Sunday, January 2, 2022

Second Sunday of Christmas - January 2, 2022

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC

Christmastide 2 - Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Holy Family from a creche
by Jonathan Kendall (1939-2004)

Matthew’s infancy narrative is set in the turbulence and terror of a violent history where tyrants kill children and families become refugees who flee in the middle of the night. There are no shepherds or choirs of angels but only a provident God who guides and empowers a devout, compassionate, and trusting Joseph in the most uncertain of times. Matthew is writing to a predominately Jewish audience using the Hebrew Scriptures to emphasize the prophetic fulfillment of God’s purpose. He’s less concerned about how things happened than by what they mean. In a dream, evoking the Exodus experience, an angel directs Joseph to take his family and flee to safety in Egypt. Joseph moves from promise to terror with the dreaming of one dream. The nightmare doesn’t end when Joseph wakes. The following dreams continue the oscillating pattern between hope and nightmare. 
The intense compression of Matthew’s story reveals the truth of the human situation. It shows us to be capable of passionate desire to search, find, and adore God and our massive intransigence to grace, not only in the human heart, but also in our systems of military and political power that repress with brutal violence our highest and holiest yearnings. Setting up our nativity this year, I found myself wondering if Jonathan Kendall, the artist who created our nativity, was a dreamer recognizing another dreamer, as he carved and painted the figure of Joseph. Joseph has been a focal point for me this season. Given Jonathan Kendall’s life, I found myself pondering how he expressed in wood what Matthew expressed in word.
Jonathan Kendall and his partner, Charles McLeod, were artists-in-residence here in the 70’s. These itinerant artists led a rather nomadic and chaotic life on the edge of society. His carving of Joseph looms large, literally, in stature and presence, over all the figures, including Mary and the Kings. I found myself wondering if his expression of Joseph’s stability and strength suggested his recognition of his own vulnerability and need for a protector. This Joseph calls all who observe Jesus’ birth to renew their hope in God’s care. Joseph dared to see things as they were and still affirmed that God was working, even within humanity at its worst. Nothing would defeat God’s promise in Emmanuel, God with us.
Joseph would have been very familiar with Jeremiah’s life and prophesy. Perhaps, it was the word God gave Jeremiah that aroused hope in Joseph. Across the centuries, Jeremiah, also in uncertain times, echoes the presence and tenderness of God amid trouble. 

“With consolations I will lead them back.” These words were spoken at a time when there was little evidence that anything remotely resembling what he hoped for would come true. Thousands of his people were already in captivity in Babylon. He was in a precarious position himself in Jerusalem because his warnings to the rulers had labeled him as an enemy of his own people. He expressed anger, weariness, fear, and frustration, yet he never gave way to a bitterness or cynicism that could have so easily been justified. Devastated by the rejection and contempt he received; he clung to hope. He summoned up the inner strength to speak of a future joy as if it were already being experienced. His fortitude, like Joseph’s, arose from their understanding of the nature of God. God was faithful. Even dangers and disasters were understood to be within the rule of God. God is all in all, not merely the God of the nice and easy parts of life. 

God demonstrates providential care especially in uncertain times, times like ours. In many ways we face what Jeremiah and Joseph faced---social turmoil, great changes, strident voices, deep divisions of thought and attitude, concern for the future----generating anger, confusion, fear, and frustration. It’s in times of crisis that meaning is challenged, decisions questioned, and doubts unearthed. It’s alarming and exhausting. It can drain hope and joy out of the present moment. In such moments, our own understanding of God is supremely important. Our vision of God shapes our character and attitudes. We will engage life according to who and what we understand God to be. God’s presence and tenderness are obvious in Jeremiah when he speaks of his people’s return home together. This is a people who have discovered compassion in their exile experience. Even in the struggle of their return, they tend those among them who are needy and vulnerable. They, like Jeremiah and Joseph, have found grace in their exile. We too are a people who are being called to discover grace and compassion in our times.

Even when our private little worlds go to dust, hope digs in the ruins of our heart for memory of God’s promise to bring good out of bad, life out of death. Hope is not just a vague feeling that things will work out when it’s evident that things will not just work out. It’s not optimism in the face of dire circumstances, nor is it founded on denial. Rather, hope is the conviction, that God is tenacious and persistent in overcoming the risks and deadliness of the world, that God intends joy and peace. Hope offers us an experience of trust that God’s presence, love, and mercy is in and all around us, regardless of circumstances or future outcome. Hope keeps life open to grace and to a future created by God rather than ourselves. Joseph and Jeremiah believed that a provident and faithful God was present in their trouble. 

When we demand any completion to history on our terms, when we demand that our anxiety or dissatisfaction be taken away, we are refusing to hold out for the full picture that is always still being given by God. Hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without full closure, without resolution, and still be content because our satisfaction is now at another level, and its source is beyond ourselves. I still find myself musing over whether Jonathan Kendall lived with that vision as he moved from place to place, leaving a trail of art behind him which kept expressing it. 

What Christ did on earth was to undergo stage by stage, the whole experience of being human, to bring the human together with the Divine in a restored relationship. Notice that Kendall has Joseph standing guard over an infant that is not passively slumbering, but one with eyes wide open, alert, present, hand raised in blessing along with Joseph’s and Mary’s, for us today on our journey home. The author of Ephesians gives assurance of God’s goodness and faithful plan for us, and the resolve to reorder us and the cosmos with righteousness and peace through the rule of this wide-awake Child. 

Oscar Romero once said that it is only the poor and hungry, those who know they need someone to come on their behalf, who can celebrate Christmas. It is precisely because we are weary, and poor in spirit, that God can touch an artist and us with hope. This is not an easy truth. It means that we do not gloss over the evils we confront every day, both within ourselves and without. Jesus, with great persistence and great vulnerability, turned the enmity of society toward a new possibility, turned the sadness of the world toward joy, and introduced a new regime where the dead are raised, the lost are found, and the displaced are brought home again. +Amen

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