Sunday, January 11, 2009

Faith & Family


Gen 15, 1-6. 21, 1-3
Ps 105
Heb 11, 8. 11-12. 17-19
Lk 2, 22-40

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
December 28, 2008

Deacon Tom Cornell

The Sunday after Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Family of Nazareth, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. God came to us as a baby, in a family. Jesus, true God and true man, was a true baby, diapers and all, and a true toddler and all that means, and a true adolescent, like us in all ways but sin. He grew up in a family. He was formed in and by a family. His earthly father, the carpenter Joseph, is a model for all fathers, and his mother Mary for all mothers. The Holy Family is supposed to be a model for all families. Well, supposed to be. It doesn’t always work out that way. My most famous American relative was Lizzy Borden. Remember her? “Lizzy Borden took and ax and gave her father forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one.” Yep, that’s Cousin Lizzie, a cousin on my father’s side. Our common ancestor was hanged by the neck until dead for murdering his mother, in 1673. There were worse, far worse in England. But that was long ago and I never knew any of those people.

The family I knew, my real family, was my mother’s family, off the boat from Italy a generation before I was born. Unconditional love was lavished on us kids, especially boys, until we were about twelve years old. Then boys were expected to go to work, part-time during the school year and full-time when school was out. Every Friday, the boys and the men handed over their pay envelopes to Mamma. The men risked their lives at hard and dangerous work, some died, “Christ in Concrete.” The women risked their lives giving us babies. That was the deal. We knew who we were.

For most of us, married life is the best, the best we can hope for on this earth. Mine has been wonderful, given the occasional bump in the road, but still, wonderful. We knew from the beginning, Monica and I, that if we tried to do God’s will, God would provide. And he did. I thank God and I thank Monica for seven descendants.

Our readings today are about family and about faith. Today’s reading from Genesis picks up the story of Abraham and Sarah when they were still called Abram and Sarai. The Lord told Abram, “Your own issue shall be your heir. ...Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” Abram put his faith in the Lord, “and it was credited to him as righteousness.” That is, his relationship to God was right, correct. That’s what righteousness means, a right relationship to God. Thenceforth his name was to be Abraham, and Sarai’s Sarah, to signify that they were now new-born in faith.

We read, “God did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham a son in his old age,” when Abraham’s body was as good as dead. And in fact his descendants are as many as the stars, for Abraham is the father of all the Hebrews through Sarah and their son Isaac. And he is also the father of the Arabs, through his son Ishmael born of Sarah’s servant, Hagar the Egyptian. And if your heritage is Sicilian or Southern Italian, you too may well be a descendant of Abraham, because the Arabs controlled our ancestral lands for over two hundred years, long enough to leave a genetic contribution. The first time I went to Cairo I was amazed. All the men on the street looked like my uncles! Whatever our physical lineage, we are all spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah in faith, Jews, Christians and Muslims too in the Abrahamic faith. These days we are not encouraged to strive for many descendants. But let me remind you, dear friends here in this former home town of Margaret Sanger, the future belongs to the fertile!

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us of Abraham again as an example of right relationship to God by faith. Before our reading begins there is this. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists.” Then we read, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out.... He went out, not knowing where he was to go.”

You may have heard, our young people certainly have or will when they get to college, of the so-called “new atheists” and their books, best sellers on the market. There is nothing new about atheism. We read of village atheists in the Psalms, written a thousand years before Jesus was born! “In his heart the fool says there is no God.” You young people, if you begin to have doubts, don’t let that throw you, don’t be afraid. Come to our pastor, Fr. Ed, or to your college chaplain or to me. Our faith has to grow, mature and deepen. We do not go through life with the same understanding we had when we were children. I have had it out with quite a few atheists, some of them very good people. I could truly say to them, “The God you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either. Your notion of God, your notion of what we Catholics believe, is silly, infantile.” Be that as it may, Dorothy Day taught that the true atheist is the one who refuses to see the face of Christ in the poor and the suffering, no matter what pious incantations he or she may make in or out of church!

Our Gospel reading today is from Luke, the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple. This is one of my favorite scenes in all Scripture, more so as I age and identify with Simeon and his “Nunc dimittis.” The old translation is so much more poetic. “Now, Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”
Nunc dimittis! When we go we take with us what we have made of ourselves, and obviously I don’t mean our bank account. I mean what we have made of our relationships, first to God, the God revealed by Jesus Christ who is Truth and Love. Then our relationship to our fellow human beings, first of all our families but also to the poor and suffering and the young. Then our relationship to all the rest of creation, the animals and even the earth we walk on and the air we breathe, as we have come to realize so much more clearly these past few years. All things are not relative, but all are relatives. Saint Francis called him Brother Earth and her Sister Moon. “Praised be thou oh Lord our God for Brother Wind and Air and Cloud and Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure!” Praise him!
From our family to all your families and our whole parish family, Happy New Year of Our Lord 2009. May you live in the light and love of the Holy Family of Nazareth now and forever.

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