verner Moore, our venerable founder, said: "The monk should look to the east each morning and wonder whether the Lord will come today." Not all our sources encourage us to anticipate. Even today's gospel speaks of days of Noah, when for everyone it was "business as usual" until "the flood came and carried them all away." And then there is that mysterious saying about, "Two men out in the field, two women grinding at the mill" (and Luke adds "two people in one bed"), "one will be taken, the other left." And then there are those parables of those who come to the banquet too late and hear those fearful words, "Depart from me; I never knew you." But these are all part of Our Lord's exhortation to be watchful. The foolish bridesmaids had fallen asleep, the manager whose lord finds him drunk didn't know "the day or the hour," as also the man who allows the thief to break in and steal. So, many of Our Lord's parables are about watchfulness. Today St. Paul exhorts us; he explains simply, "it is the hour for you to wake from sleep." But this is a joyful announcement, "the day is at hand," that is, the day we have been awaiting. But it is joyful only for those who are prepared. Therefore: "throw off the works of darkness, put on the armor of light."

There are some Christian fundamentalists who delight in emphasizing the dark, violent scenes we find in apocalyptic literature, Armageddon and all that. Their predilection is demonstrated in the popularity of such works as "The Late Great Planet Earth," from a good many years ago, and, more recently, the "Left Behind" series. They glory in the expectation of the "Rapture," when all "real Christians" will be taken up to heaven and all the rest of us will be "left behind" to endure terrible plagues. The bumper ticker that said, "In case of Rapture this car will be unmanned" told me two things about the lady driving it: She numbered herself among the "real Christians" who would be "raptured out," and she didn't know the first definition of "unmanned."

That Rapture idea is totally unbiblical. It comes partly from today's gospel which says "one will be taken and the other left"; however, Jesus simply refers to separation of the good from the bad at judgment. A little closer to their scenario is when St. Paul speaks about meeting Christ in the clouds--both the dead who now will rise, and the good who are alive and so do not have to rise. As Christ returns, all these meet Him in the clouds as a welcoming committee to bring Him to earth. So their artistic depictions of "real Christians" shooting to heaven through the clouds like miniature ICBMs are not even true to St. Paul!

It doesn't speak well for the Christian spirit of those who rejoice at the thought of people (OTHER people, those who aren't "real Christians") undergoing the terrible suffering of Armageddon at the end time. Esp. since that is not the only way of conceiving the end time.

Today's first reading is a case in point. Isaiah's beautiful picture of beating swords into plowshares, nation no longer raising the sword against nation. All this comes about because people will turn to the Lord for instruction, learn to walk in His ways. These are end-time people; there is no flaming Armageddon for people who live this way. And there are many similar pictures. Isaiah, in very idealistic imagery speaks of peace in the animal kingdom: "The wolf shall a guest of the lamb ..., the calf and the young lion shall browse together." Or, most beautiful of all, the Lord foretells that all peoples, even those previously inveterate enemies, now become one people: "On that day Israel shall be a third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, when the Lord of hosts gives this blessing: 'blessed be my people Egypt, and the work of my hands Assyria, my heritage, Israel.'" And what will Israel's king be like in those days? No longer warlike: "He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim,/ and the horse from Jerusalem;/ The warrior's bow shall be banished,/ and he shall proclaim peace to the nations" (Zech 9:10).

Therefore, two very different pictures of the end time: which shall it be? Realistically, it can be said: it is your choice. Remember, these are images; the realities we are in charge of. Use of the stores of nuclear arms now on hold could bring about a pretty good approximation of Armageddon. Isaiah's picture of peace is harder, because it involves the good faith of all people, not just the power of a few madmen. In the large picture we can encourage our policy makers toward peace and disarmament. "if you want peace, work for justice." Justice would be food for the starving people in Africa and Asia (cf. the exhortations of Pope Francis; the money we would save on disarmament would more than cover this. On the personal level, it would be being neighbors to our neighbors. Create a world in which there are no squabbles and you will have the opposite of Armageddon. The whole spirit of Christmas urges us in this direction. Let us spend our Advent fostering this spirit of Christmas. Do not let the present shape of the world discourage you--Israel, Syria, Iran, etc. Remember the saying, "The Lord is not through with me yet." Neither is He through with our world. The universe is still evolving--spreading out at almost the speed of light, old stars dying, new stars being born. So also is God's history with us still in progress. We can help it on its way, especially by promoting peace in our communities, true love for all.

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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Second Sunday of Advent

  • December 8, 2013
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Christopher

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On this second Sunday of Advent, the scriptures written previously for our instruction zoom in on the preaching of John in the desert, preparing a way for the coming of a mightier one who will baptize with the fiery Spirit.  There is a long history of God’s dealing with creation leading up to that.  The call of Abraham to leave home, the promised land, the Egyptian slavery, Moses and the Law, the exodus, the judges and kings, the episodes of exiles and returns, Israel’s prophets and martyrs – all of this experience over centuries stirred up in the chosen people a longing and expectation that what was foreshadowed and prophesied would be fulfilled.   One day God would send his anointed one, a Messiah and king like David, to govern the people with justice, rescue the poor and the afflicted, be a blessing for all the peoples of the earth. 

He would be a sprout from the root of Jesse, endowed with the gifts of the Spirit of the Lord:  wisdom and understanding, counsel and knowledge, courage, and fear of God.  He would establish a peaceable kingdom with the qualities of the first paradise.   Intimacy with God would be restored in Emmanuel, and all discord in nature will cease, so that the wolf and lamb, calf and lion will browse together.   Brother killing brother, war, hatred and disaster will cease because of an inner peace in each one, living rightly before God.  “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.”    We know we are not there yet.  Just look at the world and look at the dividedness within our selves.   Still here has been a giant step toward the coming of that restored innocent creation.   Paul called it the ‘fullness of time’ when “God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to deliver from the law those who were subjected to it.” 

In preparation for the public ministry of that Son in Jesus, a precursor.  John was no reed blown hither and thither by the wind.  With an ax of urgency he hacked at the roots of exploitation, greed, and oppression in people of highest and lowest class.   “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”   Repent, that is change your ways;  collect only what is your due, stop extortion, share your cloak and food with the needy.

In fulfilling his mission as precursor, John knew that he was not the one who was to come, the prophet like Moses, or Elijah.  He would have to decrease in the light of the one who came after him who would baptize with the Spirit and fire.  John’s mission was to the children of Israel.  Jesus was sent so that all who believe in him, obey his commandments, and follow his example, Jew and Gentile together, may dwell in his kingdom of peace and eternal blessedness. 

As we continue our Advent journey toward the celebration of the birth of our Savior, we can only celebrate it worthily by putting away the works of darkness, rejecting wrong desires, awaking from the blindness of our own failings in knowing ourselves as God knows us.  Each one of us must do our part to produce good fruit as evidence of our repentance.  God can raise up sons and daughters from ‘stones,’ like idolaters, atheists, the hard hearted, the indifferent, to take their places at the eternal banquet while the over-confident, the presumptuous, are rejected.  “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name?  Have we not exorcised demons by its power?  Did we not do many miracles in your name as well?”  To this Jesus replied:  “I never knew you.  Out of my sight.”

Advent is about expectation, anticipation and preparation for the arrival of someone of importance or significance in our lives.  Liturgically it is a reminder that, as Karl Rahner said in a reading this morning, it is about the inbreaking of God into human history seen as a continuous action of grace.   It is the same Christ yesterday at his incarnation, Christ today in the word and sacrament and assembly, and Christ forever in glory in the kingdom he is preparing for those who are his true followers.

We know the miseries and hurts we cause to ourselves and others by giving in to the weaknesses of the flesh and spirit.  We cannot save ourselves.  God knows us even better than we do, and his mercy is without end.  He has given us the proof of his love by sending us his only Son so that those who believe in him might have eternal life.  As we turn back to the altar and prepare the one acceptable sacrifice we have to offer to God, the Father’s gift of his Son, we are privileged to join him in his self-oblation, in self-emptying and total surrender to God’s will.  By endurance, by perseverance and accepting the encouragement God has given and still gives us daily, we have hope.  In it we will grow toward that perfect love that casts out all fear.  In thanksgiving for so many blessings let us say, may the name of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be blessed and praised for ever.  Amen

Fr. Christopher Wyvill
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Immaculate Conception

  • December 9, 2013
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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I was once driving downtown with some friends who were non-Catholic and not even very knowledgeable about things religious. As we passed the parish of the Immaculate Conception on Eighth Street, one of the women in the car noticed the name of the church and spontaneously laughed. Never before having heard the term, she found it altogether puzzling and even a bit amusing. Even some Catholics confuse it with the quite different doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is itself well summed up in today’s Opening Prayer, which teaches that God preserved Mary from every stain of sin by virtue of the foreseen death of his Son, Jesus Christ. This utter sinlessness of Mary from the first moment of her existence has led millions of Catholics to have recourse to her when confronted with all sorts of problems and has led to the composition of many prayers such as the Memorare, which begins with the beautiful words: “Remember, O most blessed virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided.”

There is, of course, the danger that we could set Mary so much upon a pedestal as to make her seem totally unlike us, totally removed from the way we live and think and act, but that would be a great mistake. Look at it this way: When Mary was a girl growing up in Nazareth, or when in later years she was living with Joseph and Jesus in their home in that same town, or when she was living among and being cared for by the other earliest members of the Church after Jesus’ death and resurrection, do you think her neighbors and friends ever said: “My goodness, look at Mary. Everything she does is absolutely perfect. She seems never to have committed the slightest sin.” I doubt that anyone ever said anything of the kind. The few actions that are recounted of Mary in the New Testament are indeed ones of kindness and humility, but not utterly extraordinary. I mean such things as her going to visit and help her relative Elizabeth when Elizabeth was in the final months of her pregnancy, or her concern for the guests at the wedding feast at Cana when they were running out of wine. Surely any of us could show similar concern for others in their various needs.

My point is that genuine sanctity need not be unusually flashy or extravagant. In fact, it often is not anything that would come close to making headlines. If the title “first disciple” is one of the most fitting that we could apply to Mary, her way of discipleship was not all that different from the kinds of things we ourselves can do. In fact, the very intent of our school’s service program is to make it possible for the older students to experience firsthand such ways of serving others and so come to know, in the best sense of the word, the satisfaction that comes from helping those who have needs of one sort or another, and it does seem that the program is generally successful in this regard. Here’s the opening paragraph from a short paper recently written by one of the seniors, beginning with something he said at his service site:

“Hey William, I betcha can’t do it without looking,” I teased the diligent student. With a smile gleaming across his face, William wrote a question mark without assistance. Immediately, I started an uproar of applause that became contagious across the entire classroom, causing William to hide his beaming face. William is a Special Education student, meaning that he has been left behind by the public school system and needs extra support to become successful. Every Tuesday morning, it is my job to encourage William and his other classmates to strive for greatness. Working with students individually, I am able to experience the true satisfaction and pleasure of helping actual people. Doing this on an individual basis is more important to me than trying to change the structures of society as a whole.

Note that the kind of work that that student and his classmates do one morning each week is not generically different from what Mary did at the time of what we call the visitation, her going to help her cousin Elizabeth. It is also inspiring and encouraging for us to know that some people do that kind of service all day long, seven days a week. In our calefactory there is a copy of the current issue of the newspaper published by the Houston Catholic Worker, whose house is named after St. Juan Diego and also dedicated to Mary under her title “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” This most recent issue features a Christmas letter that includes a list of the sorts of things the workers at that house do day in and day out. Most of their tasks are menial, and they are honest enough and humble enough to admit that there are many things over which they have no power at all. It is worth hearing about the way they practice hospitality, not least because hospitality is also one of the most important and traditional Benedictine practices and hence one of the ways in which we, too, can best serve others. Here’s part of that Christmas Letter composed by the directors of that Catholic Worker house, a couple named Mark and Louise Zwick. They write:

Our hardest work remains hospitality. There are always many guests in our various houses of hospitality, and when you house people you house their problems. We are powerless to control [such things as] giving birth, disagreements, broken eardrums, seizures, drinking, and people fainting. Daily and nightly we are at the mercy of the human condition. But hospitality is empowerment, especially for battered women. We even house immigrants, those monumental scapegoats of modern politicians.

We are sitting ducks for agencies, since we don’t have a lot of rules for serving the poor,… Hospitals, police, women’s shelters, schools, and United Way agencies call us daily to receive immigrants who are homeless and/or battered; people with broken legs, shot in the leg or [with] no legs, people with little babies, pregnant women that nobody wants. Our phone rings off the hook with requests for help with the sick, the injured, the paralyzed, the mentally ill, [or] to help with funeral services for the deceased. The entrance of our house is frequently full of people in wheel chairs….

… We are writing not to brag, but to beg…. Could you help us keep going for another year? We and the poor would be very grateful—and for your prayers, too. May the peace that comes to those who care about children born in stables be yours.1

What those people are doing is surely exemplary. Mark and Louise are quite well educated, and they use their learning to good purpose, but in fact their work doesn’t require a lot of specialized training. The most important point is that they and their co-workers are people who take seriously and put into action what Jesus said about serving him in the least of his brothers and sisters. We may not serve the poor in that kind of full-time way, with the phone always ringing off the hook, but all followers of Christ are called to do their part. To the extent that we do so, we will be helping make up for the various sins and failings of our own past life and so becoming more like the sinless one whose great feast we celebrate today. May Mary inspire us to live lives of genuine, compassionate service. “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.”

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Mark and Louise Zwick, “Christmas Letter,” Houston Catholic Worker, Nov.-Dec. 2013, p. 1.

 

Memorial Mass for Claudia Baskin

  • December 14, 2013
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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Many of us who have been at the abbey for several decades well remember how Claudia Baskin and her three daughters would often attend our community Mass on Sundays, and those of you who are oblates well remember Claudia from that connection as well. It is therefore altogether fitting that this memorial Mass be held in the chapel that she so loved—and perhaps loved all the more because it represented a kind of end-point to a long spiritual and religious pilgrimage that began with her Methodist upbringing in west Texas, moved to the Episcopal Church when she was a young woman in Dallas, where sung Vespers at the Episcopal cathedral was her introduction to a more liturgical way of Christian devotion, and eventually led to the Roman Catholic Church once she and her family had moved to this part of the country and she discovered, quite to her surprise, that there is a Benedictine monastery in our nation’s capital. Claudia learned of us in a somewhat unusual way: Knowing of the Rule of St. Benedict through a longtime friend and seeking in vain to find a copy at any bookstore in the Washington area, she was advised by a clerk to try finding one here at St. Anselm’s.

It was most appropriate that Claudia first phoned the abbey on the feast of St. Scholastica and learned that a copy was indeed available. That first, brief introduction, when she acquired a copy of the Rule but left the abbey grounds at once, was followed a month later by hearing Abbot Alban Boultwood give a talk at a day of recollection at the Episcopal parish of the Ascension and St. Agnes downtown. After his talk, he invited Claudia to come to Vespers some Sunday, and this service was again a turning point in her life, just as a similar service had once been in Dallas. Over the ensuing months, Abbot Alban gave Claudia and her three daughters instruction in the Catholic faith, eventually receiving them into the Church and bestowing on them the sacrament of Confirmation. Claudia later wrote about her religious pilgrimage in an article for our abbey newsletter and, with characteristic wit, concluded that Abbot Alban and the community had been “more or less stuck with us ever since.”

That this article was very well written should surprise no one who knows that much of Claudia’s working career was spent in the newspaper world, but it was not only articles that she wrote so well, for she also composed some very fine short poems. One of them portrays Christ speaking to his Father, while the lump of coal to which she refers could be any one of us, or any one of the countless persons down the centuries whose lives have been thoroughly transformed by the grace of Christ. The poem reads as follows:

Most High, You gave me coal,
a hard and dusty lump I might ignite.
Again, again I touched it with my Light;
It flared, it flickered, it went out.
And so I hid it, hid it in my Wounds,
And there it lay, my Agony recalled.
Til now, its days at last at end,
I give it back, Most High,
This pure, this clear, this radiant
Diamond.

Such a poem could only have been written by someone who genuinely believed those words we heard from the Book of Job in our first reading: “But as for me, I know that my Vindicator lives, and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust,” along with those words of St. Paul in our second reading from the Letter to the Romans, with his conviction that all creation will one day be “set free from slavery to corruption.”

This freedom from corruption, from anything that would keep us from true and eternal union with our loving God, is what Claudia sought all her life, finding it in various ways in the Methodism of her childhood, the Episcopalianism of her young adulthood, and the Catholicism of her mature years. Nor did she keep this all to herself. As Courtenay said to me recently, “Mother’s greatest gift to us [her daughters] was passing on her Christian faith, and the outlook it gave us concerning life and everything in it. One manifestation of her faith was a love of all things beautiful and sacred. It brought her to the abbey … [and ] thanks to Mother, and the monks who tolerated us a teenagers, we three daughters are confirmed Catholics.”

What a wonderful tribute to a dear and loving mother, a mother who was not afraid to look death straight in the face and not flinch because she believed in the words of Jesus that we heard in today’s Gospel: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life.” This fearlessness shines through in one of the last poems Claudia wrote, in which we can readily hear how happy she was that the seed of faith that she planted in each of her daughters—Courtenay, Melinda, and Mary Caroline—took root and grew into something strong and beautiful. So let me conclude this homily by reading what can rightly be called Claudia’s valedictory poem:

’ll not be here at harvest time.
No matter.
Summer is a glorious time
To know
That there and there and there
I planted seed.

 

Abbot James Wiseman
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Third Sunday of Advent

  • December 15, 2013
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Peter

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With John the Baptist, we are all inclined to be humanly impatient with the ways of God. During Advent we acknowledge Christ's coming at Bethlehem in time, we live his coming daily in Word and Sacrament, and we await His final coming in the New Creation. This is what Christmas is all about--the Word made flesh, the Divine made known in human terms as we await the costly uncoiling of life that has become curled in upon itself.

Icon

Let us pray:

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening  
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into the house, 
where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling,  
but one equal light; 
no noise nor silence, but one equal music;
 no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; 
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;  
in the habitations of Your majesty and glory,  
without end.  Amen.

John Dunne

God, the Father, spoke the word into the first darkness before the coming of the light. And in time, He sent Saint John the Baptist to prepare His people for the coming of the Messiah.

Fr. Abbot, Brother Monks, and Friends of St. Anselm’s:

For two weeks now, John the Baptist has played a central role in our Advent Liturgy. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that “among those born of women there has been none greater than the John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote: "O great and admirable mystery! He must increase, but I must decrease, said John, said the voice in the wilderness which personified all the voices that had gone before announcing the Father's Word Incarnate in His Christ." We have heard this theme before. John is not the light. He is not Elijah. He is not the Christ. He is just a voice crying in the wilderness. He is not worthy to unstrap Jesus’ sandals. He is the last of the Old Testament Prophets and the first of the New Testament Prophets. His is the voice of Advent.

John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments. That John is a boundary is a new way of understanding his role. The Lord Himself indicates this when He says, “The Law and the prophets were until John.” So John represents the old but heralds the new. Because he represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple, Zachary and Elizabeth; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet even before his birth—when Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house, John leapt in his mother's womb. Already he had been marked out, designated before he was born; and it was already shown whose forerunner John would be, even before he saw Christ at the Jordan. These are divine matters and exceed the measure of human frailty—being conceived in Elizabeth, a woman beyond the years of childbearing, John is born. And when he receives the name John, his father's tongue is loosed. What are we being told here? How do we explain this mystery?

Not believing the Angel Gabriel, Zachary is struck dumb and loses his voice, until John, the Lord's forerunner, is born and releases his voice for him. Perhaps there is another meaning to Zachary's silence. Losing his voice was puzzling and obscure to those around him. With Christ’s proclamation—“none greater than John”—this mystery was beginning to be revealed, no longer shut up. Voice is released and opened up by John’s arrival; the purpose becomes even clearer when the Christ who was prophesied in the Old Testament is proclaimed by John’s preaching voice in the desert. The releasing of Zachary's voice at the birth of John has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of this same Christ. If John were meant to proclaim himself, he would not be opening Zachary's mouth. The tongue is released because a voice is being born—for when John was heralding the Christ, he was asked, “Who are you?” And he replied, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” John is the voice, but the Christ is the Word. John is a voice in time, but Christ is the Word before time, eternal from the beginning, and forever.

So why is John the Baptist so important during Advent? Here is what I think the reason is. John doesn’t just repeat Old Testament prophecies. He says new things, and new emotions are expressed. John the Baptist is brought in right here on this 3rd Sunday of Advent because he represents a kind of response to what Jesus is: “I must decrease and He must increase.” John has an abounding joy over himself getting smaller and Jesus getting bigger. John has humbled himself and exalted Christ. Thus at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan a heavenly voice is heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

It should be remembered that the feast of Saint John the Baptist is celebrated shortly after June 21st, the Summer Solstice. For John must decrease as the sunlit hours daily become fewer, so that Christ can increase, bringing the Light of the World to our fallen human race by His birth. Christ’s birth takes place shortly after December 21st, the Winter Solstice, as the sunlit hours once again begin to increase. This idea is captured in the Magnificat antiphon for Vespers on December 21st,"O Sol Justitiae," which reads: “O Rising Dawn, Radiance of Eternal Light, and Sun of Justice, Come and enlighten those that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death."

The monastic tradition (as found within the Western Church) has always tried to incorporate every aspect of our earthly and daily lives into our liturgies—light and darkness, birth and death, processions and cyclic rituals, even the changing of the seasons have a metaphorical influence upon the liturgical year. The Church in her traditional monastic liturgies is all-encompassing, using all things to help teach her children about the mysteries of our faith. Saint John as a voice in the wilderness outshines all other prophets, and he excels the virtues of all other patriarchs in apostolic authority, and by his beheading, John supersedes in the honors of his virtue the glory of all other martyrs of God. Thus as Isaiah says—the eyes of the blind must see, the ears of the deaf must be cleared, the tongue of the mute must sing.

So who are the voices for the Church today? The teachings of Pope Francis are voices, the apostles are voices, the martyrs are voices, and Saint Benedict and Saint Anselm are voices. Voices too are the psalms, voices are the Gospels. And through all these voices, let the Word come forth; the Word who is in the beginning; the Word who is with God, the Word who is God. The voice of one crying in the wilderness must wane as the Word increases. To John then, we must liken our lives, making them over, so that we too may decrease and wane in importance as Christ waxes forth in this Advent Season. Christ must increase in importance as we prepare for His coming.

By sending His only Son, incarnate by the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, the Father has revealed His innermost secret: God Himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Advent reflects both the human side of the Incarnation, the very human heart of the new Adam born at Bethlehem, and on the divine side, the Incarnate Heart that will be pierced by the lance on the Cross. This same human and divine Heart absorbs our longing for redemption, our sense of being a new chosen people, our fundamental love of our Lord as our greatest friend and our only Savior. The birth of Jesus conveys to us an instinct for splendor and a feeling of security amidst the precariousness of life.

Thus as Christians, and we as monks, need the closest possible union with Jesus, as if we were spending our whole lives before this tabernacle. We must think of ourselves as living solely for Christ in our daily lives, as Saint Benedict says in his Rule: “Prefer nothing to Christ.” And we must bring His saving Heart to all those people God continually sends into our lives. As monks, we have a unique occupation: to dwell in the house of God, to be free of the distractions of the world and to keep inner silence before the tabernacle of the Most High. Yet the truly strong Christians are not the monks of the cloister but the faithful in the world who can carry the contemplative stillness and prayer into the marketplace, into their daily work. This is why in centuries past, monastic liturgies brought Christ to the people in their common work, to their fields of harvest, to their regular crafts, to their daily prayer. So that the least in the kingdom of heaven could be greater than John the Baptist.

In such arduous and terrifying times that we live in, it is hard to bring the all-encompassing Advent of Christ, His holy human Body, His Sacred Heart, His Divine Word of healing Light into our darkened, troubled world of terrorism, suicide bombers, shootings in our schools, religious and ethnic wars. An American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote that the doctrine of sin is the only Christian belief directly verifiable by observation. Just look around you at the world, or within the depths of your own heart, and you will see what it is all about. It is hard to find the right vehicles to convey Christ to our fallen race so dominated by an amoral stance of self-righteousness, over-consumption, world poverty and hunger, military preemption, and superpower ascendancy.

During Advent, we try to come to grips with our Catholic faith and human reason. Essentially for Saint Anselm, during life there is a continuous battle between faith and understanding in which each feeds upon the other, drawing sustenance from each other and perhaps destroying one another as seen in professed agnostics and atheists. And so on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, as Saint Benedict would admonish, we must begin again.

Fr. Peter Weigand
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Christmas (Midnight Mass)

  • December 25, 2013
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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I am going to begin this homily in an unusual way, but be assured that I will eventually get around to the great feast that we are celebrating on this holy night. In the first half of this month, all of us read about or watched on television the funeral services of Nelson Mandela. Among the many persons interviewed about President Mandela’s legacy was a former American president, Bill Clinton, who said that in the past hundred years he could think of only two other persons who had had a similar impact for good: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I expect we could all add some other names to that list, but it is worth asking what those three men had in common. One obvious answer is that all of them worked in non-violent ways to bring civil freedoms to particular groups of people, and that in this way they inspired many others throughout the world to work peacefully for justice. But something else strikes me as also significant: each of them spent a lot of time in jails or prisons. Mandela was incarcerated for twenty-seven years in South Africa, most of that time in the prison on Robben Island; Gandhi was arrested six times during his early years in South Africa and another six times by the British in India, with his final imprisonment lasting nearly two years; and King was arrested and jailed five different times for civil disobedience in our own country. Remarkably, none of their sentences left them embittered but only steeled their resolve to continue working for justice. And Dorothy Day, whom some have called the most important American Catholic of the twentieth century and who may someday be canonized a saint, was also arrested and jailed a number of times during her long life, the last time when she was already seventy-five years old.

With all that in mind, let us now jump back to the time of Christ. The great figure of the Advent season that just ended was, of course, John the Baptist—again someone who languished in prison for condemning wrongful behavior on the part of a potentate and who, unlike the four I’ve named already, was never released from prison but was executed there. Could anything similar be said of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate today? There are at least two senses in which I think the answer is yes. The first was named by St. Alphonsus de Liguori back in the eighteenth century. To be sure, the kind of piety common in his era was very different from what would resonate with most of us today, so his point will sound strange to us, but it is nevertheless worth noting that in one of his Christmas meditations St. Alphonsus wrote that the nine months Christ spent in Mary’s womb was what the saint called “a voluntary prison … a prison of love,” and one that was not unjust because, though innocent himself, Christ had freely “offered himself to pay our debts and to satisfy for our [sins].”1 More literally true is that Jesus was a prisoner in the final hours of his earthly life: arrested in the garden of Gethsemani, brought in shackles before Pontius Pilate, and led to his death on Calvary for execution as a criminal. This may sound like a gruesome thing to ponder on a feast that is usually associated with tidings of joy and good cheer, but already at Bethlehem the trajectory was set for what happened some thirty-three years later outside the walls of Jerusalem.

Now what does all of this have to say to us? Surely by far the most important thing is not only that all six of these persons—four from our own time, two from the first century—suffered imprisonment unjustly, but also that none of them waged their struggle for righteousness by violent means. Our first reading tonight, from the prophecy of Isaiah, included these lines that we apply to Christ: “A child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests…. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice.” It is because of such verses that we regularly call Christ Jesus “the Prince of Peace,” especially at this time of year, and this is why any of us who want to be called his followers must also eschew violence and be peacemakers. It is all too obvious that there is as yet no peaceful dominion over all the earth, and the total opposite is the case these very days in places like Syria and the Central African Republic, where terrible civil wars are raging, or in places like India and Myanmar, where there is fierce fighting in certain areas between members of different religions. The direct influence that any of us could have on those struggles may be so minimal as to seem non-existent, but in addition to fervent prayer for those who are suffering so much in those lands, we can certainly recommit ourselves to peaceful behavior in our own settings, avoiding not only physical but also verbal violence.

We regularly speak of Christmas as the celebration of our savior’s birth—after all, the very announcement of his birth to the shepherds was that “today in the city of David a savior has been born to you.” Well, from what are we saved? What is this salvation? Most basically it is the offer of the only freedom worth fully cherishing: not the freedom to choose this or that, but the graced freedom to want to do only what is right, to want to live in a Godly way, to know by experience that virtuous living is not a matter of gritting one’s teeth to fulfill some onerous obligation but rather to rejoice in doing what is right, in serving others rather than seeking self-aggrandizement, in promoting reconciliation in whatever ways possible. The cherishing of this way of life is expressed very beautifully in the Preface of this Mass in the words: “as we recognize in [Christ] God made visible, may we be caught up through him in love of things invisible,” while the Prayer after Communion phrases it very well in these words: “Grant us, we pray, O Lord our God, that we, who are gladdened by participation in the feast of our Redeemer’s Nativity, may through an honorable way of life become worthy of union with him, who lives and reigns forever and ever.” All six persons whom I named at the beginning of this homily truly lived such an honorable way of life. May we be inspired to follow in their footsteps, above all in the footsteps of the one who continues to say to us as he once said to Peter and Andrew on the shores of the Sea of Galilee: “Come, follow me.”

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 St. Alphonsus de Liguori, “Meditation VI on the Novena of Christmas,” available online at https://archive.org/stream/incarnationofjes04liguuoft#page/n27/mode/2up (accessed Dec. 23, 2013).

Feast of the Holy Family

  • December 29, 2013
  • Year A
  • by Fr. Boniface

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          The feast we celebrate today is of recent origin, being little more than a hundred years old. Towards the end of the nineteenth century family life and morality entered a period of decline. It also was becoming apparent that many countries were losing their Christian identity. Papal teachings were aimed at curbing this development. Accordingly, in 1893, Pope Leo XIII instituted a feast of the Holy Family on the Third Sunday after Epiphany. Ultimately it was made a universal feast, and in accordance with the liturgical reform of Vatican II found its way to its present position on the Sunday after Christmas.1 The crisis of the nineteenth century continued unabated into our own times until we now speak of a “post-Christian” culture.

          Today, more than ever there are many people who no longer live in a close knit family structure, but are living in other forms of community or on their own. Even though the feast is directly aimed at preserving the basic family, in its teaching and in the Word of God proclaimed today, it speaks to each one of us, no matter our situation.

          Our first reading from Sirach is specific to the feast and speaks of the duties of children towards their parents. “Honor your father and your mother” is the fourth commandment. The Old Testament often refers to it, giving examples and commenting on it. The New Testament also cites it. There is the example of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees and Scribes who do not give their parents what is due them because hypocritically they have declared their property holy and so escape their obligation. St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians says that this commandment is “the first to carry a promise with it” which means that he considers it a commandment of first importance. The one who honors his father and mother walks in the way of the Lord. All those who walk in the way of the Lord are part of the Lord’s own family, the origin of all families.

          In our second reading, St. Paul outlines for the Colossians certain principles of Christian morality. These are not simply an external way of behaving, but spring from an interior attitude. It is the attitude of a child who instinctively walks in the footsteps of its parent. The source of these principles is God himself. It is God’s way of acting. It is relational and flows out of love.

          To honor one’s parents is to show them reverence, reverence not in word but in action. But this reverence is not to be confined to parents or relatives. The second great commandment explicitly tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. St Paul’s teaching makes concrete what this means: to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, loving, peace filled, thankful. St. Benedict in his chapter on good zeal paraphrases St. Paul in this way: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another, not to pursue what he judges better for himself, but what he judges better for someone else” (RB 72L 4-7. It is the way of God.

          In today’s gospel we turn from the mystery and poetry of Christmas to its reality. It is too easy to idealize the Holy Family and forget that for all the holiness there were real sufferings and anxieties.

          Even before Jesus’ birth there was the question of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph’s misgivings, the 75 miles of travel by a pregnant woman over rough roads, and the birth itself in a poor stable. Yes, there were the adoration of angels, shepherds, and kings, but those joyful visits themselves attracted the envy of a ruthless tyrant. And now, at the command of God, the family was on the road again, fleeing from their homeland even as so many today have had to leave everything behind because of injustice and war and gone into exile.

          St. Mathew tells us that the family’s sojourn in Egypt fulfilled an ancient prophecy “Out of Egypt I called my son.” But embodying a prophecy does not make life any easier. We only have to think of another prophecy, this time from Isaiah: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3). The Word made flesh did not assume flesh but took on completely our human nature with all its messiness.

          There is a bronze statue in the crypt of the shrine. It is called “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” It shows a very tired, a very human Holy Family sitting exhausted under the shade of a palm tree. Even the poor donkey looks exhausted. And that is the reality of their lives. Of course they trusted in God, of course they were obedient to God’s will, but neither for them as for us was it easy. They suffered.

          There are parallels with the story of Moses here. God told Jacob when he and his family moved to Egypt: “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt…Not only will I go down to Egypt with you, I will also bring you back here.” And his descendants suffered terribly under the yoke of slavery until God sent them Moses, the liberator. And now another liberator would come out of Egypt, an even greater liberator, for he was to redeem the world from its slavery to Satan, death, and sin. There is another parallel to Moses here. When God told Moses to return to Egypt to deliver his people, God said to him: “Go back to Egypt, for the men who sought your life are dead.” Mathew uses almost the same words: The angel of the Lord said to Joseph: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and set out for the land of Israel. Those who had designs on the life of the child are dead.” Jesus is the new Moses. He is the instrument of that freedom initiated by God and of which Moses foreshadowed.3

          Joseph went back. But note: He was afraid to go back to Judea because Archelaus was ruling over Judea. He was afraid. Of all of St. Joseph’s great virtues, it seems to me that his ready obedience to God, no matter what it entailed is his greatest. It would also characterize Jesus. But note: “He was afraid.” How human, how ordinary, how like us. It reminds me of a scene thirty-three years later, when Jesus knelt praying in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass me by, yet not my will but yours be done.”

          This family in all its difficulties and joys remained faithful to God even as we are called to do. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus was obedient to Joseph and Mary and grew in wisdom and strength. I am sure that in the process Joseph and Mary grew too, as we all must and will if like them we live in God.

          We may not live in a family as we commonly think it. But there is the wider family of friends and community. Above all there is the family of the church, the whole family of the Mystical Body, living and dead. There are those who have gone before us now with Christ who like a cloud of witnesses urge us on to our final destiny: life in and with the ultimate family and for which we were created before all time – life in the family of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 Days of the Lord, the Liturgical Year, v.1 (Collegeville, Minn., Liturgical Press, 1991) 223
2 Days of the Lord, 223
3 Days of the Lord, 227

Feast of the Holy Family (at the Caldwell Community)

  • December 29, 2013
  • Year A
  • by Abbot James

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When I taught theology over here at Catholic University some years ago, one of my students later joined a group that some of you may have heard about. It’s called “A Simple House,” with its original location in Southeast D.C. and another house opened subsequently in Kansas City, Missouri. The members are all volunteers who, in addition to daily Mass, morning and evening prayer, and the study of scripture, spend much of their time visiting families in project neighborhoods and the homeless in their various camps. They call their work “friendship evangelization,” and they do it with the aim of creating long-term friendships that benefit the poor and glorify God.

What I appreciate about the letters that they send out two or three times a year is the honest, humble admission that they often don’t succeed in helping the poor and homeless make truly radical changes in their life. It is very much a “one step at a time” kind of evangelization, and something that one of them wrote in this year’s Christmas letter cannot but sound poignant as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, for many of the people befriended by the volunteers from A Simple House never knew much of family life at all. Here is an excerpt from the most recent letter, written by a man who is married to one of the other volunteers and recounting conversations he held with some of the young men in the neighborhood. He writes:

By far the hardest question they ask me is, “So, how’s married life?” I dread this question because I detect a note of sarcasm in it. When they ask me this, I feel that the whole institution of marriage is on trial, and it is up to me to give a compelling defense.

Functional and lasting marriages are virtually nonexistent in their families and neighborhoods, so no one expects to get married or even wants to. The boys have all been disillusioned by failed relationships. The youngest member of the crew did get married, but he got divorced after two years and vows never to marry again.

I don’t know if I get through to these young men. Sometimes all they say is “Hmm,” and I think that is a good sign. Sometimes they say, “You must crazy,” and I think that is a really good sign, for it shows that they are listening and at least considering my points. This reminds me of the scene in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus forbids divorce. His disciples’ incredulous response is, “Then who would ever get married?”

God’s plan for marriage seems too risky! But all moral choices involve a risk…. All moral choices are fundamentally acts of faith. Part of this faith is trusting that God is not tricking us.

I am fully aware that recounting something like this can make one feel despondent. After all, those young men in Southeast who will likely never get married have certainly not given up sexual activity, meaning that they will almost certainly beget children who will often grow up in single-parent households, sometimes not even knowing who their father is. For all the love that such children may receive from their mothers, harsh statistics tell us that their possibilities of a successful, productive life already face obstacles that those of us who grew up in a stable family environment were spared, just as Jesus was spared. We do not, of course, have many details at all about life in the Holy Family as he was growing up, but the love that certainly existed between Mary and Joseph and between them and Jesus will always be a model for families anywhere in the world.

Most of us—perhaps all of us—may have fewer practical possibilities than the volunteers at A Simple House for making a positive difference in the lives of young men and women living in public housing projects in our city, but at the very least today’s feast should inspire us to do everything we can to promote family life in whatever ways we can. Those of you who are married may want to take this occasion to reflect on such basic things as how well you communicate with your spouse. I heard the other day of a man who is himself very busy with a job that requires a lot of travel and who is married to a woman who literally works more than seventy hours a week. He said in all honesty and simplicity: “I don’t know what she’s thinking, and she doesn’t know what I’m thinking.” How very sad to hear something like that. One of my best friends ever since high school, a man who has had a long and happy marriage, once told me that the thing that has most cemented his marriage is the fact that he and his wife are the best of friends. That obviously means that they communicate with each other about things both trivial and profound and would never be able to say that they have no idea what the other is thinking.

And all of us—whether me in a religious community that is in some sense a family, or those who are single, or those who are married—could be led to reflect on what those beautiful opening lines of today’s second reading say about the conduct of any life with others: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another: as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” Just think how much better our entire society would be if everyone lived out those words. Let us, at least, take them to heart and put them into practice day by day. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for us. Bless us now and at the hour of our death.

Abbot James Wiseman
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