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

God’s Playfulness – Video and Verse

If you have a moment, click on this link, expand the very brief video to full screen, then sit back and enjoy the playfulness of God and the gift of His creative grace. After watching it, I composed a few verses, which I share with you.

http://www.guideposts.org/video/mysterious-ways/the-miracle-of-flight?int_source=MysteriousWays&int_medium=RN&int_campaign=Starlingmurmurations

Thanksgiving 

Grace, the gift of God’s energy; the sharing of Divine life. 

God plays with His creation – mutual joy crashes in on our senses, like the lovely waves of the starlings’ wings, to drench us with His beauty.

Grace, God freely shares His friendship.

We are graced.  

We rejoice and give thanks.

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. I would like to thank nature photographer Dylan Winter for the incredible starling murmurations video and for the Guideposts website for featuring it. 

Double Halo Around the Sun – Scientific Analysis

My last post featured all the remarkable photos by Joan Weist of a double halo around the sun seen in coastal Rhode Island a few weeks ago. One of those images is found below. My sister Susan was kind enough to forward the photos for scientific analysis to my cousin Michael, an atmospheric scientist. Here is what he said:

“I remember seeing the same optical effect in the sky in eastern Massachusetts that day.   This is called a halo, which always surrounds the sun, and it occurs when there are very thin, very high clouds in the sky (you can see these in the pictures too).  These high clouds are composed of small ice crystals, and in the right conditions (that is, when the ice crystals are of the same shape and are oriented the same way) the sun light is refracted (bent) by the crystals in such a way that the light is separated into its component colors.  The process is similar for a rainbow, which occurs near the ground, though rainbows occur when light is bent by liquid water droplets (rain) falling close to the ground.  Your photos actually show a double halo, with the second one fainter and farther from the sun than the brighter inner halo.  The double halo is much more uncommon, since the conditions needed to make one occur much less frequently.” (italics mine, PI)

Joanphoto 2

DaVinci would have appreciated this explanation, and marveled too, at Joan’s photos and the halos occurrence in nature.

My blogging efforts have diminished what with the advent of experiments and research in sacred art, delivering summer art workshops, gardening, and walks along the beach.

I wish all my readers the opportunity to take some time off and find a spot that they, too, can enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. Happy Summer!

Copyright © 2011- 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. PHOTO Copyright © 2013 Joan Weist All Rights Reserved

   

The Christmas Star of Bethlehem – Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Even though the vast majority of us are not astronomers, the famous star of Bethlehem still has a great ability to intrigue us especially as it relates to its actual astronomical occurrence. As Christians we believe in the Christmas story, not as legend or myth, but as an actual historical occurrence which led to the Redemption of mankind by the Son of God – Jesus Christ.

There are many elements of the Nativity of Christ that are expressed by the evangelists, and one of the most interesting is the illumination of Israel by a brilliant star at the time of the actual birth of Jesus. The Christmas Star has intrigued artists and poets in its ability to shed light on the truth of the cosmic meaning of Christmas; and in recent years some research has been done using computer animation and astronomical programs to determine if, when, and where it actually occurred.

The EWTN network usually airs a contemporary and extremely popular documentary entitled The Star  (of Bethlehem) (please examine the filmmaker – Rick Larson’s site – for a wonderful, multipart, overview of his documentary: www.bethlehemstar.net/

The following post attempts to determine the birth date of Jesus Christ in light of the astronomical evidence. The quotes I provide are taken from a fascinating study entitled Probable Date of Birth of Christ found in this website: www: copiosa.org/christmas/birth_date.htm by Father William G. Most (Fr. Most’s article offers a summary of the work done by  E. L. Martin, in his book The Star That Astonished the World, ASK Publications).

“In the evening of June 17, 2 BC, there was a spectacular astronomical event in the western sky. Venus moved eastward seemingly going to collide with Jupiter. They appeared as one star, not two, dominating the twilight of the western sky in the direction of Palestine. This conjunction had not happened for centuries, and would not happen again for more centuries. Jupiter was considered the Father, Venus the Mother.

Then not many days later, Venus came within 0.36 degrees of Mercury. On September 11 came the New Moon, the Jewish New Year. This happened when Jupiter, the King planet was approaching Regulus, the King star. Further, there were three conjunctions of Jupiter and Regulus within the constellation of Leo, the lion, which was considered the head of the Zodiac.

Now Genesis 49:10 had foretold there would always be a ruler from Judah, whom Jacob called the lion, until the time of the Messiah. The star Regulus, which astronomers called the King Star, dominated Leo.

The Magi, being astronomers and astrologers, would surely read these signs. (The three conjunctions with Regulus were August 12, 3 BC; February 17, 2 BC, and May 8/9, 2 BC). In Hebrew, Jupiter was called sedeq = “righteous,” a term especially pertaining to the Messiah.

On September 11, Jupiter was close in the constellation of Virgo, the virgin. On September 3rd of 3 BC Jupiter was in conjunction with Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo — Leo the Lion, which was associated with Kings, and the Lion of Judah, as foretold by the dying Jacob in Egypt in Genesis 49:10.

Also, on December 25 of 2 BC, Jupiter stopped for 6 days over Bethlehem. This is a normal motion for Jupiter; it stops twice, and reverses its seeming movement. This may have been the very time the Magi came with their gifts. This was also the time of the Hanukkah festival, during which it was customary for Jewish Fathers to give gifts to their children.

The shepherds watching their flocks in the fields indicate a date either in late summer or early fall.

E.L. Martin [whose research this article is based on] thinks the birth of Jesus was in September, 3 BC (Jupiter in conjunction with Regulus), and the probable date of the Magi was December 25, 2 BC (Jupiter stopped for 6 days over Bethlehem).”

Please don’t forget when we speak in BC time, the “ladder of time” comes down from let us say 10,000 BC to 1 BC, in a descending order, so 3 BC comes before 2 BC.

In AD time (Anno Domini, a Latin phrase which means “the year of Our Lord” the “ladder of time” is ascending, so, we are currently in the year 2012, but as of midnight December 31st, we will then be in the year 2013, or two thousand and thirteen years since the birth of Christ. When this Gregorian Calendar system was developed and applied to western Europe, approximately five hundred years ago, they did not have the sophistication of computer/astronomical observations to correct the date of Christ’s birth, if we agree with Martin’s research, to the year 3 BC.

“The above span of dates (approx. 16 months) coincides with The Slaughter of the Innocents, where Herod killed all males under the age of two years. Herod died shortly thereafter. Interestingly, More than 600 planetariums here and in Europe have revised their Christmas star show to match this work of E. L. Martin.”

594px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-18-_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi

The above painting is entitled the Adoration of the Magi by Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337). The Star of Bethlehem is shown as a comet above the child. Giotto witnessed an appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1301.

“Magi were not really just astrologers. They served as court advisors, going from one royal court to another. It would not then be difficult to suppose they had come from a great distance with gifts. In those days all astronomers were acquainted with astrology. They were also mathematicians.” This is the end of Fr. Most’s article.

For more information check out Fr. Most’s website: copiosa.org/christmas/index.htm. As you go down this index on the left hand side you will see Fr. Most’s complete article on the Probable Date of the Birth of Christ. His site has some very interesting articles that can be very helpful in explaining to people – especially children – the origins of Catholic Christmas traditions.

220px-Nativity_Icon

The above icon was written (painted) in Russia and displays, in a lovely catechetical way, the entire Nativity narrative: the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, the Star of Bethlehem (appearing as a disk with a shaft of light coming down to the cave of the birth, the actual birth of the child Jesus being wrapped in swaddling clothes by His Blessed Mother – Mary, the coming of the Magi, the washing of the child Jesus, and St. Joseph being visited by an old man in furs (some refer to this last image as the temptation to doubt that confronted Joseph.

Soon after the dream visitation by an angel, St. Joseph realizes the nature of this Child. He understands that he is given the responsibility to care for Him and His mother and raise the child as if He was his very own. St. Joseph does exactly that; he is the epitome of quiet, loving leadership, and a model for all fathers.

St. Joseph is silent throughout the entire Gospel narrative. Yet, his actions speak louder than words. We see in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 1: 18ff) that he ultimately had a thoughtful plan to quietly divorce Mary when he learns that she is pregnant; however, he is not stubborn or hard of heart, for when the angel Gabriel visits him and tells him what is happening he does not rebel and say “No, I will not do it” out of pride or ego. Rather, he changes his plan and trusts the angel’s message which was sent by God to him.

This is so important – and it should speak volumes to us – if we, too, have open hearts and minds to hear what God is telling us in prayer, Scripture, and the grace of the Holy Sacraments. These three sacred tools, along with a holy orthodox spiritual director, will assist us on our path – and like the Star of Bethlehem – lead us to the Christ.

In the immortal words of Tiny Tim Cratchit: “… and a Merry Christmas, everyone!”

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The Magnificat of Mary – A Beautiful Analysis By The Venerable Bede

In this morning’s selection from the Office of Readings in the Roman Breviary, the Venerable Bede, an English monk  presents a beautiful analysis of Mary’s joy-filled song – The Magnificat.

Bede was born in the year 673 and died in 735. He lived in Northumbria, primarily in the two monasteries of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. These monasteries had accumulated a wonderful collection of Greek, Latin, and early Church manuscripts. Bede spent his life studying, writing, and dictating the results of his research and prayer. He is known primarily for his most famous tome which is The Ecclesiastsical History of the English People. This work resulted in later generations giving him the title “The Father of English History.”

In 1899, Pope Leo 13th made Bede a Doctor of the Church. Bede was a skilled translator, linguist, and writer. His ability to compose insightful spiritual essays, and skill in making the writings of the Early Church Fathers accessible to his fellow Anglo-Saxons, significantly contributed to the growth of Roman Catholicism in England.

Let us take a moment today to dwell upon one of his perceptive and rich essays on the Blessed Mother. In the selection below, Bede provides us with a beautiful essay on Mary’s response to the knowledge that she will be the mother of the Savior. Her poetic song is known as The Magnificat, and it is said in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth (and possibly Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah) when they rejoice in the knowledge that they are both pregnant (The Visitation).

visitation

Mary’s song of joy, faith, and trust is here separated by Bede and some of its key phrases are analyzed by him for our prayerful consideration. Mary’s words appear in bold italics, Scriptural references are in plain italics, Bede’s are in regular print. The entire Magnificat can be found in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, verses 46 – 55.

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Mary said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Bede’s comments, he has Mary thinking these thoughts: “The Lord has exalted me by a gift so great, so unheard of, that language is useless to describe it, and the depths of love in my heart can scarcely grasp it. I offer then all the powers of my soul in praise and thanksgiving. As I contemplate his greatness, which knows no limits, I joyfully surrender my whole life, my senses, my judgment, for my spirit rejoices in the eternal Godhead of that Jesus, that Savior, whom I have conceived in this world of time.”

The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

“Mary looks back to the beginning of her song, where she said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. Only that soul for whom the Lord in His love does great things can proclaim his greatness with fitting praise and encourage those who share her desire and purpose, saying: Join with me in proclaiming the greatness of the Lord; let us extol His name together.”

“Those who know the Lord, yet refuse to proclaim His greatness and sanctify His name to the limit of their power, will be called least in the kingdom of Heaven. His name is called holy because in the sublimity of his unique power He surpasses every creature and is far removed from all that He has made.”

He has come to the help of His servant Israel, for He has remembered His promise of mercy.

“In a beautiful phrase Mary calls Israel the servant of the Lord. The Lord came to his aid to save him. Israel is an obedient and humble servant, in the words of Hosea: Israel was a servant, and I loved him.”

“Those who refuse to be humble cannot be saved. They cannot say with the prophet: See, God comes to my aid; the Lord is the helper of my soul. But anyone who makes himself humble like a little child is greater in the kingdom of Heaven.”

The promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.

“This does not refer to the physical descendants of Abraham, but to his spiritual children. These are his descendants, sprung not from the flesh only, but who, whether circumcised or not, have followed him in faith. Circumcised as he was, Abraham believed, and this was credited to him as an act of righteousness.

The coming of the Savior was promised to Abraham and to his descendants forever. These are the children of promise, to whom it is said: If you belong to Christ, then you are descendants of Abraham, heirs in accordance with the promise.”

The Responsory Prayer (Luke 1: 48 – 50) follows this reading:

“From this day all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me, holy is His name. He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.”

Beautiful words and images to bring us into the eve of Christmas. May you all have a holy and joy filled Christmas day and good fortune in the New Year! You are in my prayers.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved. Notes on the paintings: The first sacred image is a contemporary sacred image written/painted in the iconographic style; I do not know its author. The second sacred image of Mary lost in ecstasy as she sang The Magnificat, was completed by James J. Tissot, a French painter (1836 – 1902). This painting currently hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. The medium is opaque watercolor over graphite on gray woven paper. It is approximately five by ten inches in size. Bede’s commentary is taken from The Liturgy of the Hours, Volume 1. Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1975, page 362.

 

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

The Joy Filled Christian – A Sermon on Survival in the Face of Tribulation

Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “Rejoice!” The Church has us  visualize this by the rose colored candle in the Advent wreath and the rose colored vestments. Gaudete Sunday appears at the midpoint of the Advent season, and we pause to rejoice and reflect on the marvelous work of God and His plan of salvation for us.

Our readings show us Isaiah speaking of the splendid work of God – – St. Paul telling us to “give thanks and rejoice always,” not just in good times, but in all circumstances, and our Gospel describes St. John the Baptist testifying that the Light of the World would soon begin His ministry.

But today’s reading from St. Paul may have given you pause and trouble: you may say:  “You mean I’m to rejoice even if I have just lost my job, even if corporate and governmental corruption has destroyed my retirement income, even if I am mourning a deceased loved one, even if my husband, wife, or child is sick, or has abandoned me, or wants nothing to do with me?

Remarkably, St. Paul’s message is “Yes, give thanks, and rejoice!” 

Although, let’s be careful, he is not saying for us to put on blinders and act like Pollyanna. St. Paul knew what trouble was. He had plenty of trials to deal with, his letters to the various churches of Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy are filled with numerous personal problems and tribulations.

Yet, through all of that, he kept his vision focused firmly on Jesus. It was that mental memory of who Jesus was, what He preached, how He suffered and died; and the truth that was well known to St. Paul and many others that Jesus the Word of God and the Light of the World had resurrected from the dead and had appeared to him, face to face, mind to mind, to express His love for those Paul was persecuting, and to ask him to stop, and to follow Him as Lord.

It is this focus, this trust, this faith that enabled St. Paul to deal with his problems.  

It is this focus, this trust, this faith that enabled him to maintain joy in the knowledge that his eternal salvation was certain through faith in Jesus Christ.

St. Paul’s focus was on his eternal salvation through Jesus – not on the trials of this world.

But how does St. Paul keep his focus?

You see, Paul links the ability to possess sincere joy with praying; because joy is a gift from God. It comes to us through His grace – it is a specific fruit of the Holy Spirit.

So, joy enters our world when we humble ourselves to receive God’s grace and see the real meaning of our life as a child of God – when we look at our own fragility and brokenness – and realize that we are not able to survive without the help of God.

Joy will come into our life when we realize that survival depends on our developing a prayer filled and Sacramental relationship with Christ – which leads to our being sanctified by His grace. This relationship can only occur when we seriously view our prayer life – and Christ’s Sacraments – through the eyes of a trusting and knowledgeable child – rather than that of a worldly wise adult.

We must be humble enough to start with daily traditional prayer; however, there will come a moment in which these prayers move us into a dialogue, a conversation with our Lord, and this is the heart of prayer.  Saints Paul, John the Baptist, and Isaiah all spent time in deep conversation with God. It is through their prayer life that the gift of God’s joy was able to fill their hearts.

So on this Gaudete Sunday we remember that we are called to rejoice through prayer in the truth that, regardless of how dismal our personal circumstances, Jesus our Savior loves us – and will never abandon us.

Let us remember that our lives should be a testimony, not to sorrow, guilt, or fear, but to the mature trust and joy that delights in the knowledge that – by virtue of the saving power of Jesus Christ and His Sacramental grace – we are redeemed children of God, who with His grace and strength, can endure any tribulation.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

The above is a sermon Deacon Paul O. Iacono gave at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Wakefield, Rhode Island on the weekend of December 10/11, 2011 Scriptural references referred to in this, the 3rd Sunday of Advent, were from Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11; 1st Thessalonians. 5: 16-24;  John. 1: 6 -8, 19-28.