Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily for Holy Family Sunday 2010

Holy Family A – 12/26/10
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14, Psalm 128:1-5, Colossians 3:12-17, Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Complete Biblical Texts

Not long ago there was an article in the New York Times about some Jews who are washing the bodies of dead loved ones. The restoration of this ancient religious law has motivated Jewish volunteers to learn the “rituals of bathing, dressing, watching over the dead bodies of neighbors and friends.” [1] One rabbi said, we visit the sick and comfort the bereaved; now we care for the deceased as well. Very few of us in the Christian tradition have been known to carry out this beautiful, tender act.

The first reading this morning is from Sirach, a book of wisdom. It can be an incentive to be considerate of and to take care of our parents; a commentary on the fourth commandment. Anyone who knows what it is like to have a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, another illness or old age can identify with this passage.

The second reading, a primitive catechism, lists those virtues that are required of us when caring for others — compassion and humility, gentleness and patience. The text says we clothe ourselves in these Christ like attributes. (This could be a reference to a newly baptized person who, rising up from the font of water, puts on a new Easter garment.) The expression “fearing God” in the psalm is a reminder not to boast about what we do. Rather, those who care for others are like a fruitful vine bearing the joys of life.

Caring for one another is not always easy. It is an interruption in our routine and it can be emotionally and physically messy. When someone in our family becomes sick and requires our immediate or long term care we are obliged to respond no matter how inconvenient it may be. When others are hungry and homeless, abused and dishonored, we come to their rescue as members of a holy family.

The story in the gospel is an intriguing one about avoiding danger; about caring for someone’s welfare. It is not just about how the family of Joseph and Mary sidestepped the murderous Archelaus, the son of the infamous Herod.  Rather, it places Jesus in the long history of Israel. [2]  Instead of returning to Judea Jesus’ family headed north to Nazareth in Galilee.

The word Nazareth is key in understanding why this happened. It means “shoot” in Hebrew and is a reference to the life that grew out of the stump in the wilderness. [3] Jesus, for Christians, is considered the flower that blossomed from the tree of Jesse. By going to Nazareth, scholar John Pilch says, the parents of Jesus “directed him toward his destiny.” [4]

The concern that Mary and Joseph had for the safety of their children is an example of how out of our way we go for the sake of others; to help them reach their destiny. Like the poor refugee family, Joseph, Mary and their children, “millions of families around the world still flee for their lives and suffer the wrath of their governments.” [5]

Tenderly caring for destitute strangers and familiar loved ones is a human thing to do. Bathing a dead person, like some Jewish women are learning to do, takes us to another level of care. It is a beautiful example of how much we are connected with one another in life and in death. This seasonal story of the Holy Family is not just an adventurous tale about escaping death. Rather, it reminds us about the cost of caring for one another.


1 Vitello, Paul. “Reviving a Ritual of Tending to the Dead.” New York Times, 12/13/10

2 Fuller, Reginald H and Westberg, Daniel. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) 2006 (Third Edition), pp. 25-26

3 Fuller and Westberg. Ibid.

4 Pilch, John J.. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) 1995. pp. 13-15.

5 Pax Christi USA. 2010 Christmas message



Homily for Christmas Eve 2010

Christmas Eve A – December 24, 2010
Isaiah 9:1-6, Psalm 96:1-3, 11-13, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14

Complete biblical texts for the Mass at Midnight

I have been waiting a long time to tell you an incredible secret! Writers have been working on this one for years and it is sure to change the way we think about Christmas. Mary had twins. One was named Jesus. He was the talented and charismatic one. The other one was called Christ. He was the sly and scholarly one. Don’t be too startled. For a whole millennium Christians have believed Jesus the anointed one was both human and divine. But what happens when you separate the twin meaning, just for tonight?

Philip Pullman [1] tells the story about Jesus traveling the countryside teaching ethics. Some of it is common sense, some of it is down right confusing. Meanwhile, his brother Christ, prompted by a stranger who knows all about the twins, stands on the fringes of the crowds taking notes.

The idea was for Christ to clarify what his brother Jesus was doing so that we could understand it better. The secret agenda of the stranger, however, was to turn the simple teachings of Jesus into dogmatic ones dictated by an organized religion. [2] Scripture scholar Raymond Brown wrote, “All gospel material has been colored by the faith and experience of the church of the first century.” [3] How is this ancient story of the birth of Jesus Christ colored by our faith and experience today?

In the book, Christ watched over his brother Jesus from a distance. Many are on the fringe of our Church looking in at us, watching what we say and do? Ross Douthat wrote recently, “depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either … the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.” [4] These feelings may be true for many Americans — even some of us here tonight. Recent studies tell us that we are a spiritually restless country; that people are questioning the value of organized religions and the moral authority of their leaders; we have become a nation of seekers looking for answers. Still … something drew us to this church this evening; something that may be beyond our telling.

We gather here because of the story of the birth of a helpless child who grew up to find his own identity and to speak a prickly message of peace and justice. He never intended to start a new religion. Nowhere do we read Jesus gave up his Jewish identity. Apart from the romantic and commercial appeal of this holy day, we realize that somewhere beneath the music and lights lies a message of hope. It is a message that also challenges us to keep the stories of our faith alive and, as the second reading tonight suggests, to live justly, peacefully and devoutly in this age.

Christianity is a religion that requires not only faith but good works. The meaning of Christmas is found in the entire life of Jesus Christ not just his infancy. Once we get beyond the shepherds, the kings, the angels; the mystery and magic of this season, what’s left for us to tell others about Jesus? How about these attributes? His charism and his intelligence; his kindness and his audacity; his defeats and his victories; his evasiveness and his personal touch.

My two year old great niece, Charlotte, decided the other day to rearrange the statues in the nativity set. She turned the angels, the shepherds, the kings and even Joseph and Mary around on the table so they would face a photo of Charlotte’s parents. The poor little Christ child was moved outside the group! Apparently little Charlotte thinks the whole crowd should be adoring her parents. But, what about the Christ child? She placed him on the fringe looking in on the rest of us to see just how much we are adoring one another. Maybe my great niece is on to something called  — the true meaning of Christmas.

1 Pullman, Philip. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. (London: Canongate) 2010

2 Hichens, Christopher. “In the Name of the Father, the Sons…” in the New York Times, July 11, 2010, 12. A review of Pullman’s book.

3 Brown, Raymond. An Adult Christ at Christmas. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1978, 3

4 Douthat, Ross. “A Tough Season for Believers” in the New York Times, 12/20/10, page A29


Homily for 12/19/10: A Home for the Holidays

4 Advent A – December 19, 2010 – A Home for the Holidays
Isaiah 7:10-14, Psalm 24:1-6, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-24

Complete biblical texts for today

What if Joseph did not take Mary into his home? Maybe she would have been homeless. Joseph made an unimaginable and bold move. Here’s the story.

Mary finds out she is pregnant. We believe she was harboring the messiah. Puzzled, Mary prays, obeys and seeks advice from wise women. In the meantime, news of her pregnancy spread throughout the village. As scripture scholar Brigitta Kahl recently said in so many words: Mary did not have a sign that said, “the Holy Spirit did it.”

According to custom her marriage to Joseph was arranged. At the time Joseph did not know about Mary’s pregnancy. Love was not a prerequisite for matrimony; a good deal between parents was. When Joseph finally learns of Mary’s condition he is really upset. The whole Mediterranean culture was based on honor and shame. Joseph felt dishonored. The law also said you cannot take what does not belong to you. Legally, Joseph could have divorced Mary so that the father of her child could marry her. So what happened that saved the whole Christmas story?

Troubled, Joseph tries to sleep. An angel appears to him in a dream. Angels remember are used in scripture to say, “Listen up this is God talking to you.” The angel tells Joseph not to disown or divorce Mary but to do what is culturally unimaginable. Joseph wakes up with a change of mind. As the last line in today’s gospel tells us, he denounced his own privilege [1] and took his wife into his home. Joseph harbored Mary who was harboring Jesus. [2]

We are all very busy, in the final stretch, getting ready for the holy day of Christmas. Here in this parish we have been very generous with our time and resources in thinking about others. Today’s gospel offers us yet another chance to dream about unimaginable possibilities in life; those flowers blooming from dead stumps that could prepare the way for the kin-dom of God — a time and place when and where all humans care for and respect one another.

The Grammy award winning gospel choir Sweet Honey In the Rock provokes questions in their song, “Would You Harbor Me?” [3] Changing some of the words we can ask: Would we harbor a homeless person? A family? An undocumented migrant worker? Someone inflicted with AIDS?

We believe all of us are harbored by God regardless of our unworthiness. [4] Although this divine and unconditional love is unimaginable not everyone has a home. This year over 12,000 homeless households received services from various providers right in our Capital Region. There are a total of 9000 children in these households, homeless in the Capital Region. [5]

Our song during this season of Advent has been Maran-atha. The word appears only once in the New Testament (1Cor. 16:22) and can be translated “Our Lord Has Come.” [6] Rather than waiting for Christ to come to us, we wait in joyful hope for the world to come to Christ (Karl Rahner), to harbor Christ like Mary and Joseph did. As another Advent comes to a close this week, we pray “let God be with us.” It is that bold unimaginable dream that all people will someday soon have a home for the holidays.

A note on today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah not included in the homily

We often think that the prophecy of Isaiah in this passage is a purposeful reference to the birth of Jesus. Isaiah was thinking of the immediate political situation of his time. Syria was entering an alliance with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. This alliance would soon attack Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom of Judah where Ahaz is King. The young woman Isaiah is referring to is not Mary of the NT but the wife of the king, Ahaz. The son to be born is Hezekiah. Isaiah had hopes that the savior of the Israelites would come from the ancestral line of David. For Christians the final fulfillment is found in the birth of Jesus. For Christians, Jesus is the messiah. [Source: Fuller, R. and Westberg, D. The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006) pp.11-13]


1 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1995) pp. 10-12.

2 This theme of “harboring” emerged in an Advent worship ritual at Union Theological Seminary, New York City

3 Would You Harbor Me? Words and Music by Ysaye M. Barnwell © 1994 Barnwell Notes (BMI)

4 Carr, David. Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY. Notes from a handout.

5 Family and Children’s Service of the Capital Region <http:/>

6 New Revised Standard Version. (San Francisco: Harper, 2006) See page 1955. First Corinthians 16:22, footnote c.


Homily for 12/12/10: What Do You Expect?

3 Advent A – December 12, 2010 – What Do You Expect?
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10, Psalm 146:6-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
Today’s Complete Biblical Texts

Oprah Winfrey picked Great Expectations by Charles Dickens for her December book club. You wonder why. As you remember, this classic story touches on crime, social classes, guilt, greed, love and ambition. The main character, Pip, has great expectations of himself as he transitions from misfortune to wealth. The novel is not about giving up when you are down, but finding ways to turn hardships into opportunities.

Our expectations for a merry Christmas — everything this season symbolizes — can be easily overshadowed by a troubled world, a restless nation, personal problems. Except for the very wealthy and privileged class too many people on this planet still live in a parched land, like the wilderness described in our first biblical text.

This passage from Isaiah probably dates to the time of the exile or shortly thereafter. The Israelites were worn out having been held hostage by powerful enemies. The prophet tries to perk them up with a list of “hard to imagination” expectations and possibilities. Flowers blooming in the desert? Flooding in arid land? Weak hands and feeble feet strengthened again?

Much later, also in the wilderness, John the Baptist in preparing the way for Jesus, reiterated these prophecies. Jailed for his revolutionary agenda he became skeptical. Was Jesus really the one who is to come?  Jesus assured John’s disciples that what was envisioned by other prophets and John is already taking place. Note that the miracles listed in this text are about liberation. Jesus like “Moses on a mission,” was leading a second Exodus only this time all nations are invited to join the march to justice. [1] After claiming no one was superior to John [2] Jesus questioned the crowd — what did you expect?

It’s a good question for us isn’t it? What do we want out of life? (Calendars are great. They tell what today is, where we’re supposed to be tomorrow; they remind us not to forget the past.) Last Friday (12/10/10) was International Human Rights Day.  Is that the great expectation we all have? Human rights?

For women it is to be treated equally and with respect at home, in the work force, in society and in our church. Immigrants and their children? All they want is a chance to work, study and live with dignity. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people want the opportunity to live with the same rights others have. These things are not too much to ask, are they? These are not great expectations; they are basic human rights.

Why can’t we achieve them? Year after year we gather and listen to the same prophecies. Seven hundred years went by from the time of Isaiah’s prophecy to the time when John the Baptist prepared the way. The second reading says be patient! Here we are two thousand years after Jesus established the kin-dom of God on earth and we are still at it. Wondering. Waiting. Expecting.

What can we say is really happening? What is God trying to tell to us all these years? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 said it succinctly. “Respect for human rights and dignity is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Today, a Sunday calling us to “rejoice,” [3] is also the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe patron of the Americas. Her miraculous appearance to the poor Aztec Indian Juan Diego in the 16th century continues to provide a ray of hope for a parched people. Mary filled Diego’s tilma (mantle) with roses, flowers blooming in an arid desert.

There is a magnet on my refrigerator with a quote from Winston Churchill. He must have read Dickens’ book, Great Expectations and the bible. The quote says, “Never, never, never give up.” As Christians, this is our calling, this is our mandate.

1 Carr, David. Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY. Notes from handouts.

2 The Gospel of Thomas, 46.

3 The Third Sunday of Advent was once called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the first word in the entrance antiphon of today’s liturgy.


Homily for 12/05/10: Your Nose So Bright

2 Advent A – December 5, 2010 – Your Nose So Bright
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17, Romans 15:4-9, Matthew 3:1-12

Complete biblical texts

The song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was played in the background during this first paragraph of the homily.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was a character created by advertising executive Robert May in 1939. As you well know it is a story about a reindeer who was different. Others laughed at him, called him names and excluded him from their games. Eventually Rudolph was accepted and, with a nose so bright, guided Santa’s sleigh through the Christmas night. This tale of rejection, reconciliation and hope spurs the imagination of every child at this time of year.

The music stopped.

Today’s biblical texts aren’t exactly archetypes for commercial appeal or holiday fables. They do however ring of the same story you and I cannot escape. How do we take the lead in matters that affect our lives and those of others?  How do we bring happiness and hope to others? How do we prepare the way to counter wicked, ruthless and harmful enemies? These are the crooked paths that side step the goals that Christmas symbolizes — peace on earth, good will for all.

The readings today switch from the scary thoughts of the end of the world to the birth of Jesus Christ. The first passage from Isaiah is the great prophecy that a savior will come. In defeating adversaries, King David’s dynasty was about as effective as a dead stump. Sentences before the text we heard are helpful (Is. 10: 33-34). The majestic trees of the enemy were hacked down. This is a prelude to the word of promise that follows. [1] From that withered tree of Jesse, that rotten stump, emerged David and “Justice flourished in his time.” (Psalm 72)

This Isaiah passage sets the stage for what we claim to be the root for our Christian story about the incarnation of the savior God. For us Jesus Christ is the bright light who leads, not Santa’s sleigh, but people out of degradation and hostility to a kin-dom; a time and place where all people live with respect and dignity. What do we have to do to get there?

The gospel starts with John the Baptist’s warning to repent and prepare the way for the mightier One coming after him. Grimy and living on fast food, John was the “stump” man for Jesus as foretold in Isaiah 40:1-5. He was irritated by the skeptics and challenged them to produce good fruit as proof of their repentance or risk being axed. John is a symbolic link to those Old Testament prophets who resisted injustice and embraced a revolutionary model of renewing society.” [2]

Here is where you and I are called to a corporate understanding of our responsibilities in the world. This undertaking is difficult to grasp because we live in a society based on individualism. However, how long can we blame government for our country’s serious dilemmas if we are not willing to change our lifestyles? What will cynicism and criticism of our religious leaders accomplish if we do not take the lead in our own spiritual lives? No matter what the situation is in our domestic and personal affairs, rich or poor, we can only advance ourselves by being daring and hopeful. That’s how we turn dead stumps into flourishing trees.

This past week was full of reminders of the dead stumps aching to bloom again. World AIDS Day will not let us ignore that dreadful disease. Civic and religious leaders warn that only personal and global responsibility will halt the spread of HIV AIDS. The thirtieth anniversary of the brutal rape and murder of four Catholic women missionaries in El Salvador thirty years ago reminds us that evil people exist all over this planet. Three of the soldiers who carried out the killings were trained at the School of the Americas. [3] And, this past Friday was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Who among us is not helpless in some way?

Who will take the lead? The second reading from the epistle to the Romans says we are called to welcome one another, to think in harmony with one another, to encourage one another with endurance. This is not an easy mission especially with so much tugging at us, sometimes in different directions. Last week Betsy [4] spoke about learning to live with the dichotomies; to balance ourselves on icy sidewalks where anxieties and hopes crisscross.

It is unlikely that wolves and lambs will sleep together soon (Is. 11:6). So, where is the hope, the light that shines in the darkness? Christians are not alone in this season of light. During this time of Chanukah Jews light candles to mark the miraculous defeat of an enemy and the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Next week, as Catholics observe the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Buddhists will celebrate the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama. In that tradition the radiance of multicolored lights symbolizes the pathways to enlightenment.

We are preparing to celebrate the birth date of a savior — the illumination of the world! We decorate our homes with Christmas lights even while the flames of our Advent wreaths still flicker. We can’t wait, it seems, to exclaim from the house tops “we’ll keep the lights on for you Christ” until you come in glory. All of these festivals of light point to the hope we have as a global family that, from a dead tree stump, new life can bloom.

Maybe the next time we hear strains of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the radio, in the malls, we will imagine that we, like the deer Rudolph, with our noses so bright, can lead the way to peace and justice for all.


1 Carr, David. Union Seminary, New York. From notes distributed on today’s passage from Isaiah

2 John J. Pilch. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1995) 4-6.

3 The School of the Americas now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. WHISC is financed by American tax dollars.

4 Betsy Rowe-Manning is the Parish Life Director of St. Vincent de Paul parish, Albany, NY.