A Family for us all

The Holy Family with St. John the Baptist, by Lorenzo Lotto (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. It is a bit of a liturgical oddity – the rubrics tell us that it is to be celebrated on Sunday after Christmas. However, should a liturgical celebration of a higher rank – such as the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God – land on that Sunday, the feast is to be celebrated on December 30th.

The ears of liturgy aficionados will be perking up at this point, because normally when a solemnity lands on the day of a feast, it simply trumps it but not here. In the case of the feast of the Holy Family, the Church goes to great lengths to ensure that it is always celebrated, no matter what – and that should grab the attention of us all.

In celebrating Mass today, we get to the point of this celebration quite directly:

O God, who were pleased to give us
the shining example of the Holy Family,
graciously grant that we may imitate them
in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity,
and so, in the joy of your house,
delight one day in eternal rewards.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever

Collect for the feast of the Holy Family

That the human family – and the family as an institution – has been broken & suffering is news to exactly no one. The first family, even before they had children, involved rebellion, scapegoating, and deception. The birth of their children, inheritors of their original sin, eventually resulted in the first murder – one child against the other. Things got bleaker from there. Every single one of us is affected, with many painful wounds readily visible in our lives and others less visible, though no less impactful. This is true even in the best of families, despite the heroic virtue and genuine effort that so many families put into creating a good home.

We know that we need a savior, personally, but Jesus goes above and beyond individual healing (though that too!). Not satisfied to simply conquer sin & death, He formed an earthly model for new and renewed family life for all mankind – the Holy Family. They offer to us both an example and an invitation, an example to inspire us and an invitation to join them. This is true on the domestic and ecclesial level – individual families and the family of the Church alike are meant to look to the Holy Family for guidance.

The first step to healing is acknowledging we need it – this is sometimes the hardest step to take. With that done, however, we mustn’t simply dwell in our brokenness. All too often, we make the mistake of focusing solely or primarily on what is flawed or lost. The Holy Family offers us another way: a chance to enter into a holy relationship with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, be transformed into the kind of family member we are meant to be, and to help others experience the same. Let us focus on Jesus, and the family He built around Himself – His earthly parents and later, the Church. It starts with spending time with them, meditating on their lives together, and responding to the call to join in their relationship with each other, through the presence & love of the Lord.

If you’re interested in further reflections on the Holy Family, you may find these helpful:

Last Holiday (2006) – the best Christmas movie ever?

In the field of Christmas movies, competition – and the war of opinions – is fierce. From classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to movies that fail to even mention Christ (looking at you A Christmas Story), a person can find any number of offerings to fill the holiday season. But after you’ve watched all the standard Christmas movies – yes, even Die Hard – I would like to recommend one that might have slipped past your radar when it was released some fifteen years ago.

Last Holiday movie poster (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Last Holiday is one of those movies that really shouldn’t worked. The writers basically rehashed a bunch of old tropes, added some ridiculous circumstances, and copy-pasted familiar caricatures of several types. It could easily have been a shoo-in for a Razzie Award, at least on paper.

What makes this a success, nearly single-handedly, is the pure charm and charisma of Queen Latifah in the character of Georgia Byrd, a saleswoman from Louisiana. The movie wastes little time establishing her as a caged bird, living life carefully portioned out while dreaming about possibilities that seem just beyond her reach. But after being diagnosed with a terminal illness guaranteed to take her life within weeks, she decides that there’s no time like the present to experience all that she can before the clock runs out.

I think it is fair to say that no new ground is being broken here. So well worn is this path that I can hardly blame anyone for taking a solid pass on the movie as described – as moviegoers did at the time of its release (it didn’t even recover the costs of making it, much less show a profit or gain critical acclaim). The trailer, by the way, misrepresents the movie so horribly that I found myself getting angry watching it before writing this. If you intend to watch this movie, don’t watch the trailer beforehand – or at all, frankly.

But really – and I’m not alone in my conviction – you should watch the movie

Here’s my pitch: Take a heavy dollop of the joie de vivre – particularly food-related – from Ratatouille‘s Remy1, add a generous helping of the fish-out-of-water situation of Pretty Woman‘s Vivian Ward, season with the down-home flavor of Louisiana culture & piety, and sprinkle with just a touch of the exoticness of a European Downton Abbey and you’ve got the base recipe. Set within it the fullness of the person of Queen Latifah, uncontainable but never overwhelming – embodying a person who you most want to be, or at least, want to be friends with, a person who knows who she is and what she wants even as she is held back by insecurities and limitations, though chasing them with an admirable humility and verve when finally set free from those chains.

For some, the movie may be cloyingly earnest, a touch on-the-nose, its conceit pushing just past the point of believability, and its resolution a little too neat. I would suggest that this movie is deliberately positioned to break through our cynicism. What is so delightful, so wonderful about Last Holiday is that even in addressing the most skeptical among us, it does so with the gentlest of rebukes and an easy smile – scolding not us but the insecurities & limitations that keep us from enjoying it, and life, while inviting us to rediscover the wonder of savoring the experiences and people that are right in front of us.

Last Holiday is rated PG-13. Though kept to a minimum (indeed, our hero has no patience for foul language), there are several swear words – at least one of which is a narrowly averted f-bomb. There is no nudity, though an extra-marital affair between two secondary characters is acknowledged (and satisfyingly, if belatedly, addressed).

For those looking to stream the movie, it is currently (as of December 2022) included with Amazon Prime (no ads) or to Paramount+ subscribers (with ads).

Christmas homily (2022) – ‘Nevermind all that’

Merry Christmas! May the celebration of the nativity of Christ bring you & your loved ones many blessings now and throughout the new year.

The short version of my preaching this Christmas is that I have been inspired by a parishioner’s approach to getting bogged down by the crazy of life, faith, and everything in between. Though particulars matter, very often they don’t matter at that moment, which he cuts to with a simple saying: ‘nevermind all that!’, before focusing on whatever is most important in the moment at hand.

It strikes me that Christmas may be a form of God doing the same for us. The particulars of salvation, the call to holiness, the weight of our sins and that of the glory that awaits us – all of these, though extremely important, are not the point. The point is this: God has come to us, to be in our midst, so that we might receive His friendship and – if we are willing – to offer Him ours.

There are plenty of related elements – some of which will rightly demand our attention in the near or far future – but for today, nevermind all that. The Word has been made flesh, God is with us, and He invites us to focus on Him, and what He is offering to us right now: a friendship that will buoy us up, provide for all our needs, and fulfill us. Start with that, and everything else will fall into place, with His gracious help.

Christmas Eve Mass (2022)

Thanksgiving in Advent

A more appetizing offering than those recently offered around here (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Advent and, belatedly, happy Thanksgiving! I know it’s been a hot minute since I’ve posted anything in this space – in fact, yesterday’s post was a long-unfinished reflection that I decided to wrap up late in the night. Thanks to a glitch (probably prompted by the flickering lights as Seattle deals with early snowfall!), it got published before this post. Rather than find and fight the gremlins on my computer and in the cloud, I decided to just roll with it ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It hasn’t been lost on me that the last couple of things to be put on this website – and that have been front and center for the last six months – have been relatively heavy posts. Not a few of my parishioners expressed some consternation at the rather dour outlook I was presenting. Not only was the financial picture strikingly negative, but a particular point stood out for some:

It is one of my greatest sorrows that such community rarely, if ever, is to be found in the life of the Catholic Church. There are sometimes glimpses of lively and connected Christian community, but so very seldom to be found in a parish. I recall a classmate in seminary who said that we Catholics are sometimes referred to as “the chosen frozen” by other denominations, at least here in the United States. I wish it didn’t ring so true. And yet, I find that when I need meaningful friendships or personal support, the Catholic Church is not somewhere I can find either one.

Though not intended to be a direct statement on the life of my own parish and her people, it prompted at least a few folks to question just that. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene in Firefly where Kaylee asks Simon “isn’t there anything about this place you’re glad of?” Unlike Simon at the time, I am quite ready to answer in the affirmative: absolutely, yes!

On that front, I’ve recently made a more conscious effort to take time daily to review what blessings, graces, and joys I experienced recently. With the beginning of Advent this last Sunday, I was particularly struck by some very clear blessings and joys – not just in my own life, but in the life of the parish.

The first is simply the beginning of the Advent season. Here at Saint Mark – a parish that prides itself on taking pains to celebrate the liturgy worthily and well – Advent is an opportunity to really mix things up. Out go the regular flowers in the sanctuary, in comes the wreath! And not just any old wreath, but a four foot by four foot ring of decorated greenery, with beautiful, tall candles, raised up by well-ornamented brass stands (re-purposed candlesticks, I think, but I haven’t looked too closely). It’s quite lovely. And I always get a kick out of the pomp & circumstance of the blessing of the Advent wreath at the first Mass of the weekend.

Accompanying this is the addition of a new pew missal for our congregation: the Source & Summit Missal. I chose this missal specifically for its emphasis on chanting the Mass – it contains the full antiphons for every Sunday Mass: entrance, offertory, and communion. Now every parishioner who so desires may join in chanting the antiphons – as is both their right and duty! We practiced together before Mass and boy, did it pay off. For the first time in a long time, the congregation and choir sung the antiphons together- lifting their voices as they chanted ‘To you I lift up my soul, O God . . . . ‘. The choir helped keep the tones with a few hand bells, used sparingly but to great effect.

Capping off the first Sunday of Advent, we concluded the last Mass and then immediately had a brief indoor Eucharistic procession – exposing the Blessed Sacrament and processing around the inside perimeter of the parish. The pastor had the bright idea of leading a hymn as we processed, but he forgot the second verse (!) – but it was no less beautiful for his lapse in memory. I was heartened to see that easily half of the congregation stayed for the procession, with most of those joining in walking behind the monstrance. As we ended with the Tantum Ergo and benediction, I couldn’t help but again be moved, and grateful to be praying among so many devout and reverent brothers & sisters in Christ.

Why share all of this? In part, because good news seems awfully hard to find lately – despite the pandemic concluding and normalcy being within reach, it sure seems like a lot of us are still struggling to find peace and joy in the world. If you’re a member of my parish, maybe you’ll join me in seeing some of the graces that are peeking out behind the clouds. I’d be interested, by the way, in those that you see and would like to share! And for everyone reading this, regardless of parish, I hope hearing about these things still helps encourage you. It is good to know that we’re not alone in this: not only do we all struggle at some point, but we’re in it together – accompanied and buoyed up by the Lord.

Finally, to that end, check out this rather wonderful folk group I discovered recently. The first song in this playlist (‘Rain Clouds’) has been theme song lately – you’ll notice that some of my writing here is rather shameless inspired by the lyrics. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. In any case, God bless you this Advent – may it be full of graces & blessings.

Sitting with Jeremiah & Jonah

Sometimes people ask me what I think is the hardest part of priesthood. In this season of my ministry, the answer is easy: the hardest thing for me as a priest is to know the path forward and watch people ignore it, avoid it, or otherwise refuse to walk in the way God invites them. I imagine parents have a similar heartache – how painful it must be to watch their children make decisions they know will only come to regret later on! And therein lies the rub of genuine love – it honors free will even when that will is oriented towards something harmful or dangerous.

In moments like this, I am reminded of one of my favorite Old Testament figures: the prophet Jeremiah. His role in the history of God’s people is unenviable – to say the least! He was called to proclaim that Jerusalem would be destroyed, the nation of Judah would suffer greatly, and eventually, that they would all be made captives in a land not their own. All of this was due to Israel’s great sin in forsaking God and worshipping Baal, even to the point of sacrificing their own children.

As you might imagine, Jeremiah was not exactly the life of the party nor welcomed pretty much anywhere. Not only was he tasked with the responsibility of proclaiming his own people’s downfall and calling them to repentance, but they in turn shunned him, even to the point of exiling him or outright plotting to kill him on more than one occasion. Jeremiah never gave up on his people, even when it meant sharing in the sorrows of their punishment, continuing to try to turn them back to the Lord.

The other prophet with whom I relate well is Jonah. He’s a little more well-known, particularly for his time in the whale after he tried to escape God and His instruction to go to Nineveh to call them to repentance. The people of Nineveh – unlike those to whom Jeremiah preached – responded. Not only that, they responded quickly and wholeheartedly. Jonah was only one day into the city when the entire city, from king to commoner, covered themselves in sackcloth and beseeched the Lord for mercy – which He granted them.

What people often overlook in this story is what comes next: the uncovering of Jonah’s heart. Rather than rejoicing with Nineveh at their conversion and God’s graciousness towards them, he is ticked; he didn’t want the Ninevites to be forgiven! He goes out of the city to sulk. Only after a rather miraculous – and convicting – interaction between him and the Lord does the lesson of God’s love begin to sink in.

The tension between the vindictiveness of Jonah and the faithfulness of Jeremiah is stark. To be sure, Jonah grew in fidelity and kindness and I’ve no doubt that Jeremiah was tempted to despair & anger. Still, when it comes to who I want to model myself after, Jeremiah wins hands down every time.

And yet, I sympathize so much with Jonah’s frustration & anger – or more accurately, I often share in it. Whether it is in the sentiment of ‘what’s the point?’ (that God is going to be gracious no matter my efforts) or a darker ‘I want to see someone get theirs!’, I see more clearly the temptation to enter into the same self-righteousness – and self-pity – that drove Jonah to first run from the Lord and then go off and sulk when the Lord didn’t live up to his hopes for some divine smiting.

Years ago a then-new priest shared with me that he often found particular inspiration for preaching in the first reading at Mass. This surprised him, because he understood himself and his priesthood to be ordered towards Christ. Surely the Old Testament would take lower priority than the Gospel!? And yet, there he was, preaching on the Old Testament – and finding (and sharing!) greater understanding of Jesus in the process.

It seems to me that God’s self-revelation to His people – and their relationship with Him – in Old Testament often gets short shrift from Christians….forgetting that Jesus Himself was formed by the Old Testament, constantly quoted it, and used it to bring people closer to Him and His Father.

As an imperfect, often struggling Christians, sitting with all of those who have gone before us in faith is a gift we ought not deny ourselves. We may unexpectedly find brothers & sisters who have shared in our hardships and difficulties – and who can model for us how we they might be overcome by and with the Lord.