Sunday, December 18, 2016

Matthew 1:18-24, Revised for Modern Americans

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 18, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 1: 18-24.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2016]

The words we just heard in this gospel were written by St. Matthew sometime in the mid-to-late first century.  He wrote them primarily for Jewish converts to Christianity. 

But what if he were writing this same gospel story today, for a modern, American audience?  (This was the thought that occurred to me as I pondered this gospel passage during the past week.)  If Matthew were writing this story for American citizens in 2016, could he tell it in the same way that he told it here in this passage?

I don’t think so.

If he wanted to tell the story of Jesus’ conception and birth and make it understandable to the vast majority of people in our nation right now, I’m convinced that St. Matthew would be forced to modify the text in several ways.  Basically, he would have to make the story longer by explaining certain things—certain very important things: things that he did not have to explain to people back in the first century.

First of all, he’d have to mention the basic and foundational truth that marriage is between a man and a woman—that is to say, one man and one woman.  He would also have to explain the Jewish marriage customs of his day.  For example, it says there that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph.  That’s an important point.  The betrothal period in first century Israel lasted for about a year—and it was more than an engagement.  If you were betrothed to somebody, you were legally married to that person, but you were not yet living together as husband and wife.  That’s why it says that Joseph was thinking of “divorce” and not of breaking off an engagement.

St. Matthew would also need to explain that having sexual relations outside of marriage is a serious sin (which, of course, many people today don’t believe it is).  The whole reason why Joseph considered divorce was because he thought that Mary had committed that sin and been unfaithful to him.

Which leads to something else that Matthew would need to mention.  In his expanded gospel story he’d have to note the fact that Joseph initially believed that Mary’s child had been conceived in the normal way.  Matthew would need to make that point to an audience in 2016 because nowadays you can’t presume that’s how a child is conceived.  Even though the Church teaches that every child has the right “to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents,” (CCC, 2378) that’s not always the way it happens.  Sometimes conception results from the use of immoral reproductive technologies.  It should be noted here that not all reproductive technologies are bad.  But some are.  And those bad ones often lead to terribly difficult situations—like the one actress Sofia Vergara finds herself in at the present time.  In case you haven’t heard, she and her former fiancĂ©e are in a big legal battle right now over frozen embryos that they created through in vitro fertilization back in 2013.

Here we have innocent human lives being treated like commodities.  How sad—and how tragic.

Oh yes, that’s another thing Matthew would need to mention in his modern version of the story.  He’d need to make it very clear that the entity inside the womb of Mary was actually “a baby.”  Not “a cluster of cells” or “the product of conception”, but rather “a baby”—a living, distinct human being.  Matthew could presume that people in the first century knew that; he could not make that same presumption in 2016.  I thought it was interesting, on his television show the other night Jimmy Kimmel said (and here I quote), “Another thing I wanted to mention.  My wife is hosting a baby inside her body.  So that’s exciting.”

He’s absolutely correct, of course.  His wife’s pregnancy is exciting.  I mention it here because I think it’s highly unusual for someone in Kimmel’s position in 2016 to describe a pregnancy in that way.

However, I’m very glad he did—since it’s the truth.

It’s also unusual for a man and a woman to have the kind of relationship that Mary and Joseph had—love without sex.  Actually, it’s not unusual—although a lot of people nowadays would say it is.  They don’t believe you can deeply love a member of the opposite gender without physical, genital intimacy.  (It just goes to show how our society has twisted the idea of love.)  This would be another issue that Matthew would have to address in making this gospel reading understandable to a modern audience.

Finally, Matthew would have to deal with Joseph’s response to the message that God gave him here—the message of God that came to him through the angel.  Specifically, Matthew would have to explain why Joseph had to obey the instruction to take Mary into his home, and why it would have been a sin—a very serious sin—for him to do otherwise.  In other words, Matthew would need to make it clear to his modern readers that when Almighty God gives an instruction like this to somebody, it’s a command.  It’s not a suggestion; it’s not a recommendation.  It’s an order to be obeyed.

That would clarify the matter for all those who think that the Ten Commandments are just the Ten Suggestions or the Ten Recommendations.

So, what exactly would this passage of Scripture sound like after it was revised by Matthew for a modern audience?  Well, I can’t say for sure, but I can certainly venture a guess—which is what I’ll do to close my homily this morning.

I think Matthew’s revised story would sound something like this:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.  It all centered around the permanent and exclusive bond between one man and one woman that we call “marriage.”
Sometime during the year that Jesus’ mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph—that is to say, in that time period when the couple were legally bound to one another as husband and wife, but before they lived together, Mary was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Initially, of course, Joseph was unaware of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the child’s conception.  Consequently, when he learned that Mary was pregnant, he felt betrayed, since he naturally presumed that this new human life had been conceived in the normal way.
Yet Joseph was a righteous man, who was unwilling to expose Mary to shame as an adulteress.
He was unwilling to expose her because he still loved Mary with an intense and chaste love—in spite of her apparent infidelity.
He decided instead that he would divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.  For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.  She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home—because when God gives a command like this, we human beings must obey!  Disobedience is not an option.  Ever!

There you have it—a story that every American in 2016 should be able to understand.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

John the Baptist’s Annual Advent Call to Repentance

(Second Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 4, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 3: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Advent 2016]

  • Can you imagine how they felt?
  • Can you imagine the thoughts that were running through their minds?
  • Can you imagine the things they were tempted to do to John the Baptist?

I’m talking about the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to be baptized by John in the Jordan River.  These were dignified men, respected men, revered men—the religious leaders of the Jewish people.

And then one day this scruffy-looking guy dressed in weird clothes comes out of the desert and has the audacity to call them a “brood of vipers” and to threaten them with God’s judgment—basically telling them that if they didn’t change their ways they were going to hell!

  • Can I imagine how these Pharisees and Sadducees felt?  How about livid—enraged—infuriated—irate—and embarrassed?!
  • Can I imagine the thoughts that were running through their minds?  Yes—but I can’t say those words from this pulpit!
  • Can I imagine the things they were tempted to do to John the Baptist?  Of course.  They’re the things you see done in horror films nowadays (none of which is very pretty).

The problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees, of course, was that they weren’t sincerely repentant.  They were sinners like everybody else who was there that day, but weren’t prepared to admit it.  John the Baptist recognized that fact, and confronted them in this very forceful manner—not to embarrass them, but rather to motivate them: to motivate them to examine their consciences, repent of their sins—and receive forgiveness.

But it was impossible for these men to receive forgiveness that day when they first arrived on the scene, because they didn’t think they had done anything wrong.  And John the Baptist knew that.  Yes, God will forgive anything; yes, God will forgive everything—but not without our cooperation!  He loves us too much to violate our freedom in that way.

Did some of the Pharisees and Sadducees respond to the words of John by getting beyond their initial feelings of anger and then sincerely repenting of their sins?

I hope so.  I pray so.

But, in all honesty, it would have been difficult for them to do that, given the fact that they were very proud people, and proud people don’t like to admit that they need to change—anything.

I thought of all this the other day, after I read an online article by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.  The article was about “Bad Santa 2” and three other “Christmas movies” that have come out of Hollywood this year—none of which is what you would call “wholesome entertainment”.

Donohue begins the article by saying this:
The corruption of American culture is evident in many ways, but few markers are more telling than the way Hollywood entertains us at Christmastime. It was 70 years ago when “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released. NBC describes it as “a holiday classic and remains the movie people associate with Christmas more than any other. Frank Capra’s definitive film is a tearjerker that proves that, even in our darkest hours, the human spirit can and will rise triumphant.” Today, we are being treated to obscene lyrics, raw sex, misogyny, and violence. Not one of the four Christmas-themed films released this season is worthy of being described as a family movie. There are no guardian angels directing the lead characters to consider how the world would be without them; no triumph of self-sacrifice; no statement against greed; no childhood sweetheart to marry; no inspiration of any sort. Just filth.
He then gets into some of the gory details—which I will spare you!  Suffice it to say that they would need to be censored for a church audience.

But what was most upsetting were the comments of two men associated with these films: producer Bob Weinstein and actor Billy Bob Thornton.  Here we have two men who are not only unrepentant like the Pharisees and Sadducees were; these two guys are actually PROUD of their sins!  Here’s what Bill Donohue wrote:
Bob Weinstein recently commented on why he accepted the script for the original “Bad Santa.” He did so after Universal Studios decided not to pick it up. “I asked a Universal executive,” Weinstein said, “Why’d you guys pass on it?” The executive replied, “It was the most foul, disgusting, misogynistic, anti-Christmas, anti-children thing we could imagine.” To which Weinstein said, “That’s exactly why I bought it.” Billy Bob Thornton was attracted to doing “Bad Santa 2” precisely because the original was so vulgar.  [He said], “I think part of it was that there hadn’t been a movie that profane and unapologetic about itself. I think it’s the alternative to the real syrupy Christmas movies.”

Yeah, Billy Bob, God forbid that we should have wholesome, uplifting, “syrupy” modern Christmas movies!  What a tragedy that would be!

Unfortunately, we can’t change modern Pharisees like Bob Weinstein and Billy Bob Thornton (how I wish we could!).

But the good news is we can change ourselves.

And the Lord invites us to do that every Advent.  He invites us through John the Baptist.  As many of you know, there is a three year cycle of readings that we use for Sunday Masses in the Catholic Church.  But it doesn’t matter which year we’re in—year A (which is the one we’re in now), year B or year C—the gospel reading on the Second Sunday of Advent is always the same.  It’s always the story of John the Baptist and his call to repentance.

John came 2,000 years ago to prepare people to meet their Messiah and Savior by helping them to clear out the sin from their lives.  John comes to us through the Scriptures in 2016 to help us to deepen our relationship with our Messiah and Savior by calling us to do the same thing—by calling us to repent of our sins.

The best way to do that as Catholics, of course, is in and through the sacrament of Reconciliation—also known as “Confession.”

When was the last time you went?