Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – Advent 1 – 30 November 2014 – Attention, Please!


1 Advent B – 30 November 2014 – Attention, Please!

Isaiah 63:16b-17,19b; 64:2-7; Psalm 80:2-3,15-16,18-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

Though we had our own snow storm this past week it did not compare to the recent one in Western New York. The meteorologists gave advance warnings about the potential danger. But no matter how prepared people were no one had any idea about the damage and loss of lives it would cause.

As we begin a new liturgical year today the gospel offers a suggestion about being prepared. Originally Advent was a time of preparation for those who were to be baptized at Epiphany. Now, we understand Advent differently as a preparation for the end of time when we believe the kingdom of God will be fully in place. Fifty percent of all Americans (42% of Catholics) believe the severity of recent natural disasters are evidence of biblical end times!  [1]

Well, eschatologically speaking, that is a nice thought. But, what do we do in the meantime? In the gospel (and I am using a contemporary illustration here) the author Mark records the story of homeowners going out for dinner telling the babysitters to be attentive so that when they return the sitters will be ready to open the door for them. The problem is the babysitters do not know when the parents actually will return. 

As parables go this one is full of symbolism. The homeowner to which Mark refers is Jesus who is about to be crucified, depart from this planet and return in full glory. Some early Christians thought he was coming back right away. We are still waiting. The babysitters? In this story they are the disciples of Jesus who are entrusted with continuing his mission until the kingdom comes. Today we see ourselves in this story. We are ones who keep people’s hopes alive … including our own.

In the passage from Isaiah, after the exile the Israelites were hoping for better days but nothing was happening. In a panic they realized their leaders were not doing a good job. So, they cried out “God, show us the radiance of your face!” The prophets urged them to help one another while they waited for a redeemer, a messiah, to come.

Today, some economists say the recession in our country may be over — like that Hebrew exile was over. Still there are millions of people who cannot find jobs while income inequity continues to grow. In a more recent example, after the grand jury decision in St. Louis County, Missouri, people of all colors across the nation are taking to the streets and gathering in their houses of worship crying where is the face of God in a country that continues to be so racially divided. Where is hope?

The parable in the gospel does not focus on when our earthly storms will end or when the end of the world will occur or what the kingdom of God will look like. We do not know. Let our imaginations continue to work. Rather, the story does focus on how ready are we to help one another in the meantime. Here is where the second reading might be helpful to us.

Paul is praising the Corinthians for their many gifts and resources.  He admonishes them however not to be consumed by self satisfaction or to use their gifts for self gain only. He reminds them that God is still at work and needs their cooperation as much as they need God’s help. So, too, with us. We gather here in church to thank and bless God because we believe that God is working through us no matter what the circumstances. 

How to be attentive to all of the challenges that surround us is a big and urgent task. Paying attention, being vigilant, preparing for the fulfillment of the kingdom requires undivided attention. Everything we Christians do depends on that state of readiness to act. We cannot sit around doing nothing waiting for someone else to stop the storms.

Staying focused on the issues that really matter is hard to do when so many distractions compete for our attention. Some authors suggest we center on our interior spirits. We can do that by taking time for physical and/or spiritual exercise — anything that will calm us down, slow our heart beat, lower our blood pressure and raise our sights on the kingdom of God. Such exercise can help us sharpen our spiritual lives and make us feel good. It can prepare us for being more attentive to what goes on around us.

Storms will come and storms will go. Sometimes the damage lingers for a long time like after tropical storm Sandy or the ever present challenges of racism. In the meantime we pray for good weather and for understanding one another in the face of our differences. How we survive in the midst of storms requires courage, compassion and co-dependence. Those virtues have spiritual roots dwelling deep inside us fostering faith, kindling hope, driving works of justice.

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1 Source: PRRI/AAR, Religion, Values and Climate Change Survey, November 2014

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Homily – 23 November 2014 – Thy Kingdom Come ….


Jesus Christ the King of the Universe A – 23 November 2014 – Thy Kingdom Come ….

Ezekiel 34:11-12,15-17; Psalm 23:1-2,2-3,5-6; 1 Cor 15:20-26,28; Matt 25:31-46

Last Thursday evening President Barack Obama, in speaking about striving, hoping immigrants said “Scripture tells us, we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger.” Whatever one might think of the President’s executive action and its implications, when a government leader uses scripture from any faith tradition we are compelled to examine how the passage is used.

We might, for example, wonder about the appropriateness of the President’s quote in terms of today’s gospel which uses similar language. The author Matthew describes the words of Jesus, “I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome.”

Tensions between religious convictions and civic laws certainly are nothing new. They continue to frame the way in which many humans live today. For example, global anxieties abound as the Islamic State continues to advance its efforts to create a new kingdom or caliphate in the Middle East.

Here in our own country religious leaders continue to protest laws and government actions that deprive people from all races, creeds and nationalities of religious freedom, equal rights, fair wages, health care and educational opportunities.

Even the establishment of today’s solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe occurred as the result of a church and state conflict. Pope Pius XI established the feast in 1925 to counter rising secularism and emerging nationalism in Italy. The break up of the papal states in 1870 left the papacy without temporal power in any region of Italy until 1929 when the Vatican City State was granted sovereignty.

The gospel today reminds us that to be a disciple of Christ requires us to take a stand to counter any ideologies, values systems, laws and the practices of big corporations that dehumanize people depriving them of a dignified way of life. Pope Francis said recently “it is painful to see that the struggle against hunger and malnutrition is hindered by market priorities and the primacy of profit.” [1]

The author of today’s gospel was a Jewish convert, a writer. He reports what may have been a parable told by Jesus before his death. In it Matthew’s Jesus is giving a last warning to his followers and the church. He demanded a very different religious standard from what the scribes and Pharisees preached at the time. According to Raymond Brown, it was a liberal interpretation of the old laws challenging a world “that pays more attention to the rich and powerful.” [2]

This gospel teaching is prefaced by the first reading attributed to Ezekiel. The pre-exile kings were corrupt. The prophet foretold that God would take over the shepherding of the people. In the gospel of Matthew God seeks to serve the sheep, the people, through the actions of Jesus Christ.

This gospel reminds us of our own destinies. During our lifetimes, how have we used our talents, resources and convictions to stop injustices along the way? The celebration of the cosmic Christ as King of the known universe is designed to help us keep our focus on advancing the kin-dom of God for everyone.

According to scholar Marcus Borg the image of Christ, the revelation of God, as a king, ruler and judge seems far removed from the images of God as a gracious, compassionate, womb-like figure depicted elsewhere in the bible. Matthew’s message suggests that life on earth is all about meeting certain requirements in order to get into heaven! the threat of being judged by God for our sins at the last judgement was not central to Jesus’ teachings. [3] We don’t know for sure but Jesus may have said “who am I to judge?” Maybe we have to judge our own actions.

This past week I attended a workshop on living wages co-sponsored by our parish and the FOCUS churches of Albany, NY. Those of us there learned that the season of Advent, a time of great holiday expectations, will provide us with an opportunity to voice our concerns about raising the minimum wage in New York State.

As our lawmakers convene to vote themselves a raise in salary the Labor Religion Coalition is urging all of us to challenge them to raise the minimum wage for workers. That minimum is not the $10.10 talked about but $15.00 dollars an hour, which economists agree is the wage required today for people to live with some dignity.

Christ the King of the universe marks the end of our liturgical year and the beginning of a new time of endless possibilities. It is an opportunity to balance our priorities — to nourish not only ourselves, our families and friends but also strangers among us who desperately need our help. One might say, as our closing song today suggests, God has chosen us to do so.

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1 Pope Francis. The International Conference on Nutrition. Vatican City, November 20, 2014

2 Brown, Raymond. Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville; Liturgical Press) 2008, 398

3 Borg, Marcus. Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time (San Francisco: Harper) 1994, 85


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Homily – 9 November 2014 – Moving in Sacred Circles


Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome – 9 November 2014 – Moving in Sacred Circles

Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; Psalm: 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9; 1 Corinthians 3:9c-11, 16-17; John 2:13-22

The story of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux, a medicine man, who later became Catholic, is told in a 1932 book by John Neihardt. Here is an excerpt from Black Elk Speaks. “Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind whirls. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round.

Even the seasons, according to Black Elk, form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a person is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where Power moves.

Circles are potent symbols of unity, justice and equality. They have no beginning and no end. Circles can expand and contract to make room for everyone and everything, both familiar and unfamiliar.

You and I now gather in a circle [1] to worship God – creator of the universe, Christ of the Cosmos, Spirit in the sky. We gather as a priesthood of prophets and dance partners in a sainthood. Christ, symbolized by our communion table, is in our midst. According to the Roman Missal “the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.” [299]

Today we celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome in 324 CE by Pope Sylvester. That Basilica and not St. Peter’s, is the the pope’s cathedral. The Holy Father goes there when he has something to say to the whole church about faith and morals. We celebrate that building today as a sign of our union with a larger Catholic church, our participation in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome. What a wonderful feast it is as we gather in our renewed house of worship.

The biblical texts for today provide a foretaste of our celebration of this enhanced place of worship next weekend. However, these readings are not only about a building. They also are about you and me and, in the words of Black Elk, our lives that move in sacred circles.

The passage from Ezekiel is a visionary drawing of the first temple yet to be built by the Israelites. Its flowery language tells us that it was to be a sign of God’s presence and action in the lives of the people. From that building a sacred river would flow bringing life to all of creation. We are that sacred river that nourishes and washes the world with hope. Our baptistry area is a symbol of that sacred river and today we baptize two young persons with that holy, living water.

The second reading from Paul shifts the emphasis away from buildings to the people of God. The early Christians saw no need for a new temple. They did not start building churches until the late 2nd and  early 3rd centuries. Their bodies, they thought, were the temples of a holy spirit functioning, surviving with the strength of their common bond.

Paul was trying to build up the church as a corporate entity, speaking in unison and not intersecting monologues. In our church building we stand together, praying, singing, processing as a sacrament of unity, marching in sync (and sometimes not in sync) so to make a difference in the world. There is no part of this liturgy that belongs to one person.

In the gospel of John there is the teaching that Jesus Christ perceived his own body as a holy temple. Although he was crucified before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem the author infers that the risen Christ replaces the old temple. This passage is also a reference to the old worship rituals that were to be replaced by new ones – not focussed on the building or high priests but the Body of Christ, the Church, the people of God, the priesthood of the faithful, you and me.

Next Sunday as we gather here with our Bishop, let us ponder — what does it mean to be a renewed church, a transformed spiritual edifice? Let us focus on our calling to be priests and prophets in a time that is ever demanding and challenging.

Let us see ourselves as one great circle — dancing together as a revolutionary people, learning new steps, practicing hospitality, embracing each other, treating everyone with respect and an eye for justice.

Let us acknowledge that the world and our church is flawed; that all of us are in need of reconciliation with one another, the environment and all of God’s creatures. We gather here to be encouraged and strengthened by our sacred circle, to bless and thank God and one another for all we do.

St John Chrysostom (349-407) in one of his Easter sermons said “it is not the building that makes the people holy. It is the people who come into the building who make it holy.” This church building of St. Vincent de Paul is holy because you are holy. God’s house is our house, too.

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[1] St Vincent de Paul Parish Church, Albany, NY, has been renovated. The assembly now sits in concentric circles around the altar, the symbol of Christ, placed in the center of the nave.