There must be a compelling reason why Jesus would jeopardize the stability of his family and remain behind in Jerusalem, when all the people he knew closely as family and neighbors headed North back to Nazareth.
Normally, after the Passover was completed for another year, the city of Jerusalem would clean out like a stadium after a Super Bowl game concludes. Some remain behind…at least the fans of the team that was victorious. But most people would leave with those they arrived with and begin the process of heading back home, back to work, back to the normal routine of life.
But not Jesus. He didn’t want to head back to the normal routine of life right away. He stayed in the stadium while those he arrived with days before packed up the gear, placed it on the donkeys, and started North to that village that no one ever heard of. Jesus’ remaining behind became a source of friction and anxiety for his parents, who do not understand, understandably, why a 12-year old would try to pull such a stunt. There must be a compelling reason why he would do so.
It certainly wasn’t to make his parents happy. If he thought they wouldn’t miss him, or if he believed they were better off without him, then he was wrong. And since we all know that God cannot be wrong, then those reasons hold no significance to this case of the missing 12-year old.
The compelling reason why Jesus was justified in causing an uproar within the ranks of his family and his village is the reason of his greater devotion to his Father. Not Joseph, but the Big Guy in the sky.
An the attitude I’ve heard expressed at times, and cannot strongly disagree with enough, is the thinking that Jesus was devoted to his Father in heaven to the point of dismissing his earthly family. That in this scene here, Jesus is cutting ties with them at the age of 12…with Mary, Joseph, and all the people of Nazareth. The belief of Jesus cutting ties with his family, or even beginning to, is an insult to the humanity of our Lord. It’s also misguided to the Christian concept of family. That even when children move on, they never cut ties with the virtue of love for family. No one ever loved his/her family more than Jesus did.
Instead, what we have here in this Gospel scene on the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus is an event where we see that our Lord’s devotion is in fact first to his Father in heaven, while maintaining a deep, abiding love for the family in which he grows. The love Jesus has for his family is not a lesser love than the love he has for his heavenly Father. But his devotion to God first is the reason he remains behind.
I know of at least two priests in our Diocese who answered the call to priesthood against the wishes of at least one parent in their family. The parents loved their sons, just as there was no question about Mary and Joseph’s love for Jesus. But they were also parents who believed that their sons would not find happiness and joy in the lifestyle of the priesthood. I’m sure they wanted grandchildren from their sons, which is a beautiful thought. Except when God is calling a son or daughter to serve him in the life of his Church. And these two priests have now changed the hearts and minds of the parents who initially objected to their entering the priesthood because of the joy they found as priests who minister to God’s people.
The Feast of the Holy Family is partly a celebration of Jesus being found in the Temple after a few days. Even at 12 years old, do you think God would allow his Son to be lost, or that Jesus didn’t know what he was doing? Yet, even Mary and Joseph see the world at times through the eyes of their human family rather through the eyes of divine mission. It’s not sinful to see our children in such a way, but it can unknowingly block the greater call of God’s will.
St. Paul gives us a good image that connects to why Jesus remained behind in the Temple and showed off to the elders how smart he is. We know smart 12-year olds like to do that. The Apostle writes, “Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” And we could add to those words, “Just as Jesus does everything in the name of his Father.”
For us to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, and not everything in our own name replacing the Lord Jesus, which the world sadly teaches us to do, it takes a lifetime of trying. Of giving our lives to the Lord Jesus. Many have tried and a few Saints have succeeded.
But the purpose of Paul’s words, and the better purpose of the Gospel, is that family is best when devotion to God is at the head of the line.
Mary and Joseph are worried about the whereabouts of Jesus. But Jesus’ Sacred Heart was following the directives of his Father to stay behind and talk to the old teachers about God, while the caravan traveled north to Nazareth. If our hearts are open to such devotion, then our families will manifest the love to which God calls us.
There is a compelling reason. It’s the reason of obedience to God as our first devotion. And this is not cause for a separated family. Just the opposite. It will deepen our love for family. Such obedience can cause worry and heartache at times, as we see with Mary and Joseph, and some parents of current priests in the Diocese of Worcester. But as the plan unfolds over time, we come to realize that our love for God is the first love that guides us on the road to salvation.
We live in at time right now that many consider to be a frightening time in terms of violence and fear. Many folks today fear traveling from one destination to another, preferring to stay close to home. Close to their manger, if you will. The existing fear is they will become a victim to an unexpected act of violence, possibly ending their life, or at least being injured in a way that will alter their lives for good. Such is the world in the year 2015, and the large success that terrorism has had on the lives of so many. It’s like we are constantly living on edge.
Just so you know, such fear, and the potential violence that causes fear, existed at the time of a certain birth that took place in Bethlehem two millennia ago, and even before his holy birth. At the time of Jesus’ birth from Mary, the Romans excelled at crucifying lots and lots of people who outwardly challenged their way of life. In their power over much of the known world, they became expert killers. It was a time of fear and violence. A time of putting down rebellions and destroying holy sites, such as the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a time when to challenge even the religious authority could result in one’s death. Just ask Jesus when you appear before him at the end of your life. He can back me up.
Living in times of fear and violence is as ancient as the stars…almost. Many generations have tried to reverse the climate of fear and violence, which we do today, and it’s our Christian responsibility to try. To put in the effort. But just as many have failed in their mission. Some generations have had success to some degree. But then it seems that we humans eventually revert back to our old ways. It would be nice if every person in the world could experience a major conversion on the scale of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. You know, get knocked on your keester and get blinded for a short time. Such a grand conversion of major proportions would do away with fear and violence. But don’t hold your breath. You’ll turn blue very quickly.
But all is not lost. There’s one way to readily address the ugliness of fear and violence. Or rather, one Person. And, of course, it’s Jesus Christ. His birth into the world has the unique potential for being rid of unwanted fear and the absurdity of violence. And I don’t mean the fear and violence that accompanies terrorism alone, as awful as that can be, and is. Our Lord’s birth, God coming to us as the second Person on the Holy Trinity, is the visible manifestation of what internal calm and peace, rather than fear and violence, looks like. His birth is an offering of potential peace that we cannot find anywhere else in the created order. Only the One who created this order, or disorder, depending on how you see it…only he knows the way to living life to the fullest, appreciating the gift of each day, not giving in to the craziness that surrounds us, and rejecting fear as an emotion that controls our lives.
Jesus Christ was born so that we may live joyfully…forever. Such joy starts in this life. Our Savior was born to raise us to new heights that those born before him could not reach. They were searching for a Savior. We have a Savior, within our reach. Anyone today who is still searching for a Savior, when the only Savior is right before us in a manger – he’s within smelling distance – chances are such folks are controlled by the fear that accompanies a violent world.
To accept this child as the Messiah, as the One who is coming into the world, as the One who has entered our world and remains with us in his word and Eucharist, to accept him as Savior, and not just say it, but actually live it, is to extend peace to those we meet.
The birth of Christ, born of Mary, is the reason to love one another. When we hear it said, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” the reason is the reason of peace. And the season is not just December/January, or when the snow flies, if it’s ever going to this winter. The “season” is the entirety of our lives, extending peace always, and not fear and violence. When we accept the peace of Christ in our lives, we don’t live in fear, and we don’t speak fear to others. His birth has the power to squash all fear that the Devil will send our way. That’s why he’s the Reason.
If you’re living in fear whether it’s because of the violence of others, or because of death itself, or you haven’t paid your taxes for years, then give your Savior some of your time and effort. If there’s no time for him, or, if our effort is lackluster, then expect fear to control our lives. That’s the natural consequence of not trusting our lives to our Savior who is our Creator.
But if you give him your life, if you choose to enter the manger like the shepherds did, then expect his peace to envelop you. Merry Christmas.
Our Mass schedule at Immaculate Conception for Christmas will be Thursday, December 24 at 4:00 p.m., and Friday, December 25 at 9:00 a.m. For the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God on January 1, the schedule of Masses is Thursday, December 31 at 4:00 p.m. and Friday, January 1 at 9:00 a.m.
In the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, we see the beauty of motherhood coming together along with the joy of their children.
It was at this time last year, if you recall, that my niece Randi – spelled with an I at the end – gave birth to her third-born son, and named him Lincoln. For an Abraham Lincoln fan like myself, it was one of the best names I could ever hear. If his name wasn’t going to be Pio, after St. Padre Pio, or if it wasn’t going to Maximilian, after St. Maximilian Kolbe, then Lincoln was perfect.
And, if you further recall, I mentioned last year the Sunday before Christmas that my niece Randi – with an I at the end of her name – was in labor for a total of 8 minutes. I wouldn’t even run out of fingers counting the number of minutes that her labor lasted. Maybe that’s why Lincoln is such a happy boy today.
Mary’s labor may or may not have been the same. Only Joseph was there at the time, and the talented carpenter from Bethlehem never left any writing or notes as to how long his wife Mary was in the throes of labor. Amazingly, some people believe there was no labor or birth pains for Mary due to the combination of her giving birth to the Son of God as well as her being the Immaculate Conception. I tend to differ with that theological synopsis concerning the conclusion to Mary’s pregnancy. If her heart could be pierced with a sword at the end of Jesus’ life, as Simeon predicts about her in the Temple at the Presentation of Jesus, if she could feel and know intense pain at the end of her Son’s life, then she most likely felt pain – labor pain – at the beginning of his life also.
We have, five days before Christmas, one of the most beautiful Gospels we will hear proclaimed throughout the 3-year cycle of Sunday readings. The Gospel of Double Pregnancy.
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, however, is not your ordinary gathering of two women who happen to be with child. It’s not like two expectant mothers who meet on a bench at Elm Park, be in each other’s company and talk about how things are going inside of them. Or, like two expectant mothers shopping together in the baby department of a store at the Solomon Pond Mall. There’s something deeply special about two expectant mothers who happen to be in each other’s company. And I’m sure there’s more than a few mothers who understand this Gospel setting.
These two holy women, however, are both filled with the Holy Spirit, are carrying respectively the last of the Old Testament Prophets and the Son of the Most High, and are joining together to rejoice in the goodness of the children they carry. But also in the goodness of the message their children will proclaim when they attain to their adult years.
Notice, however, the priority in this Gospel of Double Pregnancy. Mary is the one who travels to Elizabeth, most likely because Mary is still a teenager and Elizabeth is considered an older woman at this time in history. But once Mary arrives at the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah, whose mouth is permanently shut for 9 months because he didn’t believe the angel, Mary is raised above Elizabeth by Elizabeth’s own words; “Blessed are you, Mary, among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth’s attention is not to herself first, but on Mary and her child first. In other words, Elizabeth is the precursor of Mary in the same way that John her son is the precursor of Jesus, the Son of Mary.
There’s no question that Mary blesses Elizabeth also, just by her presence alone with the child she is carrying. But Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary raises the Mother of God to the highest level that motherhood can possibly be raised to. Because of Who Mary is carrying. And Elizabeth raises Mary in the way that John will do so for Jesus. The apple of John did not fall far from the tree of Elizabeth his mother.
What this all means for us is that as we approach the celebration of Christmas this week, may we do so by way of prioritizing the presence of the Lord in our lives, our gatherings, and in our celebrations. Mary and Elizabeth are like the very first Christmas party. But look at how it occurs. The greater focus of their meeting is on Mary and her child, thanks to the holy words of Elizabeth: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
The family coming together; the meal that Mary undoubtedly enjoyed at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah after her long journey from Nazareth; the joy of being in the presence of people we love; the God-filled language spoken from one mother to another; the hugs, the kisses,, the words “I missed you,” the cares and concerns about each other’s lives, and so forth.
As we gather with family and friends in just a few days, may our attention imitate the attention of Elizabeth, celebrating the joy of Mary’s pregnancy and raising the birth of her Son to the priority it deserves, while making the birth of our Lord the center and heart of our respective gatherings this Christmas.
Elizabeth looks at her much younger cousin in their Double Pregnancy and says, “I was born before you, Mary. I became pregnant before you, Mary. I will give birth before you, Mary. My son John will be known to Israel before your Son Jesus will be, Mary. But your Son, Mary, is the reason why we rejoice. For without your Son, Mary, the world would be lost, including myself.” I can hear those words of Elizabeth resounding over the centuries.
Bring Christ to the heart of your Christmas gathering in the year of our Lord 2015. Prioritize him. Raise up his birth from Mary in the company of your families. And leap for joy in his saving presence.
We welcome today to this Mass personnel from the Worcester Fire Department who are present with us, both active and retired. It must be a good feeling to put in a few decades on this firefighting job and make it to retirement to enjoy family, friends, maybe some solitude, and hopefully some of the relaxation that may have been difficult to find during the working years.
It all goes by in a flash, no pun intended. As many of us like to say as we grow in years, enjoy each day for its good worth, because it flies by like Engine 3 does every day down here on Gold Star Blvd. with sirens blaring.
As we inch closer and closer to the birth of our Savior, the Scripture readings this Sunday remind us to be joyful. A person may ask, “Fr. Riley, how can I be joyful with all these problems going on throughout the world; the violence of ISIS and other terrorist groups; the unsettling and precarious feeling regarding our personal safety? How can I be joyful when there’s so much suffering around us, from which none of us are immune; from family members dealing with cancer or Dementia, to a brother, sister, or friend confronting the awful disease of depression? How can I be joyful when the Patriots lose two games in a row for what seems like the first time in the Belichik-Brady era? We’re so spoiled around here we’re just not used to that. My suggestion is, ‘Remember the Red Sox and a certain curse that went with them.’ How can I be joyful, dear Reverend, when I have a son/daughter overseas in the military at Christmas, a time when Christian families are meant to join together in celebration of our Lord’s saving presence coming to us?”
We’re all dealing with something right now, whether it’s disease, addiction, or anything else. Some things much more serious than others, but all things serious to the one who is confronting the issue. Yet, Scripture, God’s holy word, reminds us to be joyful. Not happy. Not happy about life’s struggles. But joyful about the everlasting benefits that now belong to us because God dared to lower Himself and become just like us in all ways but sin.
In chapter 3 of Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist explains rather simply to each type of person the way to know and live the virtue of joy. To the tax collectors who ask John, “Teacher, what should we do?” “Don’t cheat,” John says. When we’re honest, we know and live joy. To the soldiers he says; “Don’t falsely accuse anyone, or extort from others.” Don’t lie about a person’s reputation, and let them rightfully keep what is theirs. They worked hard for it, and if we were to extort their possessions, we lessen the potential for that person to share their goods freely. They have less to share because of the extorter. To not destroy a person’s reputation and to respect the goods of others is to know and live the virtue of joy.
And speaking of sharing, if you have two cloaks, per order of John the Baptist, share one with someone who has none. The cloak is symbolic for any item we own in abundance. By doing so, joy is the result, for the giver and the receiver.
Joy is much stronger than happiness. Happiness is fleeting, meaning it can go as quickly as it came. Jesus was not happy that he carried a Cross. But he was filled with joy that he died and rose so that we may live. When a couple married for 50 years says they are happily married, what they really mean is that they are joyfully married. Happiness does allow for contentment because it can change so rapidly. When a wife loses her husband of 60+ years to death, happiness is turned to sorrow. And understandably so. But the joy of having been married for 60 years will remain, as will the joy of seeing that person again in God’s eternal presence. Joy is everlasting, which is why it’s much more binding than the goodness of happiness.
Why all of this focus on joy just a short 12 days before Christmas?
First, as St. Paul writes in today’s proclamation, “The Lord is near.” What does this mean? Does it mean that Jesus is coming up from behind, catching up to us? Not exactly. The Lord is near means that our lives, whatever condition we happen to find ourselves or others, are targeted for God’s gift of salvation. God’s arrow, known as Jesus Christ, is flying closer and closer to the bullseye of our hearts. The Lord is near translates into our willingness and readiness to accept the fact that we are about to be chosen by our Creator for things that no human being could ever invent. Not even Ben Franklin. When Paul tells the Philippians that the Lord is near, he’s informing this wonderful community of believers that they are far from alone in their present struggles. And who of us does not want to know that? To believe that God is near in our struggles? And for the Philippians to be joyful in their struggles because Jesus Christ has conquered the world!
Also, John the Baptist, that crazy man with the funny diet, guides us onto the path of joy, a virtue that sustains our lives. Care for one another; share your goods and your gifts- a fitting Christmas message; help someone in distress or great need. An example of this would be what I wrote in the bulletin a few weeks back (for the few of you who read the bulletin)…I wrote about the Ramp Gang of the Worcester Fire Department. Building ramps, free of charge, for the handicapped, both young and old. Giving these people who are restricted in their movement, giving them a freedom of mobility many of them had lost, but have now recaptured thanks to the Ramp Gang. It’s like the Worcester Fire Department asked John the Baptist, “What should we do?” John’s answer, “Put out fires, be dedicated First Responders, and build ramps for the handicapped!” And they have, about 150 of them and counting.
Be people of joy before searching for worldly happiness. It will deepen our Christian faith. And let such joy define who we are as people of hope. John the Baptist, and the One who is about to arrive in the manger, would want it no other way.
In the 1st reading from the Book of Genesis, we heard the familiar story coming to us from the Garden of Eden, where Adam is hiding from God because of his disobedience of eating fruit from the one tree to be avoided – the tree of pride. And Eve, who makes the defense and claim that she was framed. Or, to use the language of Scripture, Eve was tricked into picking the fruit of pride, eating it, and sharing it with Adam.
In the midst of this whole messy situation, a situation that has a permanent effect of all people who will ever be born, we find the serpent. The serpent worms his way into the Garden of Paradise, backhandedly proceeds to have his way with the first couple by entering sin into the human race, and just disappears back to his cave somewhere underground.
The fact that the serpent is even present in the garden suggests that this entire story will result in bad news. And it does. Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden where their perfect paradise once existed; Adam to labor in sweat and tears, and backaches and calloused hands, like a UPS driver at this time of the year; and Eve to child-bearing pain, which can only be matched by a having kidney stone.
It’s a perfect story that God creates in Genesis that goes badly awry, gets thrown off the tracks, because of the presence of the serpent and his power to infiltrate the human hearts and minds of Adam and Eve who freely choose to cooperate with his devilish ways.
To contrast the many sides of ugliness in this story, we have the Gospel. An Archangel – an angel of the highest order – appearing to Mary somewhere on a hillside in Nazareth, a little known village much less famous than the Garden of Eden. However, what is absent from this encounter? Or rather, who is absent from this encounter. The serpent, of course.
I’m sure he tried to worm his way in with the intention of upsetting this heavenly encounter between Gabriel and Mary, but he was unable to gain access. His door to this encounter was locked, and he didn’t have the key to open it. The meeting of Gabriel and Mary remained pure and holy throughout; it remained protected and secure; it remained successful and complete, just the way God planned it. No trains off the track; no earthquakes to cause Mary to run away; no voice yelling for her to come home for dinner “right now” with her parents Anne and Joachim. Instead, PERFECTION!
And that word describes the entire life of Mary in her created being, all thanks to God’s secure protection with God’s perfect plan of salvation carried out to perfection, even to death on a Cross.
The Immaculate Conception signifies the life of one Jewish woman, chosen by God, to be given so much grace by God that the Tempter and Deceiver of the human race could not knock down and enter the door of her heart like he was able to with Eve. This is why the Mary is the Devil’s greatest enemy; because Satan could have no impact or influence on her heart and her choices throughout her entire life. And this is why, unlike in the 1st reading, the Tempter is absent from this heavenly encounter between Gabriel and Mary.
Have you ever wanted to go to a concert, a show, a sporting event or any event so much, and you just couldn’t get in, no matter how hard you tried? For whatever reason; you couldn’t afford it; there were no tickets left; you had family concerns. That’s how much the Devil wanted to be part of this meeting between Gabriel and Mary, times 1 million. But God made sure there were no tickets left. There were two tickets. Gabriel had one, Mary had the other. He was searching for a 3rd ticket, but he couldn’t find one. Why?
Because of Mary’s Immaculate Conception that protected her from the stain of all original sin. And that, my friends, is something to celebrate. We rejoice in God’s favor upon Mary.