Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily for Christmas Eve 2011 – Some Assembly Required

Christmas Eve B – 2011 — Some Assembly Required

 Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalm 96 1-3, 11-13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 

The children are nestled all snug in their beds. Now is time to open up those boxes that say on the outside “some assembly required.” You know the kind I am talking about: the ones that provide those easy to follow instructions in six languages; that say we can do it in about 30 minutes; that we will only need a screwdriver. Well, about an hour later and after many screwdrivers we are exasperated and wondered why we didn’t pay someone to do it ahead of time.

Christmas time is a lot like life. Some days everything seems to be working just fine. Then there are those days when we just cannot connect the pieces together properly. Every day we are faced with situations that require more aptitude, more assembly, in order for things to work.

Assembly is required on the global scale — to fix the world economy, to bring peace to troubled nations, to save what is left of the natural environment. In our country, we could use further assembly of our political system, our economic crisis, our social structure.

We believe in a God who created us and promised not to leave us alone. Christmas is one of those feasts that reminds us of what we believe. The bible starts with a fantastic story about how God created everything in record time but somehow forgot to finish the job. When it came our turn to build up life on earth we just couldn’t figure out how to do it. We are still trying.

As the story goes, after many generations, the prophets said OK, that’s enough fumbling around. Someone will have to come to show us how to piece things together. This evening’s first reading, from Isaiah, speaks about people rejoicing over the birth of a child. The Israelites thought this must be the messiah we’ve waited for. However, that passage was not intended to predict the birth of Jesus.  Rather it reported the enthronement of a King crowned to save God’s people.

The Christian assembly of this prophecy stresses that Jesus, however, is the one who would liberate us; save us from the stagnating situations we create for ourselves. Tonight we read from Luke’s gospel, who borrowed from the gospel of Mark, who interestingly wrote nothing about the birth of Jesus. Luke, in assembling this story about the birth of a messiah, drew on about ninety years of oral traditions and his own theological imagination. What a story he gave us. Everybody is still talking about it. We are here tonight because of it.

When God becomes human everything and everyone changes. Mary and Joseph had to re-assemble themselves according to instructions God pasted on the box. Jesus had to gradually piece together his identity. As a baby he came into the world with nothing. As a miracle-working opponent of the establishment he died trying to do something. He did manage to leave a spirited legacy that itself gave birth to a powerful institution called the church.

Today our church requires some assembly. We cannot wait for someone else, not even God, to finish the job. Each of us is called by God to be holy, to free ourselves up from whatever binds us. Yes, some further assembly is required in order for you and me to perform adequately, to minister justly, in a time and place where people long to experience the grace of God.

Christmas Eve, 2011, means something to us otherwise we wouldn’t be here. I suspect it is because you and I are looking for some way to survive the sticky situations we create. We trust that God is still in the mix with us. We look for ways to cooperate with this God. We gather in our churches to find support from each other.  We use every tool possible to tighten up those loose nuts and bolts that cause us to quiver. Then, when we assemble all the parts together, we will see a marvelous gift at Christmas — as God is embodied in us we are now light and hope for one another.




Homily – December 18, 2011 – Can We Say Yes?

4 Advent B – December 18, 2011 – Can We Say Yes?

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a-16; Psalm 89:2-5, 27-29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Did you ever wonder what if Mary of Nazareth just said no? Did God have a back up plan? Was there a runner-up to the biggest honor in Christian history — to give birth to the messiah? Mary had at least one good reason for not accepting Gabriel’s invitation. According to this gospel, written about 85 years later, Mary was already engaged to Joseph. She knew in that culture that pregnancy outside of marriage was unacceptable and that she could have been severely punished perhaps even stoned to death. Nevertheless, the gospel we just heard tells us that this young teenage woman, although quite confused and afraid, did say yes.

There are many times in our own lives when we wish we could say no. No to sweets. No to getting up every morning to go to work or school. No when others ask us to do just one more thing. No to another person’s treasured ideas. Sometimes, whether we realize it or not, we might even find ourselves saying no to God.

On the other hand, there are many times in our lives when we accept difficult tasks, enter into relationships, take on responsibilities without ever considering the consequences to ourselves and to others affected by our decisions. Sometimes ideology, habits, temptations, the expectations of others, urge us to do things we really should not do. Caught up in the moment Mary did not ever imagine how difficult her motherhood would be. She just jumped in. What faith, she must have had.

The author Daniel Kahneman in his new book Thinking Fast and Slow [1] suggests humans are capable of rationalizing almost anything to deal with complexities in life, to back up the decisions we make. How do we overcome our own biases and illusions in our heads about what ought to be? Maybe irrationality is the norm.

With Christmas just a week away I suspect most of us are not terribly curious about how Mary got pregnant. Do we even care how Joseph felt about the whole affair? Forget for a moment that in other pre-Christian myths goddesses gave birth to heroes and gods without losing their virginity. Still, it is not our task to deconstruct or dismantle this story — one that we love to hear this time of year. It is the reason we take delight in the season. We give and get gifts. We connect with family members and friends. We reach out to strangers and pray for enemies.

Today’s scriptures affirm for us how important it is to stay connected with each other, how important human relationships are. Consider Joseph. We don’t know much about him but Joseph did not leave Mary alone. We are reminded today of how dependent we are not only on those who are close and familiar to us but also on the hidden dimensions of life, those things we take for granted — energy, food, water, air, light. We learn to respect nature and how its unpredictable patterns — droughts, floods, earthquakes and snowstorms — can ruin our plans and dash our dreams.

Of course, Mary’s “yes” opened the way for the fulfillment of the prophecy about the One who would come to show us how to be human to one another. It also points out how significant our relationship with God is. Just how do we let God into our lives when we are so busy doing the things we want to do? Setting aside our own agendas for the sake of the common good might be one way to start.

Perhaps Mary felt it was a once in a lifetime chance to let God enter her life even if in a most inconceivable way. By saying yes, Mary said no to having it her way. Perhaps she let go of any preconceived notions about her life in a harsh Mediterranean culture. The same thing happened to David in the first reading. He wanted to build a temple in Jerusalem but God had plans to build up a people. The temple would have to be built later by David’s son Solomon.

What happened to David happened to Mary and often happens to you and me. Sometimes, our own expectations can get in the way of other options for living. Last week, during our reconciliation liturgy, someone said to me she was in the process of redefining her life. That while she would continue to follow her instincts and think carefully before making choices, she also would be open to new possibilities. I think that if we saw Mary the Mother of God as a bright young woman, who had dreams of developing a career, raising a family and living in a supportive relationship, we might discover a woman who also took risks, exploring what was unknown and unimaginable.

Advent is almost over. As we await Christmas, “Come Emmanuel” has been our song; that is, God is with us. Can we say yes to that?


1 Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. (NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2011)

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Homily – December 11, 2011 – Rejoice About What?

Third Sunday of Advent B – December 11, 2011 – Rejoice About What?

 Isaiah 61: 1-2a, 10-11; Psalm Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 and John 1:6-8, 19-28

Well, we’ve been here before. Every year we get to this midpoint in the Advent season when the texts of the liturgy speak to us about rejoicing. Even our liturgical color shifts from violet to pink for a day. Some of you might be asking what exactly is there to rejoice about, where is the joy when so much is weighing us down? Jobs are still scarce, the global economy is walking on egg shells, our federal government appears stuck in rhetorical mud, many religious leaders seem out of touch. On top of this bad news, personal problems also preoccupy us.

To help take our minds off the gloom and doom, and to spur the economy, the commercial side of Christmas is determined to change our mood. The news media includes heart warming stories to stir the spirit of Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa. It all seems to work. It effects us. Trees go up, we shop for presents, nonprofit groups get generous gifts, and, of course, Santa appears as the jolly symbol of joy. Where’s God in all of this?

It could be that so much is going on all around us, coming at us so swiftly, that everything is a blur and before you know it we are off to start a brand new year. We hear people say, because of the hustle and bustle, there is little time to pause and rejoice over the good things in life, and, dare I say — “the true meaning of Christmas.”

Betsy talked about this last weekend in her story about the toll booth collector, the unlikely prophet John. While we take for granted the people we can count on for love and respect, we sometimes overlook other people and things least expected to bring us joy. We could, for example, also be jubilant about how some of us have the freedom to make choices; to select companions; to get an education; and, yes, even to find that illusive job that helps us advance in life.

Last week, after Mass, I asked a few parishioners on the front porch what brings them joy? Some of the answers were wonderful and obvious: family, friends, good health, a job. I invite you now to mention to the person sitting next to you what one thing brings you joy. [After a while the assembly was asked to say out loud what brings joy.]

Someone also said that St. Vincent’s was a joyful experience; that this parish — made up of so many good, diverse, caring, hospitable people — was a welcomed oasis in their busy lives. Is that true for you? [Sustained applause in the church]  They weren’t talking so much about the music or homilies or the ritual as much as the joy that is found in meeting new friends and growing in relationships with others.

What we heard Isaiah saying to the Israelites in today’s first scripture reading could be said about us and other faith communities. God clothes us with salvation and wraps us in a blanket of justice. That’s how close God is to us. God is not out there somewhere. These words hold up for us the promise that those going through tough times can be healed, released, liberated from it all.

Paraphrasing Isaiah we would say the people in messy divorces or mental despair can be healed; that students bullied and ostracized in schools can be liberated; that prisoners of sexual abuse, chemical addiction and human trafficking can be released from it all; that even the smallest concerns we might have can find relief. The question is: how can these things happen?

So much depends on how passionate we are about this message and how alert we are to the needs of others around us. The second reading said Christians test everything, we separate the good from the bad, we prioritize what matters most in our lives and … we pray. We do not forget to pray. Many are counting on you and me to be bearers of good tidings. Eric Weiner’s article in this morning’s New York Times suggests to me that we Americans need to talk about God again. How is God, if you believe in God, still at work in our lives?

That is what John the Baptist was saying in the gospel today. He was addressing an anxious and impatient people waiting for generations for deliverance from an oppressed life, looking for someone to bring them joy. John, whose father was a rural priest, was unusual in this task. He not only dressed and ate differently, his style was out of the ordinary. He belonged to a group of priests who countered the corrupt upper class of clergy whose lives were distant from the needs of the people.

Humble and to the point the Baptizer said he was not the answer. He did not have all the answers. We do not have all the answers either. However, we wrestle with the questions together in our church. John said he was not the light. He was only the bearer, the advance man for the light. His task was to straighten out whatever crooked paths he could to prepare for the coming one — the messiah.

This is a challenge I believe we can get excited about even if, at times, we feel down and out in our own lives. We have to step up because people are counting on us. In spite of our own misgivings and divisions, we have an opportunity as a church to mirror the radiance of the Son of God. We have to remember we are a resourceful church. (Some may have issues with the Roman Curia but we are a church rich with gifts and talents.)

All it takes on our part, if nothing else, is a gentle smile, a warm greeting, a peaceful embrace, an extended hand. Invigorated by our belief in Emmanuel, a God who wraps a blanket of justice and peace around us, we too can bring joy to the world.

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Homily – December 4, 2011 – Unlikely Prophets

Homily – December 4, 2011 – Unlikely Prophets

Complete biblical texts for the Second Sunday of Advent

Note: This homily was delivered by Betsy Rowe-Manning, the Parish Life Director of  St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY.

I have spent most of my life along Route I-90:  Ilion, Syracuse, Albany, Schenectady, Herkimer, and Utica.  Consequently I have driven thousands of miles back and forth along the Thruway.  Prior to using E-ZPass, paying the toll signaled the end of the trip.

And whenever I pulled in to a toll booth, I was ready.   How I hated to hold up the next car while I fumbled for money and, even better, I always tried to have the exact change!  On one particular day my efforts were not in vain as the toll collector at Exit 35 noticed and said: “ Thanks, this is great – the exact change.”  What an affirmation! My family lives near Exit 35 and so, from then on, I always looked for that certain toll collector whenever I visited.  It was easy to spot him in the line of booths as he had pure white hair.  I sought him out both coming and leaving Syracuse – picking up the ticket.

And as you might suspect, our interchanges continued way beyond comments on my neurotic exactitude.  “Have a nice visit,”  “You look tired—hope you’re not working too hard.”  “Be careful, looks like snow.”  “See you on the way back.”  I could always count on him for a good word and, consequently, I always looked forward to seeing him.  Who would have thought – a toll collector – an everyday herald of glad tidings.

He was, in a real sense, a prophet, YET in direct opposite of the rugged John the Baptist – as Mark recounts in today’s beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  John, like Elijah before him, was a character bigger than life, who wore rough clothing, preferred strange and usual food and proclaimed the coming of the Lord with such gusto that scores of people, the whole of Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem responded.  How quickly though John turns the focus from himself to the one who will bring with him the Spirit of God.

Even today we have John and Elijah style “bigger than life” prophets in our midst who proclaim the Gospel message of God’s presence:  GOD IS HERE –the world’s wealth should by equally distributed. GOD IS HERE –let us respect our earth. GOD IS HERE be attentive to rights of the poor. GOD IS RIGHT HERE our church should be inclusive – all men, all women.  For these bold and courageous women and men, I am, and I’m sure you are, grateful.

What about the everyday, unlikely prophets who proclaim that GOD IS HERE .  Not the coming of, but the presence of Christ in our world, reminding others that because of the incarnation – goodness abounds.

Sometimes they/you speak the words of prophesy tenderly and the words give comfort:  good job, thanks for taking the time, I never thought of that, thank you.

Sometimes you proclaim Christ’s presence through words of kindness or affirmation.

Sometimes others experience Christ’s presence in our patience with one another, our accompanying another through a difficult time, our openness and acceptance of another’s point of view.

And sometimes, the prophecy is simple hospitality, acknowledgement and care.

Let’s  not hesitate to recognize and appreciate the prophets who herald the glad tidings to us.  I’m thinking of the kind woman who is a cashier at the Madison Avenue Price Chopper, or the driver who signals me to turn in heavy traffic, our hospitality ministers, our readers, those who visit our sick and homebound, our catechists and choir members, our liturgical ministers, food pantry workers and giving tree organizers.

After I got a Thruway permit, the stage on the way to E-ZPass, I once watched the Syracuse version of the TABLE OF THE LORD [the televised Mass] one Sunday.  St. Margaret’s, Mattydale, NY was on the TV Eucharist that day.  My white haired toll collector did the first reading! The pastor told me his name was John Flannery and gave me his address.  I wrote a note to John to thank him for his kind words whenever I drove through Exit 35.  John and I exchanged cards at Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day for a number years.  John died in 1994, but, for me, he will always be John, the Thruway Prophet, heralding the presence of Christ in the everyday.

Who are the prophets in your life?