Mary and Joseph’s “Yes” – The Risk of an Open Heart

Our Gospel today (4th Sunday of Advent, Matthew 1: 18-24)) provides us with the story of a young couple, Mary and Joseph, who through their pondering of God’s request for understanding and trust provide humanity with the opportunity for divine Redemption. It is in their collective “Yes” to the angel’s request, that God’s plan could be fulfilled. His strategy for humanity’s Redemption was patiently planned and executed. It was a plan, seen in the Holy Scriptures, that shows Him searching for His broken human family, seeking ways in which He can communicate His desire for love and friendship.

God is very methodical in His attempts to search for His lost children. The first question ever asked in Holy Scripture is found in the book of Genesis. It is there that God asks the question: “Where are you?” He asks of the first family, Adam and Eve, “Where are you hiding?”  We know that they were hiding because of their sin; because of their collective “No” to God’s request of them to stay away from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

With their sinful actions, God set into motion His plan for our Redemption – a plan that ultimately saw His entrance into human history to teach, heal, and redeem it from the sins of our spiritual parents. At the birth of Christ, the seven hundred year old messianic prophecies of Isaiah became a historic reality; and on a yearly basis, we celebrate that moment at Christmas.

But today we also need, in light of our Gospel, to pause and rejoice in remembrance of Mary and Joseph’s courage and willingness to say, “Yes,” to God. We need to consider that their “Yes” was not a simple act – it contained enormous risks since Mary’s circumstances after that “Yes” were at the very least – precarious.

She was a young woman, probably in her mid teens, engaged to be married, and is suddenly pregnant, not from the man she loves, but, by an unseen Holy Spirit of God; moreover, what about Joseph? He was a successful carpenter in Nazareth who had fallen deeply in love with Mary, was publicly betrothed and ready to live a happy life with her. Then the news: “I’m pregnant.” As a result under Jewish law, Mary faced a public humiliation and stoning and Joseph, stunned and confused, faced feelings of betrayal, pain, and anger. Understandably, at first, he is not ready to say “yes” to Mary and her story of divine intervention, there are few men that would.

But through divine intercession you have God, through His angel, making another request:

474px-'Joseph's_Dream',_painting_by_Gaetano_Gandolfi,_c._1790

“Joseph, Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” With Joseph’s “Yes,” to this request his pain and anger subside and are replaced with a joyful nurturing spirit that enables him to take leadership of the situation and begin acting as a faith-filled stepfather. So the collective “No” by our spiritual parents Adam and Eve, is now trumped by the collective “Yes” of the first Christian family: Mary and Joseph.

Now it may be hard for us to relate to this Gospel. Our lives may be filled with anger, worry, family resentments, and disappointments. We may conclude that this story really doesn’t relate to us because the sharp axe of pain and frustration has severed the roots of our own sense of joy, hope, and love. If that is our dilemma, we must call out to God for His direction and try to remember, that in this Christmas season we can, with His help, change our focus. We can say, maybe for the first time with maturity, “Yes” to God and His call to us. You see the story of Mary and Joseph and the Christ child is absolutely relevant. For the angel’s request to Joseph of “Be not afraid” applies to us, too.

The request of  “Be not afraid” involves many different opportunities: the opportunity of forgiving others who have hurt us; or confronting our own sinfulness and unburdening ourselves of our sins, or the opportunity of being a person who desires to seriously investigate their faith and explore the reasons why we believe.

You see all of this involves the same risk that Mary and Joseph experienced: the risk of exposing our mind, heart, and soul to God’s love and allowing Jesus, through His sacramental grace, to be joyfully born into our own hearts and to give us the courage to truly live as a Catholic Christian.

So my brothers and sisters, as we make our final preparations for the celebration of Christmas, let us make every effort to imitate Mary and Joseph by saying “Yes” to God’s call, and in so doing, open the doors of our own hearts to provide a loving home for the Lord.

hol fam-1

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. This is a homily that Deacon Paul O. Iacono delivered at the 8 and 10 AM Masses at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island USA on Sunday December 22, 2013. Information on the painting: This painting was completed by Gaetano Gandolfi (1734 – 1802). It is entitled Joseph’s Dream, is oil on canvas, and is approximately 37 inches high by 30 inches wide. It was completed in 1790.  Information on the mosaic: Detail of the apse mosaic in the St Joseph’s chapel of Westminster Cathedral. It was installed in 2003, and the designer is Christopher Hobbs who worked with mosaic artist, Tessa Hunkin. – See more at: http://elmiradominicans.blogspot.com/2011/12/holy-family-of-jesus-mary-and-joseph.html#sthash.vVewiGgP.dpuf

Saint Monica – Patron of Mothers

Today is the memorial of St. Monica, the extraordinarily faith-filled mother of St. Augustine.

In the year 321, Monica was born in Algeria into a family that was devoutly Christian. As a child she was baptized a Christian and was raised to be a dutiful wife. She was given in marriage to a bad tempered, adulterous pagan official, by the name of Patricius.

In examining the life of Saint Monica one is struck by the extent of the abuse she and other women endured throughout their marriage. Under the laws of the time Monica’s husband could physically and emotionally abuse his wife. Compounding the problem was the fact that Patricius’ mother also lived with them and she, like her son, ridiculed his young wife. Monica had three children with this man and, of course the most famous was her oldest, the man that history now knows as Saint Augustine.

But it is important to reflect for a moment on how she dealt with all the stresses of her life: family relations that mistreated her, children that ignored her model of conduct and faith, a culture that looked the other way when her husband abused her. The circumstances of St. Monica’s life could easily have made her a miserable woman, a sour daughter-in-law, and a depressed parent, yet she didn’t become any of these; instead, she became a saint. A saint that is known for two major personal qualities: her love of Jesus Christ and her prayerful persistence in bringing her physical family into the family of God. This beautiful painting, by artist John Nava, (http://johnnava.com) eloquently captures her spirituality and desire for prayer and union with Christ.

Monica was upset to learn that Augustine had accepted the Manichean heresy and was also living an immoral life. Manichaeism stated, among other things, that there is no all knowing good power, so there is neither lord nor savior. She was so angered by his beliefs that she refused to let him eat or sleep in her house and became enraged when he explained to her that his belief trumped her faith in Jesus Christ. She threw him out of the house, but later pursued him and attempted to reason with him.

Monica took comfort in the fact that she had a dream that assured her Augustine would return to the faith. From that moment she vowed to continually pray and fast for her son and to remain close to him so that she would have the opportunity to discuss her faith with him. The histories tell us that she in fact stayed much closer than Augustine wanted.

One night Augustine told Monica that he was going to the docks to say goodbye to a friend. Instead, he himself set sail for Rome. Monica was stunned when she learned of Augustine’s trick, but she booked passage on the next boat. When she arrived in Rome, she learned that he had left to travel to the city of Milan in northern Italy where he hoped to obtain a teaching post. Monica pursued him to Milan, and it is in Milan that both mother and son came under the influence of the great saint Ambrose who was bishop of Milan.

Bishop Ambrose became Monica’s spiritual director, and ultimately, she accepted Ambrose’s advice. He advised her that what she was doing was correct – that prayer and fasting would have its affect on the situation. He commended her persistence and directed her to keep the faith, and in humility, accept her circumstances. Monica did exactly that, and in Milan, became a leader of devout women, some of whom were also being abused by their husbands.

Ultimately, Saint Monica won the day; her abusive husband, mother in law, and her youngest son and daughter were all baptized into the faith. Augustine, too, eventually saw the logic of his mother’s faith, became a catechumen, and took religious instruction from Ambrose. In the year 387, Bishop Ambrose baptized Augustine into the Catholic faith in Milan’s cathedral.

Saint Monica was an exemplary mother; a woman who perseveringly pursued her wayward family not with threats but with prayerful cries to heaven. Let us pray that she intercedes for all mothers in our day so that they may learn to guide their children to God. Let us also pray that she teaches mothers, through her example of prayer and fasting, to remain close to their children, even prodigal sons and daughters, who have sadly gone astray.

St. Monica, pray for us.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Painting of St. Monica is copyrighted by John Nava. All Rights Reserved.

Our Living Hope: The Tomb Cannot Hold Us

Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants  – we are all an Easter people. For two thousand years we have – through faith in historical documents and human witness – been invited to believe in a divine act of revelation: the Easter resurrection of our Lord and Savior; for it is in that act that our God shows us who He truly is.

We believe that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical and spiritual fact; and that the resurrection of Jesus not only explains the truth of His promises but it demonstrates what has been promised to us.

On the first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John saw that the stone had been rolled away from Jesus’ tomb; and as they looked in  – they came face to face with their eternal destiny. Since no stone could have stopped the resurrected Jesus, it was pushed away not to let Jesus out – but to let them – and us – in.

Like Mary, Peter, and John, and all the others, we come to realize that we are an Easter people – which means that we are an eternal people – members, through our holy baptism, of the family of the eternal high God. The tomb could never hold the resurrected Jesus, and – as a people of faith – it cannot hold us.

St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Hebrews that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11: 1)

But what is hope? Hope is trust based on a divine promise. We have hope because we trust the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. We trust in His promises to us.

Our hope interacts with our faith in Him – and we are forever changed because of it. You and I are certain of our faith, because we understand and rejoice in the hope that our God does not lie – our Scriptures do not lie  – our Sacred Tradition does not lie; so as an Easter people we possess the hope that St. Peter speaks of when he says: “…we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.   (1 Peter 1:3).

As we celebrate the Easter season, let us – as our Lord tells us today – “Be not afraid”  – let us be joyful and thankful for the gift of faith and the willingness, in the face of all odds, to share our faith and joy with others.

May God grant you a joyous and creative Easter season!

The attached sacred image was painted by Fra Angelico in 1441 and is entitled “The Women at the Tomb.”       Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved