Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily- 29 December 2013 – A “Wholly” Family

Solemnity of the Holy Family 12/29/13 – A Wholly Family?

Sirach 3:2-6,12-14; Psalm 128:1-5; Colossians 3:12-21; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

The headline reads: “Families: Same sex parents. Cohabiting couples. Voluntary kin. Children with parents in prison. Immigrant parents.”  Natalie Angier reports that “researchers who study the structure and evolution of the American family express unsullied astonishment at how rapidly the family has changed in recent years.” [1]

For some commentators, legal issues aside, these relationships certainly qualify as holy families. For other critics they are abnormal and out of sync with the status quo definition of family. So what does today’s feast of the Holy Family say about family life today? Is it about family or is there another message for us? 

Today’s liturgy offers us an opportunity to focus on the interpretation of the word family, which, today, has many definitions. The key word in any social unit, described as family or not, is “relationship.” Relationships are grounded in a love and concern for others. The sustenance of relationships is what, first of all, bonds humans together. Prescribed definitions, however sacred or traditional, cannot accommodate all relationships.

How, then, are today’s scriptures helpful to us? In the first reading the author of Sirach reminds us that the parents or guardians who raised us might someday need our care. The passage also suggested that honoring parents might be a way to make up for not obeying them. [2] This traditional commandment is worthy given the tensions that can exist in families with young children or teens. But this could be a difficult demand when you see your parents doing something they tell you not to do.

Psalm 128 uses “fear of the Lord” as a way to be blessed by God. We have to be careful here. It would be naive to think that obeying God is a guarantee that we will be protected from disasters in life or that a tragedy is punishment for not obeying God’s teachings. One could say, however, that someone who respects the presence of God will also respect all other creatures of God on earth. That is when we all are blessed.

The second reading, probably written by a follower of Paul after his death, encourages the people of Collosae to show endurance and steadfastness and to live as if Christ were alive in them. The letter proposed that they live in a fashion appropriate to their faith. [3]

Possibly addressed to baptismal candidates the writing challenges them to take off the old self and to clothe themselves with Christ. This could be the beginning of a code of ethics for Christians and a benchmark for respecting all human relationships even when they are different from ours.

Some scripture scholars question the connection of today’s gospel passage with the theme of the holy family. Nevertheless, once again, like in last week’s gospel, Joseph the father of Jesus gets advice from an angel. This time he avoids the slaughter of infant boys that would have ended the life of the child Jesus. 

Joseph had a hunch, trusted his instincts, and took a different route back home. Sometimes we have to change paths in life to get where we want to go. In the Middle East families were very expansive. Joseph could easily rely on vast social system for support in caring for his family not only along the way but when they finally settled down. [4] An extended family has all kinds of members. 

In commenting on the behavior of early Christians, our ancestors in faith, Dorothy Day once wrote, “We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in every one we come in contact with.” [5]

Maybe we can spell the word “holy” W-H-O-L-L-Y to include the many faces of the human family — human beings of all races, ages, genders, social classes and sexual orientations, who love and support each other in every way possible. This definition might then give new significance to our most familiar family units. Isn’t that, after all, what the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph did? 


1 Natalie Anger. “Families” in The New York Times (November 26, 2013) D1

2 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Liturgical Press. 2006) 11-13

3 J Paul Sampley in Attridge, H. (Ed.) The HarperCollins Study Bible Revised Edition (San Francisco: Harper, 2006) 1999

4 John J. Pilch The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (The Liturgical Press. 1995) 10-12

5 Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker,  December 1945




Homily – 4 Advent – 22 December 2013 – God, With Us

4 Advent A 12/22/13 – God, With Us

Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24:1-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24

 “This is how the birth of Jesus came about?” With all due respect to the author of Matthew’s gospel we just cannot be sure how his birth came about. The incarnation, God becoming human, is, after all, a matter of faith. However, there are some things we do know about the cultural context surrounding the birth of Jesus. These facets may help us understand this passage a little more and … what it might mean for us today. Let us step back in time to that Middle East village where Joseph and Mary lived.

Poor Joseph. The human father of Jesus is the last one to know that his girl friend Mary, to whom he is betrothed, is pregnant. His buddies are saying to him, “Hey Joe what’s up with Mary?” Joseph shrugs his shoulders. Then there are the women in the town. They are all abuzz about why Mary is not coming to the mikvah for her monthly ritual washing. Mary herself is wondering what is going on with her body. She runs off to her cousin Elizabeth for advice rather than having a heart to heart talk with Joseph. Finally, Joseph gets clued in to what’s going on by an angel. Poor Joseph.

What is at stake in this passage? Both Mary and Joseph, were embarrassed by what was happening. Betrothal was the first step in their marriage process which was most likely arranged by their families. They were not living together. Having sex during their betrothal was taboo. But Mary was pregnant and the whole town was talking.

So Mary and Joseph were scared and ashamed. Their honor was at stake. Further, in the Mediterranean culture you did not take what did not belong to you. So Joseph could not take the baby because the baby was not his. And, the only way to break off the betrothal was by divorce. His only hope was that the real father would step forward to claim the child and marry Mary. Joseph had to quickly decide what to do. [1]

 Joseph acted honorably and took Mary to be his wife. He did not blame her. He made no excuses. He put aside his pride. He risked his own reputation, all to protect Mary’s welfare and her good name. One could say in hindsight the wisdom and compassion of the incarnate God was already at work in young Joseph.

What does this story, colored by the faith and experience of the church of the first century church, [2] have to do with us two days before the Christmas festival? The Advent expectation is summed up in the word Emanuel … “God is with us.” [3] What does it mean to say God is with us? It is not about the birth date of Jesus of Nazareth. That date did not get formalized until the fourth century. It has to be about something else. If we take this infancy narrative seriously we can surmise that God is present to us in many unpredictable ways. 

God is with us when we protect the good name of others like Joseph did. God is with us when we follow an intuition, a hunch, as if an angel were speaking to us. God is with us in our conversations with others like the one Mary and Elizabeth had. We learn that God is present to us in places and at times that are unpredictable and quite ordinary. 

Joseph and Mary were young teenagers. They really did not know for sure what was happening to them. They were just trying to figure out what was the best thing to do. For you and for me? It may be as simple as paying close attention to someone talking to us. It may be seeking reconciliation rather than revenge when someone hurts us. It may be taking delight in the birth of an idea that at first seems utterly impossible.

So … God is with us. How do we know? All we need to do is look around, listen carefully and take some risks.


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

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

3 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: Liturgical Press. 2006, pp. 11-13.)

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Homily – 15 December 2013 – Miracles Take Time

3 Advent A 12/15/13 – Miracles Take Time 

Isaiah 35:1-6A,10; Psalm 146:6-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Nelson Mandela’s life story reminds us that working for peace and justice requires among many things conviction and patience. It is a never ending mission that sometimes also requires miracles. He never gave up on his desire to free people of color from the bonds of apartheid. Even while in prison Mandela did not doubt that he was the equal of any human being. Nor did he doubt the oppressive racist regime of South Africa would be overthrown. 

Today we read about John the Baptist who, on the other hand, apparently had some doubts about Jesus of Nazareth. According to Raymond Brown, John was the “angelic messenger called by God to lead Israel to the promised land. John was the new Elijah sent to prepare Israel for God’s action.” [1]

Now why would John doubt who Jesus was? John, who was locked up in jail for being a community organizer, was probably impatient. He wanted tangible signs that would prove Jesus was the One who would save Israel. Maybe John had heard the passage from Isaiah, the one we heard this morning. After the exile the Israelites were freed from slavery. That was to be a time when the wilderness would rejoice and bloom. 

However, the people living in John’s time were still oppressed and the impatient herald was looking for miracles. Maybe, in frustration, he even may have added a word to Psalm 146, the one we sang this morning, come Lord and save us … now!

But the effect of miracles are not always immediately noticed. Rabbi Peter Rubinstein says miracles can be incremental. The full experience of a miracle may take some time. The work that Jesus did while here on earth is still not finished. Mandela’s work in South Africa was just the dawn of a new day of racial equality. 

But South Africa is not so far away. Our homeland is still a desert place where racial, gender and economic inequality sap our strength. Hunger, unjust wages and broken immigration laws feed our anger, steal our dreams. The lamb still does not sleep with the wolf here in America. Why wouldn’t we be skeptical like John the Baptist? Was Jesus the Coming One, the one who would save us?

Even closer to home … do we ever doubt or mistrust our parents, our co-workers, our spouses and partners? Are we impatient that things are not happening the way we want them, when we want them to, to at home, at work, in school or church? Are we suspicious of people who are different from us in one way or another, whose values represent viewpoints that are different from ours?

American playwright and social critic James Baldwin once wrote in so many words that doubt and suspicion make space for imagination and hope. Mandela encouraged the people of South Africa to transcend their past and not wallow in it. [2] He trusted them to bypass revenge and work for reconciliation. We Catholics trust one another to transcend the issues that prevent the desert from blooming. We can work together along with other believers, as a union of peacemakers. 

Some of you may recall that today was once known as Gaudete Sunday. A time to rejoice over the flowers that have bloomed in a parched land. Joan Horgan, campus minister at the College of St. Rose, describes the “unrelenting nature of kindness” as something to be joyful about. She writes that the subversive actions of Jesus — eating with an outcast, speaking to a woman, healing someone in need anytime, reminding someone of their dignity and value — still inspire and drive us to be kind to one another. 

This Christmas time of festivity and prayer is an opportunity for us to bring relief from the imperfections that weigh upon us. The call from a kind and just God and the cries from others who are hurting compel us to be less doubtful and more hopeful that miracles are possible. It just takes time to notice them.


1 Brown, Raymond E. Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008) 360

2 Siedman, Dov in Friedman, T. “Why Mandela Was Unique” in NY Times, 12/11/13, p. A31



Homily – 1 December 2013 – Turning Swords into Plows

First Sunday of Advent A – 1 December 2013 – Turning Swords into Plows
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122:1-9; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44

The prophecy of Isaiah says they shall beat their swords into plows. The historic agreement that says Iran will freeze parts of its nuclear program in exchange for relief on some economic sanctions is a start. One can only hope that Israel and Palestine will soon come to some accord. One can only hope that our country will stop sending drones into Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will beat their spears into pruning hooks.

They shall beat their swords into plows. On this day in 1955 Rosa Parks did not give her seat on a bus to a white man. Her action, her arrest and the successful boycott of buses were pivotal in the civil rights movement

They shall beat their swords into plows. Today is World Aids Day. Started in 1988 it was the first ever global health day. It is also a Day Without Art, a day of action and mourning in response to the AIDs crisis.

Imagine a time without war across the globe; a time without racism in our country; a time without mortal diseases; a time when all bellies are filled at bedtime. If we can imagine the possibilities of these seemingly impossible quests then we are ready for the season of Advent.

Advent has two purposes. Preparing for the commemoration of the incarnation of God marked by the Christmas festival is the easy one. Preparing for the second coming of Christ, a mysterious time, when the fullness of God’s presence is completely realized and apparent to all is much more challenging.

That first reading today, from the prophet Isaiah, was a prayer envisioning a time when all known political disputes would be settled. It imagined all nations united walking in the radiance of God’s light, processing to the symbolic eternal city, Jerusalem. Psalm 122 was sung by the pilgrims as they approached the gates of that heavenly city also known as the house of God. [1]  

Although the prophet Isaiah was focused on war you and I can imagine, with the same hope, the elimination of all nuclear weapons, the end of all injustices and the removal of all defects in our lives so that peace, prosperity and good health are made possible for all human beings.

The second reading (Paul to the Romans) also speaks of a journey from an evil time to a new age when night turns to day. Wherever there are problems we Christians bring rays of hope that things can get better. We call those who are newly baptized the illuminated ones. That responsibility, to be bright lights in the world, which comes with our baptism into the priesthood of Christ, never grows dim. It is not the ordained priesthood but the priesthood we all share that will make a difference.

Our worship is the pathway that brings us deeper into the life of Christ. There we find ways to overcome what Pope Francis calls in his new exhortation “global indifference.” It is the liturgical venue where, together as companions, we engage with Christ in transforming the world we live in. It is not sufficient to be thankful for what Jesus of Nazareth did without finding some way to carry on his mission.

The gospel text attributed to Matthew has an apocalyptic tone. It suggests that things might get worse before they get better. It was written at a time and in a style that serves as a rear view reminder of the catastrophic events that occurred during the Jewish revolt and when the Second Temple was destroyed.

People at the time believed their lives were coming to an end. Although we are not so alarmist we just might think about taking some action now. Preparing the way for that elusive second coming of Christ is something that cannot wait.

This is a year of fiftieth anniversaries. This week our Diocese will commemorate the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (December 4, 1963). It presents a renewed vision about our liturgical life. The ways we worship are always becoming something new, ever unfolding. If the church is in a state of constant reform then so is our public prayer.

This year also marks the anniversary of the encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, April 11, 1963). This document written by Pope John XXIII still stirs our imaginations — that global peace is possible.

Let us take just a few moments, quietly, right now, to ask ourselves these questions. As you and I wait in joyful hope during this Advent season what are our expectations for our personal lives? (Pause) For the lives of others in our families, our neighborhoods, our schools? (Pauses) And, for our faith community, St. Vincent de Paul? What do we expect for us, the way we study, worship, treat one another and reach out to others? (Pauses) What can we do to get better, to turn our hopes for the future into realities?

A parishioner who reads my blog sent me an email about the biblical texts for today. She said there are many groups on the local and international level that are already working hard for peace and justice. She is right. But it is a long difficult journey to bring those dreams into reality. Now, what are our contributions … the little things that we can do to turn swords into plows?


1 Reginald H. Fuller. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), pp. 1-4.