Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. The feast commemorates the day Mary and Joseph bringing their newborn child, Jesus, to the temple “to present him to the Lord” in fulfillment of the Scripture that “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord.” When they arrive at the temple, both the devout man Simeon and the prophetess Anna recognize Jesus as their Lord.
I love praying with the passage from Luke that describes this event. I can feel Simeon’s joy and praise and confidence, as he holds the child and says to God, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” As I sat with the passage this morning, I wondered what it would take for me to honestly say, “I’m now ready to go in peace, Lord.” (The best I can say is give me the grace to go willingly whenever you call me.)
I’m also always struck by Simeon’s words to Mary in this passage “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” What must Mary have felt when she heard these words? Frightening words to the mother of a baby. You expect people to look at your baby and say things like, “He looks just like his mother,” or “What a beautiful baby.” And if anyone makes any predictions, you expect to hear, “He’ll grow into a fine young man.” But Mary hears a much more troubling prediction.
I’m guessing Mary did with those words what she did so often: pondered them in her heart. And prayed to her God in whom she had so much faith and trust. And loved her child… knowing he would not be hers forever.
We are all familar with the adage that Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Today, January 27, is Holocaust Remembrance Day. On January 27 1945, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz and liberated more than 7000 survivors, who were mostly ill and dying. As every year, many survivors of the camp will visit there, lighting candles and praying, or otherwise paying homage to those executed by the Nazis.
The day is an important one for all of us to mark, not just those liberated from the camps and their families. Today is a challenge to all of us to learn from the past. To learn where racism and hatred inevitably lead if left unchecked.
I was saddened yesterday to read of the death of Mary Oliver. I, and so many other people, have been moved and inspired by her poetry.
Many people posted poems of Oliver’s yesterday in tribute. It is hard to pick a single one, but perhaps the most appropriate is her poem, When Death Comes:
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
I think it is fair to say that Mary Oliver did not simply visit this world; she truly was a bride married to amazement.
RIP Mary Oliver
I just finished reading Reza Aslan’s No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. This is the third of Aslan’s books that I’ve read, the other two being Zealot and God: A Human History (which I posted about here and here, respectively). As I did the others, I found No God but God, a worthwhile and provocative read.
The book greatly increased my understanding of pre-Islamic Arabis, a history that I think helps understand some of how Islam developed. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the division between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims than I had before.
Apart from helping foster a greater understanding of Islam and the teachings of Mohammed, I found many of Aslan’s more general observations about faith traditions worth chewing on.
Perhaps most exciting about the book, however, is a promise of what the “next chapter of Islam,” and the replacement of “the archaic, rigid, and inequitable structures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism.” That won’t be a simple move – and Aslan does not pretend otherwise – but I am bolstered by his conclusion that “the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped.”
I think this book is a good read for anyone, but I especially hope it will get some readership from those who fundamentally misunderstand Islam and the teachings of Muhammed, believing it to be an inherently violent faith with no respect for other faith traditions.
I hope everyone had a blessed and wonderful Christmas and that the New Year is off to a good start. Immediately after my holiday travel was completed, I began teaching a J-term undergraduate honors seminar (hence the long time between posts). The course I’m teaching is called Heroes and Heroism.
Heroism is something we often view as beyond us. We think of those to whom we ascribe the label “hero” as different from ordinary people. The goal of my seminar is to help students articulate what heroism is, to be inspired by the acts of a variety of people on whom that label has been placed, and to help them (in the words of Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo) see heroism as “something that seems in the range of possibilities for every person, perhaps inspiring more of us to answer that call.” In the course we examine the lives of some figures of the present and recent past who have been given the label hero. Thus far we’ve had three classes, and some great discussions!
You might find it worthwhile to take a few minutes to consider how you respond to the questions I asked the students to consider on the first day of class:
Name three figures you considered heroes pre-adolescence (before 14 or 15) and why?
Name three figures you now consider to be heroes (living or dead)? What is it about them that inspires you
How do you define a hero and why does heroism matter?
Feel free to comment with your thoughts.
We are again today reminded of the inextricable link between the Incarnation and the suffering and death of Jesus: in today’s Gospel we hear about the massacre of the Holy Innocents. We remember today those killed by King Herod in his effort to find and destroy the Christ child. How many were killed in Herod’s determination to kill all who resembled Jesus in gender and age is unknown; the estimate ranges from 10,000 to a few dozen.
Herod’s act reminds us of the allure and temptation of the power of this world.
King Herod reigned for 33 years. He was a Jew, so he knew that God promised to send a Messiah. Perhaps there had been a time in his life when that was something he looked forward to, when he waited in joyful hope for the coming of the Messiah.. But by the time the Magi visit him, Herod had gotten pretty comfortable. He was Herod the Great, king of the Jews. He was the most powerful man in his part of the world. People bowed in his presence. He was in complete control. And he grew to like that.
And so Herod took whatever steps he thought were necessary to keep it that way, including killing his brothers and half-brothers – anyone who could have challenged his reign. He would do anything to maintain his position as King of the Jews.
As a result, when Herod hears tell of the birth of a baby who was born King of the Jews, he doesn’t rejoice at the coming of the Messiah, but is threatened. Herod had no intention of giving up his kingship for anyone else. Fearing for his loss of position, he engineers the massacre of the innocents.
Our temptations don’t tend to lead us to actions as depraved as Herod’s. But we are no less susceptible to the temptations of the world than he was. And so the reminder of where that temptation can lead is a good one as we move toward the beginning of a new year.
When I first looked at today’s Gospel reading, I was momentarily confused, since the reading is John’s account of Peter and John (“the other disciple whom Jesus loved”) finding the empty tomb after Mary Magdalene ran to tell them that someone had taken Jesus from the tomb. “Wait a minute,” I thought – “Christmas Day was two days ago and we are still celebrating Jesus’ birth. What are we doing we are at the resurrection!”
It is true that today is the feast of St. John the Evangelist, so both Mass readings come from John: a beautiful passage from the First Letter of John as the first reading, and this Gospel reading from the penultimate chapter of John’s Gospel.
More than that, however, it is actually fitting that we hear the story of the empty tomb two days after Christmas. Today’s Gospel is an important reminder that the Christian story is a unitary one: A story that begins with Incarnation and ends with death and resurrection. Our beautiful Nativity scenes are merely Act I of a play that cannot be fully appreciated unless we apprehend it in its entirety. God’s taking human form in the world inevitably leads to the cross. From the moment of his birth, Jesus is destined to die. But then, when all hope seems lost, the tomb is empty. Jesus rises from the dead, making resurrection a reality for us.
The story whose beginning we celebrate in this Christmas season ends with victory over death. That is the Christian story. And we who know the entirety of the story are tasked with sharing it with others – with bringing the hope of resurrection to a wounded and suffering world.
[Cross-posted from University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality Advent/Christmas Reflections.]