Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Vigil homily

I’m going to talk to you about the Christmas Tree.

In Genesis, the first book of the Bible,
we have the story of the Garden,
and two, particular trees:
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad,
and the Tree of Life.

We recall that Adam and Eve, disobeyed God,
and ate from the wrong tree:
for them, the Tree of Knowledge
became the Tree of Death.
And they were not allowed to eat from the Tree of Life.

This story, and these ideas,
have always fired the imagination of Christians,
Priests and bishops have talked about them, at Mass,
from early on.

One reason is that the Bible tells us about
yet another Tree—the Cross!
The Cross was made of wood; and they called it a tree.

The connection is this: because Adam and Eve
made a sinful choice, Jesus came as the second Adam,
and he chose the Cross—the Tree of Death—
and he made it, for us, the Tree of Life.

Do you know when Christians would hear about this?
At Mass…on Christmas Day!

What’s more, over the years, Christians made artwork,
that depicted Adam and Eve,
and the Tree, with its colorful fruit!

Around the year 1000, people in Germany,
began putting on religious plays.
And on December 24th, they would have a play
about Adam and Eve.

The main prop on stage was a tree—
a fir tree, the only tree still green in December.

There is another story about this,
and that is the story of St. Boniface.

St. Boniface went to Germany in the 600s
to proclaim Christ, and he found people
whose worship of false gods was connected to trees.

To demonstrate their gods were false,
Boniface cut down a great Oak tree
that they considered sacred.
The oak knocked down many other trees—
but a small sapling of a fir tree remained.

It’s not clear what time of year this happened,
but some claim it happened…in December.
Now, where did the decorations come from?
Remember the play I mentioned?
They decorated the tree with fruit: apples.

But because they were not only recalling
the Tree of Death—with it’s forbidden fruit—
they were also thinking of the Tree of Life—
whose fruit gave eternal life.
But they only had one tree,
because Jesus, dying on the Cross,
made the Tree of Death into the Tree of Life.

So you know what else they decorated the tree with?
Round wafers of bread…
that looked just like what we receive at Mass:
The Holy Eucharist!

The Eucharist is the “fruit” of the Cross—
the Eucharist is the “fruit” Jesus gives us,
that enables us to live forever!

Can you picture that “Paradise Tree,” now?
Decorated with apples—
red, and maybe green and yellow?
Also decorated with round, white circles of bread?

Many years later, the plays went in the wrong direction,
and in the 1400s, the Church put a stop to them.

But, people loved the Paradise Tree;
so they started putting them up in their homes.
Over time, they added other decorations:
other fruit, nuts and candies,
and the wafers of bread became pastries.

Much later, someone invented glass ornaments,
and we still use them.
But notice even now,
we still have ornaments shaped like…fruit!

You still find food on the Tree: candy, chocolate,
garland made of popcorn and berries.

There’s one more connection to a tree,
mentioned in Scripture—
we heard about it in the Gospel:
a family Tree!

We just heard a long list of names—
the family tree that connects Abraham to Jesus.

Why do we hear that Gospel on Christmas Eve?
Because in becoming human, becoming a baby,
Jesus did two things at the same time:
He became part of our, human, family tree;
and he made it possible for us
to become part of his, supernatural family!

Through faith in Jesus Christ, when we are baptized,
we are “born again”—into a new family.

That family tree in the Gospel seemed long—
but imagine trying to list all the people
who are part of God’s Family,
because they believe in Jesus?
The list would go on…forever!

By accepting Jesus, and following Jesus,
you and I become part of that Family Tree.
God has a Tree, too—and he decorates his Tree
with all that is precious to him: each one of us!

Together with all the angels and saints,
you and I are the priceless treasures,
which Jesus gained by his dying and rising,
to give to his Father in heaven,
to decorate the heavenly Christmas Tree!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Update on various things

OK, for the last three people who read my blog, I owe some report on my doings these days...

As you know I was in Mexico. Great experience. Saw a lot of poverty but experienced a lot of faith and hope.

The first three days were in Mexico City, where I was so privileged to visit the Basilica where the miraculous image of our Lady of Guadalupe is on display. We were also able to visit some other sites in Mexico City and experience some of Mexican history and culture. Then we went south to Oaxaca: one of the three poorest states in Mexico, I was told by my hosts; if you look at a map of Mexico, the Pacific coast curves around at the bottom of Mexico. That's where I was.

This region is very mountainous, a lot like West Virginia, except very tropical. We visited several small towns in the Diocese of Puerto Escondito, as well as a bit in Huatulco, a little further down the coast.

Well, yes, it is true that it was very balmy and pleasant, and being by the ocean would not seem a hardship, while home was frozen! That said, I was not sunning myself on the beach; in fact, I only visited each beach one time for a short walk. Other than the time it took to travel from point-to-point--long enough anytime a large group of people is in motion, then worsened by the combination of many hills, many curves, and not the best roads--our time was spent visiting parishes and outlying communities, and meeting people and talking to them.

We were privileged to talk several times with Bishop Eduardo Camorra, who told us about his diocese--created six years ago--and who invited us to take part in Mass with him many times. He was extraordinarily kind and gracious, and it was reflected on the part of everyone else. He assigned one of his priests to be our shepherd and guide, Father Jaime, who was great fun and much help. He confirmed for me our intuition, that the meals that were served for us in the parishes we visited, involved real sacrifice on the part of our hosts.

Each place, we were served and well-fed, and given a chance to meet catechists and other lay leaders in the parishes. At one parish, the meal, while very good and more than enough, was nonetheless much simpler than the others. That was an index of the hardships of that very poor parish, as well as the great generosity of the people.

I stopped telling people I was pastor of two parishes, because there, a parish is more like our county, or even larger. The smallest parish included something like twenty communities, each with a chapel and a Catholic community; the distance, roads and lack of cars meant that everyone could not come to the central, parish church for Mass. The pastors told me they could get around, for Sunday Mass, in each community maybe two or three times a year. As a result, they couldn't reserve the Blessed Sacrament there, either, because the Eucharist has to be refreshed more frequently than that.

So picture that: you live in a small village, and the priest comes for Sunday Mass every four-to-six months, and in between, you can't even have the Holy Eucharist there. How blessed we are here!

You can see how important catechists are and local lay leaders who can gather folks both to learn the Faith and to pray together. You can also appreciate the threat of non-Catholic groups coming to win converts. This is a grave concern; for one reason, it creates divisions in the community. Mexico is deeply Catholic; it's as much a part of Mexico as your spine is a part of you.

Yet a curious thing about Mexico--it has a legacy of confrontation between the state and the Church. It got so bad during the 20s that priests were hunted and killed; and until not so long ago, priests weren't allowed to vote or wear clerical attire. As it is, religion is not taught in the schools, and at one time, the government forbade the Church to operate her own schools. I don't know if that is still the case. But you can see the problem.

Mexico also has a legacy of many injections of socialism, that it is slowly undoing. Example: touring Mexico City on a bus, the recorded explanation of the sights included reference to a monument celebrating the glorious expropriation of the petroleum industry. As it stands, we only saw Pemex gas stations everywhere. Mexico has--or has had--vast reserves of oil. I do not believe that a state-run monopoly gives the Mexican people the best value for that resource. Would you prefer such a thing here?

As we drove the roads, it routinely took far longer than it would here, because we have better, straighter roads. And it's not just the mountains--West Virginia has some wonderful roads, admittedly at great expense. One of the main roads was in the process of being widened to four lanes, and I commented how good that was; our host priest agreed. Yet one of our party--perhaps misunderstanding why I felt as I did, said: oh no, they shouldn't build more roads, they should just use more buses!

Well, in further-developed city and suburbs, that makes some sense. But in a rural area, where farmers have products they are desperate to sell to a larger market, and where there is a deep desire for more industry, more factories, to provide more opportunity (so said the bishop), there is no way that more buses on those terrible roads is going to do the job! Thankfully, that main road is being widened--that will help a lot in years to come, as will more good roads, if that can be accomplished.

Another experience I submit for your consideration. We visited a "co-op" in one town, where a group of 33 folks, mostly women, were working together to manufacture and sell soap and other cosmetic products. The goal is to produce products that are organic and environmentally friendly, as they put it. The project began, we were told, thanks to a Frenchwoman who provided the formulae for various cosmetic products, and helped arrange grant money and sponsorship from a non-profit group called Bio-Earth. (I just googled that without success, so I think I got the name wrong, sorry.) We were told Ms. Brodie was concerned about the destruction of some local species of turtle, and hoped that helping to create this co-op would lead to better things.

Well, I was very interested in knowing just how this worked in practice. Looking around at the facility, it was a very nice building--I wondered just how much was invested in that, but I didn't ask about that. I also noticed that no one was, that day, making any soap. It seemed to be a slow time, but having not a single person making soap concerned me. I did ask some questions of the woman showing us around--through a member of our party who translated for me.

I asked, if the 33 members of the co-op--the number is fixed, no one can be added (isn't that curious?)--work really hard, have a better year than planned, what happens to the profits--i.e., beyond the pay they earn through the year? The answer--confirmed by a followup--is that they do not receive it! Not a penny! Instead, the profits are distributed to other "projects" in the area, designed to do good things. I was told, by the one translating, "the point isn't to make people rich, but to help the environment." OK, but that suggests a model that can't be replicated very easily; and making these folks "rich" (i.e., richer--I doubt anyone is likely to become "rich" by any standard in this situation) would, to my addled mind, be very desirable, for the benefit of these workers' families and communities.

But I know what you may be thinking: if this is how they want to spend their earnings, that's their business. True. So, I asked, if the 33 folks wanted to change the business plan, to expand, or shift, their business, or simply to dissolve it, can they do that? Answer: no. The "whole community" would have to agree to that. I also asked, if a member of the co-op leaves the group, does s/he take anything with him or her? Nope--no equity in the corporation. I learned, along the way, that if the co-op has lean years, the foundation "helps out"--I assume that means with money.

So what do you make of that? Seems to me a project that appeals more to well-off folks from somewhere else, that no doubt does some good locally, but really, what they need is something that can be replicated and expanded. To be fair, I only have a part of the story.

The poverty in this part of Mexico was severe, yet it wasn't all I thought it would be. So many houses are just shacks, better ones are built from cement-blocks and corrugated steel, without glass windows. The warm temperatures and long dry spells mean you can do a lot of living outside, but still... One road we came down was dirt, and the plants on either side were coated in dust--as, I surmise, must have been the insides of many of those homes.

One such home had latrines--outhouses--out front, so that's a benefit. I never got inside, so I don't know what sort of floor the family had, nor if they had electricity or water. Often they draw water from a well; worse, from a river. As you've heard, even the municipal water is not drinkable, not even in Mexico City. Yet somehow folks bathe and keep things as clean as they can.

While visiting that home--I talked with a woman who was blind, and she and the woman and child she lived with had very little--a beggar-man came by, calling out something in Spanish. The sighted woman promptly rose, disappeared into the house, and came out with a handful of change. It looked like about a dollar's worth. She gave it to the beggar. I could have given him a $20 with no real sacrifice; I didn't do anything.

The faith is so deep and intense, perhaps too much for our tastes. People come to visit shrines, they come on foot, for days, carrying images on their backs. They arrive, and they approach on their knees. They pray intently before the Lord for the longest time, during Mass or outside it. The processions we witnessed involved great energy, devoted to joyous and raucous music and dancing, and they seemed not to tire.

There's certainly more to tell, but that will have to do for now...

Saturday, December 19, 2009


...from Mexico, all's well, a great adventure both of travel and faith.

Alas, too much waiting for me here, so I cannot post now. But comments are re-enabled.

Sorry I couldn't post while in Mexico; the Internet was available, but I didn't bring my laptop, and in any case, I was way too busy for that in any case.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Comments temporarily disabled...

Sorry, no offense meant--but I'll be unable to moderate any of the comments that may show up the next two weeks; and while it's rare, sometimes something offensive shows up. I'd hate to have that happen and be left hanging for two weeks.

Thanks for all the good wishes!

heading to Mexico

I'm flying to Mexico rather early tomorrow, joining a trip sponsored by the Archdiocese's Mission office. A group of 14, including one other priest, is heading first to Mexico City and then to Puerto Escondito in Oaxaca, Mexico. Our purpose is to get to know the folks there better, especially in Oaxaca, which is where many of the Mexican immigrants to this area come from.

I signed up for this many months ago, hesitating because of the time of year, but electing to do it because otherwise it would be a missed opportunity that might not arise for longer than I imagined. Such is how opportunities work out.

So, as you can guess, I've been running about. I'm waiting for some laundry to be finished so I have enough clerical shirts, and of course I have to remember to take my passport!

I'll be gone until about the 19th.