Sunday, June 17, 2018

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle B


Peace be with you. I’d like to do something a little different today. Instead of focusing on the gospel and finding a moral teaching from it, I’d like to explore that first reading from the 17th Chapter of the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Ezekial, in part because there is something beautiful that profoundly informs our understanding of God’s action in Jesus’ Christ. And, let me just admit from the get go that I am going beyond the three verses that we heard to incorporate the entire chapter because, as you’ll see, what we heard is kind of like hearing the punchline of a joke without hearing the entire thing.

But, before I get too particular, let me give a little historical context to the book. The book of Ezekiel was written during one of the most transformational experiences that the Jewish people experienced in history; the Babylonian exile. Oftentimes, we think of the Holocaust or the Jewish experience of slavery in Egypt as being central to Jewish history. And, while both of those experiences certainly are important, no less important is the time when King Jehoiakim allied with the country that formerly enslaved Israel, Egypt, instead of trusting that God would protect his people from a war mongering Babylonian leader named King Nebuchadnezzar. Because of this, the Jewish people lost the Temple, lost the Ark of the Covenant with the 10 commandments inside, and of course, lost the close relationship they had cultivated with God. Ezekiel was a priest during this time when there is no temple for the people to offer sacrifice. Instead, as he himself explained in the first few chapters of this book, God fed him a scroll and charged him to preach 25 “oracles”, one for each year he served as a priest.

This particular oracle starts with a proverb about an eagle plucking the top of a cedar tree and planting it beside the flowing waters of a river, an advantageous place for plants to survive in the desert. It should be noted that, because the palace of David in Jerusalem was built of Cedar, the people would have understood that Ezekiel is really talking about the Davidic descendant of the time, King Jehoiakim, as the top of the Cedar tree. However, another eagle comes to take the vine that resulted from the transplanted cedar tree and plant it in a fertile field. The proverb concludes by asking if it will survive as well in the field as it did located next to the sure water source of the river. The Lord explains that the second eagle represents Israel’s attempt to make the agreement with Egypt, which was unsuccessful and lead to King Jehoiakim’s death. In my opinion, we’re missing a pretty powerful explanation of the teaching of the first reading by skipping verse 20, “I will spread my net over him, and he will be caught in my snare. I will bring him to Babylon to judge him there because he broke faith with me.” In other words, it was God’s plan all along to force his people into exile but, by aligning with Egypt, they were really fighting against God. God isn’t being vengeful here. It sounds like it but, in reality, he’s explaining to them that they had wandered away from the Lord and that, like the Father of the Prodigal Son, God let his people wander away. But, he was even providing for their basic needs, by planting them next to a river, in the hopes that they would return to him. That’s why in our passage for today God says that he will take the top of the Cedar Tree and plant it on a high mountain.

Now, let’s stop here for a second and think about to whom this is referring. Remember for a second that the Cedar Tree refers to a descendant of King David. It certainly could have meant King Zedekiah, the leader who would have been in charge while Ezekiel was writing this. The problem is that everyone agrees King Zedekiah was corrupt. He was too comfortable with Babylon’s idolatry and too comfortable being away from Jerusalem. This is one of those times where we disagree with our Jewish brothers and sisters and believe this points to a God who walked with them and, by the way, continues to walk with us, into a nation of sin so that he could rescue some of us from that sin. Jesus, therefore, becomes the low tree that is brought high for the mighty and powerful to marvel at. He is the one who makes the withered tree bloom.

Haven’t we all, at one time or another, found ourselves feeling in exile? Maybe God used to feel very close to us and, now, we feel more his absence than his presence. Maybe we don’t take the time we wish we would each day to pray. Or maybe we never have had that close feeling of the God who is our shelter and our strength. Ezekiel is reminding us that it’s never too late. God is searching for you. He sent his Son, Jesus, to show us his love and feeds us each Sunday with his body and blood. All we have to do is ask and God can come to let us know how much he loves us. What makes it difficult to complete trust complete in God?

Thursday, May 04, 2017

3EA: Holding on to the certainty of the resurrection amidst the conversations and debates of our lives

          Peace be with you. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to celebrate the 50th Anniversary Mass of my Aunt and Uncle in Perry, Iowa. It was an honor to do that, not only because of the milestone of being with great people who have faithfully lived the sacrament of matrimony for fifty years but because the church my Aunt and Uncle attend, St. Patrick’s Church in Perry, is the same one my Grandma and Grandpa Schott attended and my Great Grandma and Grampa Haberer attended. There have been untold numbers of family baptisms, confirmations, first communions, confessions, and weddings in this sacred space. I generally don’t get nervous about celebrating Mass anymore but I was shaking at this one. Still there was something comforting as well. I told the congregation that, on top of the family members present, it felt like I was praying with generations and generations of family there.
          Today’s gospel tells the well-known story of the encounter of two of the disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Even though it’s probably one of the most recounted resurrection stories in the New Testament, there’s something about it that makes it very unusual. In most accounts of the resurrection, the particular gospel writer seems to go to great lengths to mention details that prove Jesus’ “bodiliness”. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary fall down and hold on to the feet of Jesus. And, right after this story of the Road to Emmaus, Luke tells of Jesus appearing to the disciples and eating fish with them. One of the main reasons for these “bodily” details was to prove the reality of the resurrection. Jesus did not come back as an angel or a ghost or a purely spiritual presence. Nor was the resurrection simply a result of nostalgic story-telling, sort of like if someone yesterday had shared a memory about Grandma and Grandpa volunteering at their parish. I may feel closer to them through knowledge of their actions but hearing the story doesn’t make them bodily present in such a way that I can touch them or eat and drink with them. The only way that the gospel stories of Jesus resurrection make any sense is if, as St. Peter said in the first reading, Jesus was not “abandoned to the depths of the netherworld nor did his flesh see corruption.”
That’s, in some way, what makes the story of the Road to Emmaus so strange. On Easter Sunday, two of Jesus’s disciples are walking back to a relatively unknown suburb of Jerusalem called Emmaus, probably after observing the Passover sacrifice and Sabbath rest. They approach an unknown stranger walking in the same direction and, as hospitality would have demanded, they invite him to walk with them. It says that their eyes are prevented from recognizing him. But why? Possibly because of grief and feelings of disappointment, as is evidenced by their statement that “we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel…” They go on, as would have been typical of the time, to completely discount the stories of the women who were witnesses of the angel and the empty tomb in a kind of first-century way of “mansplaining” away what their hearts, minds and eyes were foolishly unable or unwilling to see.
          The story reaches its confusing climax as the disciples reach their house, invite in this stranger and ask him to act as a rabbi blessing their meal. Using the same verbs that he used to describe the feeding of the 5000 and the last supper, Luke recounts that Jesus “took the bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him but he vanished from their sight.” Wait, what? Just when they could have fallen on the ground in prostration and grabbed onto his feet or just at the point that the Lord could have eaten the bread that was in his hands and given the it to his disciples to eat, he disappears. Why didn’t the Lord wait just a few seconds for something more bodily to happen then simply lifting some blessed pita bread off the table as proof that he was really resurrected?
          Part of it is connected to chapter 3 of the Old Testament Book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve ate from the three of knowledge, it says that their eyes were opened and they recognized, in shame, that they were naked. Jesus is the reversal of the shame of Adam as he humbly accepted even death on the cross. The disciples’ eyes are opened to the reversal of this shame in the breaking of the bread. Yet, I’m also convinced that the messiness of this story points to a credibility of the witness. If there was a larger agenda driving each of these stories in such a way that they are not reliable, then it would have eliminated contradictory details like this. Instead, they remain, pointing to the reliability of the description of the event. The resurrection stories are not P.R. tales of fancy. They are actual stories of encounter with the risen Jesus, as it said in the second reading, “revealed in the final time for you who through him believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory…”

I’d also like to highlight another possible reason why Jesus disappeared at the exact moment that his disciples recognized him, one that may drop this into the lap of we, his modern disciples. One way of thinking about it is that God refuses to be addictive. Faith, hope, and love, the three theological virtues infused in our being by God, may make us feel like “our hearts are burning within us” but they pale in comparison to the euphoria of drugs, alcohol, money, and power. When we have an experience of God, especially in the blessed sacrament, it can feel very fleeting and transitory and probably even of uncertain origin. We may recognize, in reflecting on the experience, that our hearts were burning within us, but that experience too will pass. The wisdom of this experience is in the sharing. The disciples had to share this experience with others. They ran 8 miles in the middle of the night to share their real experience of the risen Lord with the other disciples. They became his witnesses. Today’s world needs witnesses to the hope of the resurrection, not just from the professional church ministers but from all who respond “Amen” to their encounter with Christ in the breaking of the bread. How is God calling you to be his witness if your daily life?

Monday, April 17, 2017

The bodily resurrection of Jesus


Peace be with you. We have experienced the triumphant return of the word “Alleluia!” In today’s celebration. It’s been missing for the entirety of Lent as a way of preparing us for this celebration. Alleluia is derived from two Hebrew words; “hallel” meaning to praise, and “YaH”, which is the beginning of the name of God in the Old Testament revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. So, we may ask, what makes this day so special that we celebrate using an ancient foreign language? I was taught in seminary that the most solemn celebrations are those in which we are least likely to change. This makes sense when you consider that this celebration marks the central mystery for Christians, the holiest of holy days. Jesus is risen! He is truly risen.

However, recently, I was reading an article on the BBC website that said that a quarter of all British Christians do not believe in the resurrection at all. It went onto to say that almost forty percent of all Christians believe that the resurrection was a purely spiritual reality and didn’t involve his body. Now, I know that this was a survey of the British people, who tend to be less religious than Americans, but I would guess that Americans wouldn’t be entirely different than our British brothers and sisters, especially considering the fact that the account we just heard, both from the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles seems to take great pains in trying to explain why it was a physical, bodily resurrection.

St. Matthew explains this using an internal and an external dynamic. Internally, Mary Magdalen and the other Mary arrive at the tomb at dawn. Suddenly, there is an angel whose appearance causes an earthquake which, as one of my commentaries said, symbolizes that the bodily resurrection has repercussions that shake the very foundation of the world. Still, when the women peer into the tomb, they find it empty, with the only assurance of the resurrection being the word of an angel. Their reaction seems comical and contradictory. St. Matthew says, “…they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed,” How can you be afraid and joyful at the same time? Well, I know I was fearful yet overjoyed on June 22, 2002 as I walked from the rectory to the Cathedral for my ordination. I was fearful because I wondered why the church would choose a sinner like me to be a priest and yet I was overjoyed because God looked at my weakness and still called me. I would imagine brides and grooms know what it’s like to feel fearful and yet overjoyed on their wedding day. And I know that parents feel this when their child takes his first few stumbling steps worrying that he will flat on his face but overjoyed at seeing the development to the next stage of life. For Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, an empty tomb and the word of an angel provoked a kind of internal faith that Jesus had been raised. For others, it would have provoked skepticism about someone stealing his body but for these women it was a moment of faith.

Yet, Jesus isn’t satisfied with a purely spiritual, internal experience of faith for his first witnesses. As they are walking along the trail, Jesus appears to them in such a way that they are able to fall down and hold on to his feet. They couldn’t have done that with a ghost or a spirit, let alone with the angel they had just met who, despite being able to scare the heck of out a group of Roman soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb, is purely spiritual in nature and, thus, immaterial. Jesus is physical because he has had a physical, bodily resurrection. This is further corroborated in the first reading during the speech by St. Peter when he identified Jesus as, “This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Again, ghosts, spirits, and angels don’t need to eat and drink but those of us with a body do. For this reason, Psalm 23 talks about heaven like it is a great banquet with God as a host, the kind of banquet that will put even the best Easter dinner to shame.

Believe it or not, this eucharist is a foreshadowing of that great banquet in heaven and our participation in the paschal mystery, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And, it’s good for us on this Easter Sunday to reflect on its internal and external ramifications for our life. Internally, are we praying daily to get into a relationship with God? At the chrism Mass this past Tuesday, the Archbishop reminded his priests of the importance of praying in front of the blessed sacrament to internalize what we eat and drink at Sunday. Pray to have the faith of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see common bread and wine as the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. Read the readings before Mass to prepare and set aside all that distracts you. Yet, it also should have an outward expression of encountering Jesus. One of the best ways we do that is by coming to Mass weekly and participating with your fellow worshippers in the prayers at mass. Also, if you’re aware of a serious sin, to make use of the sacrament of reconciliation to physically prepare for Mass.

Both our internal and external preparation for Mass should send us out convicted to be Jesus’ witnesses to this world so badly in need of the hope given to us in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Today we proclaim a full-throated “Alleluia” as witnesses internally and externally to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Alleluia! He is risen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday ecumenical Service

John 19:28-29.
28. After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.”
29 There was a vessel filled with common wine.* So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth.

Friends, peace be with you. Thank you to Pastor Chuck for inviting me to participate in this Good Friday reflection on the last seven words of Christ. My name is Fr. Dennis Miller and I am the chaplain of Loras College and Clarke University.
The fifth word, on which I will reflect with you, is “I thirst”, which is a translation of the Greek word “dispao”, used 17 times in the New Testament, including the story of the woman at the well in the fourth chapter of this gospel, the gospel of John. I believe that is a deliberate connection done by the gospel writer and I will explain that fuller in just a moment.
The Hebrew, Old Testament word that is the equivalent is “same” or “sama”, used a total of 23 times beginning in Exodus 17 when, at Meribah and Massah, the Israelites clamored against the Lord and his servant, Moses, for water. They thirsted in the desert and God provided for them water from a rock, which Moses struck with his staff. When I looked at other connections to the Hebrew word “sama” I found that if you simply add a “d” to the end, making it “samad”, the word means “joined in worship” or “yoked”. Which sort of makes sense in the normal way we think of thirsting. We thirst for God together as members of the body of Christ. That’s why almost all Christians believe that the first thing one does in order to call yourself a Christian is to be baptized in water, a kind of spiritual refreshment. And, indeed, in the gospel of John chapter 2, Jesus recognized the thirst that people had at a wedding in Cana and fulfilled that thirst by turning water into wine. You may remember that there was a certain reluctance in Jesus to perform this miracle, possibly in part because, especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus does not want to be seen as just another magical miracle worker. He is something different in the core of his being. He is the one who can fulfill the thirsty soul, not one who will water his followers like cattle yoked together in worship.
We thirst for Christ, yes. But today we hear that Jesus thirsts. He expresses this same sentiment to the Samaritan Woman in John chapter 4 verse 7. “Give me a drink”. This simple request marks the beginning of a profound experience of conversion for this foreigner to the Jewish faith. Jesus thirsted, but not for her water. He thirsted for her faith. And today, from the cross, Jesus turns to us and says, “I thirst”. He thirsts for us to know him as the living water who is greater than the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets. He thirsts for us to turn to him with our hurts and sins and to seek his healing and forgiveness. He thirsts for us to come to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. He thirsts for us to come to know him as a brother and as a Messiah, as most high God and as a friend who knows us better than we know ourselves.
A reflection attributed to Saint Teresa of Calucutta reflected on this by saying, “God thirsts for you. Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe God’s love for you: GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. He thirsts to love you and to be loved by you – that is how precious you are to him. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. Come to him and he will fill your heart and heal your wounds. God will make you a new creation and give you peace, even in all your trials. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. You must never doubt God’s mercy, God’s acceptance of you, God’s desire to forgive, His longing to bless you and live his life in you. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. If you feel unimportant in the eyes of the world, that matters not at all. For God, there is no one any more important in the entire world than you. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU. Open to HIM, come to HIM, thirst for HIM, give your life to the Lord and he will prove to you how important you are to his Heart. GOD THIRSTS FOR YOU.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

First Sunday of Lent - C: What can we not give up?

My Dear brothers and sister in Christ

Peace be with you. The question most associated with Lent is, of course, what did you give up? We tend to associate this time most closely with fasting. In my Ash Wednesday homily, I emphasized that the reason we fast during lent is not to lose weight but, rather, to make room for God in prayer and make room to be more loving to others. In the last few years, on Ash Wednesday I’ve noticed a few comments from my friends who no longer practice Catholicism but still remember what we do during lent saying that they are going to give up going to church or give up being a christian for lent. Now, of course, these statements aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Still, I think there’s something in them that our readings from today’s Mass are inviting us to reflect on.

The first reading and gospel both talk about an experience in the desert. The first reading described a creedal statement that the Israelites would have made when offering a portion of the first picking of their crops to God. Basically they say that God guided them into Egypt when they were near death and made them so abundant that the Egyptians were afraid of them and persecuted them. So he guided them through the dangers of the desert to the abundant land they were about to occupy. Basically, Moses is reminding them that, even though they may be afraid to give over the first picking because of the uncertainty of knowing that there will be other pickings and, thus, more food, when they trusted him before he didn’t let them down. Moses is inviting the people into an anamnesis, a way of remembering similar to the way Jesus invites us in each Eucharist to be part of the last supper. History comes alive and we share in the experience of those who came before us. We are invited to “Do this in anamnesis or memory of Jesus.”

The gospel, likewise, tells the familiar story of the Jesus in the desert. If you look at the organization of the temptations, you may notice that St. Luke organizes them differently than St. Mark and St. Matthew. For them, it goes bread, temple, world. For St. Luke, he starts with bread but then puts all the kingdoms of the world before they end in Jerusalem at the Temple. It’s clearly not a memory slip on the part of this evangelist. He is using the temptations in the desert to model the taunts of the soldiers while Jesus is hanging on the cross. Like the devil, they will invite Jesus to care for his own welfare, to make use his power over the government and to subvert the power of God. It’s particularly significant that St. Luke ends at the Temple in Jerusalem, so that Jerusalem becomes the place of culmination. One commentary I read had this beautiful explanation as to why St. Luke puts it last. “On that high place of the Temple, the devil takes the texts of the Torah to offer the dizzying suggestion that Jesus test his sonship against the promise of God to protect him. How clever? For what is the radical obedience of the servant except something very close to just such a blind leap? But Jesus does not succumb to this spiritual vertigo. He returns to the.. text of Deuteronomy ‘You will not test the Lord your God’: not only to rebuke the tempter but also to state the conviction of authentic faith.”

On Ash Wednesday, I said that the point of fasting is to make room in our busy lives for God, which is somewhat true. But, today we hear an even deeper, even more challenging part. Fasting reminds us of that which we cannot fast. We, Americans, aren’t accustomed to thinking in this way. We tend to be better collectors who, may, occasionally go through and throw things out or give them away to the poor but, for the most part, we collect more and more stuff. The desert experience of fasting in Lent, rather, challenges us to think in terms of who we cannot give up. Jesus is offered the love of pleasure in the offer of bread, the love of possessions in the offer of the world, and the love of glory on the parapet or peak of the temple. He turns them down with the same love that he showed from the cross when, he said, “Father into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

We show our devotion to God through daily personal prayer, through reaching out in love to the suffering and sorrowing, through gathering for the eucharist, and through celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. In each of these, we approach God with humility, setting aside our own selfish desires, and humbly reminding ourselves that we worship God alone and we do not put him to the test.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - C

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary - C
Feeling overwhelmed by God

My Dear friends in Christ
Peace be with you. What kind of summer job have you had? When I was in college, I had a variety. One summer, I had two. I worked in the afternoon and early evening delivering medications to various nursing homes throughout Central Iowa. Very few things are more awkward than bumping into an attractive classmate who’s been visiting her elderly grandmother while you’re delivering four packages of adult diapers. My other job took place from 6:30 in the morning until 2:00 or 2:30 in the afternoon as a cook at a local greasy spoon restaurant. I had worked there in high school as a dishwasher and had learned how to cook in the cafeteria in college so I felt like I was prepared for this job. Well, I wasn’t. In a college cafeteria, you make a lot of one thing for people and they have little choice but to eat that. At a restaurant, even a little greasy spoon diner like this one, people ordered all kinds of things to be prepared in all kinds of ways and they wanted them as fast as possible. The first day, the owner told me that he’d come back and help if I ever fell behind...more like when I fell behind because he helped every day for the first severa weeks that I was there. In fact, I remember one day when I was behind but trying not to ask for help that I fell so far behind that the waitresses had to ask the owner to help. He came back and sternly asked why I hadn’t asked for help to which I apologized and said I wanted to work it out. He bailed me out and then, again, sternly asked me to just ask for help when I’m falling behind. Finally, at the end of July, there was one Monday when it all clicked for me. The orders came at a pace that I could handle them and I was getting the food out reasonably well. I only made three or four easily correctable mistakes. Mistakes are killer when you’re trying not to fall behind. I made it past the lunch rush and walked out to see the owner smiling at me. I had finally made it.
I couldn’t help but notice that in all three of today’s readings, the author is describing an encounter with God. In the first reading, Isaiah’s encounter is very much shrouded in the expectations of the people of the Old Testament. For them, an encounter with God was like playing with fire. We often associate fire with the devil but the word “Seraphim”, which the first reading used to describe the angel, comes from two Hebrew words meaning “the fiery ones” or “the burning ones”. God, who is never described, sits on a throne flanked by these burning, multi-winged entities who are chanting the same words we use in the midst of the eucharistic prayer “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.” Our Jewish brothers and sisters pray this prayer, called the qedosh, as part of several of their services. It emphasizes God’s otherness and transendence. One commentary I read noted a “chasm between God’s holiness and human sinfulness” which is emphasized in this reading. “It is the Lord who bridges this gap (by having the seraphim burn away the uncleanness of Isaiah’s lips) and God outfits the prophet with the moral integrity needed for his ministry.”
Likewise in the gospel, St. Luke tells a story that seems to merge stories from several other places in the gospels. Unlike Mark and Matthew who simply have Jesus call Peter, James, and John as they are fishing to come and follow him, St. Luke includes a story about a miraculous catch of fish that foreshadows the life he is calling them to be as fishers of people through the word of God. And, like Isaiah in the first reading, Peter realizes at one point that he is in the presence of God and has a moment of utter humility. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Yet, I think Paul has the harshest version of humility in the second reading from his letter to the Corinthians. Most Biblical scholars hear in this part of Paul’s letter an early creed that may have been part of the Christian gathering. But, Paul adds some things at the end about his calling. In our translation, Paul describes himself as “born abnormally.” Most of the commentaries that I read said that a better translation would be born “as if to an abortion” or “as if stillborn.” The commentators think that Paul’s opponents were using these types of phrases to make fun of the fact that Paul wasn’t very good looking, sort of the biblical equivalent of bullying. If it’s true, Paul finds a way to spin this phrase in a positive way by using it to describe how he was reborn when he moved from persecuting christians to being incredibly effective at preaching so they may believe.

There are times in our lives when we aren’t listening to the will of God and things aren’t going well for us. God has a way, like he did with St. Paul, of knocking us off our donkeys and inviting us to change the course of our lives. But, there are also times when we know we are doing the will of God and life is just hard. Areas of disagreement with a boyfriend or girlfriend or parts of our job or our education that suck are a couple of examples. We may be tempted, in those situations, to give up too easily when we feel overwhelmed. If so, hear the word of the Lord in these three readings: ask God to heal you and direct you like Isaiah did, do the best you can with the gifts God has given you like St. Peter did, and remind yourself that you’re using the gifts God has given you to the best of your ability like St. Paul did.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Holy Family 2015

My Dear brothers and sister in Christ
Peace be with you. As I was reading over the first reading from the First Book of Samuel, I couldn’t help but think about my niece and nephew named, appropriately enough, Hannah and Sam. Hannah is three years older than Sam and, at points, struggles to tolerate her younger brother. In the first reading, the namesakes of my niece and nephew aren’t siblings but mother and son. The mother, Hannah, is so excited to receive the gift of Samuel, her child, that she freely offers him to Eli, the priest, to be raised. I’m sure that there were many times during their growing up years that my niece would have gladly taken my nephew to their church to leave him there. Thank goodness even the worst knock-down, drag-out fight between siblings never ended with a hog-tied little boy sitting on my rectory steps. And that, as they’ve gotten older, my niece has found a way to not only get along with her little brother but to use him as a taxi service between buildings.
Both the first reading and the gospel give us a glimpse into a confusing and unique aspect of family life that I think is often overlooked but very important. What is it that would cause a mother who was barren to be willing to give the first child she ever received to God? As a person who has worked with young men who are considering priesthood, I know that often parents are the second hardest people to tell about a vocation. When I work with guys in college, they first have to convince themselves, and maybe their girlfriends, that God may in fact be calling them to priesthood before they tell their parents. Sometimes the parents are excited but many times the parents see nothing but loneliness and complications for their sons and a dearth of grandchildren for themselves. God even makes it complicated for Hannah in the scriptures because, when she goes to the temple to pray for a son, Eli, the very high priest to whom she would eventually hand over Samuel, accuses her of being drunk and tries to send her away. But, Hannah’s response shows both pluck and humility by saying that she hasn’t been pouring drinks down her throat but has been pouring out her troubles to God. She isn’t going to allow an inarticulate priest to distract her from praying to God for a son. She understands what Pope John Paul II referred to as the law of the gift. 
The law of the gift says that your being increases in the measure that you give it away. That’s why, immediately after giving Samuel to the priests, she prays one of the most beautiful prayers in Sacred Scripture. “My heart exults in the Lord, my horn is exalted by my God. I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in your victory.” Her being is lifted up because she willingly gave away her son. You see, it’s when you give back what God has given you that you are exalted, that you are lifted up. We tend to think that happiness comes from being filled up by God. But it is precisely the opposite, when we empty ourselves of all the possessions and worries and cares that weigh us down, that we can be lifted up to share in the glory of God. 
The same is true in this confusing and frustrating gospel. In my heart, this is a great example of the Bible turning a common reaction in a completely different way because of the law of the gift. After Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah, he remains behind to converse and impress the unnamed high priests of his time. One wonders if young Annas and Caiaphas were present during the three days that Jesus learned and taught in the Temple. Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph’s walk back home to Nazareth is interrupted in a Home Alone moment of realizing that Jesus is not hanging out with his cousins. They hurry back to Jerusalem and search for three days only to find him still in the Temple. Imagine the anguish they must have felt at losing Jesus and all the thoughts that would have gone through their heads. Has he been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Egypt? Has he upset some resident in the big city of Jerusalem and gotten himself killed? Has he become a hawkeye fan? I’m sure these and a thousand other horrors crossed their minds as they searched everywhere in Jerusalem. You can just imagine the emotions they would have felt when they looked in the last place they thought, the temple, to find him. They ask him, “Why have you done this to us?”  and Jesus responds “Did you not know I must be in my father’s house.” Jesus’ response may seem like he is a typical smart mouthed teenager but, in truth, he is evidencing the very attitude of Hannah. He is offering up his very self in order to be glorified by God. And he will continue to do so as he goes home to go through the stages of development that every person has to go through as a teenager and young adult. What’s interesting is that Luke includes the detail that Mary kept these things in her heart. Her life will, therefore, be an exercise in learning the law of the gift in the hardest way possible. I have a feeling that Mary will think of finding Jesus in the Temple when Jesus is back at this temple being condemned by high priests and will remember the confusion, frustration, anger, and relief she felt when she will again wait for three days to see her son, this time resurrected from the dead. 
The law of the gift, then, is at the very heart of the gospel message and, therefore, at the heart of family life. The family is a place where the mission of each family member is discerned and prepared. After days of giving what we hope will be the perfect gift, now is the perfect time to refocus on what is the true gift each of us are seeking. Rather than getting lost in the consumerism of Christmas, find some way to give away yourself, not because we know that God will give us even better stuff if we give things away but because we know that God will be glorified if we humble ourselves. What is God calling you let go in order to glorify him?