Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily – 28 December 2014 – All in the Family

Holy Family B – 28 December 2014 – All in the Family

Scriptures for the day.

If the birth of Jesus Christ is such a pivotal event why isn’t the story recorded in all four gospels? Only Matthew and Luke write about it and they do not agree on the details. For example Matthew used astronomers (magi) who were Gentiles to proclaim the birth of Jesus. Luke employed angels and Jewish shepherds and the prophets in today’s gospel.

Matthew writes about the flight into Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre of infant boys. Luke does not. Matthew also believed Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem. Luke thought Nazareth was their home town so he had to figure out a way to get them to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. To do so he created the census story which is not historically accurate.

To get the holy family from Bethlehem to Jerusalem Luke inserts the story we heard this morning. Based on the law, the presentation and circumcision of Jesus had to happen within eight days of his birth.

Although we cannot be sure of the routes, if you add up all the miles the holy family traveled in these nativity stories alone (Nazareth to Bethlehem, to somewhere in Egypt, back to Nazareth and then to Jerusalem) it would be like walking from Albany, NY to Raleigh, NC and back!

But let’s not worry about the details of these stories. Rather, what lessons might we learn from them? After all, today’s celebration is about the holy family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Neither Matthew and Luke attempt to define the word family. In the Mediterranean culture at that time there would have been many interpretations.

Both evangelists drew upon the prophecies found in the Hebrew bible in writing their stories. They taught that Jesus was the son of God, the promised savior; that the birth was witnessed and proclaimed by diverse groups (wealthy and poor) and that this incarnation, this revelation of God, was intended not just for the benefit of the Roman Empire or only the Jews but all of humanity everywhere. [1]

Early this past fall we heard about the Synod of Bishops that focussed on the family and evangelization. In his homily at the end of the Synod Pope Francis said word “synod” actually means “journeying together.” He called the Synod an experience in which the participants “felt the power of the Holy Spirit who constantly guides and renews the Church. For the Church is called to waste no time in seeking to bind up open wounds and to rekindle hope in so many people who have lost hope.” [2]

In the Synod’s final report (Relatio Synodi) — we read “It is a matter of re-thinking with renewed freshness and enthusiasm, what revelation, transmitted in the Church’s faith, tells us about the beauty, the role and the dignity of the family.” [3]

That synod was a prelude to the worldwide meeting on the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world scheduled for next October 2015. To prepare for the meeting the Vatican just issued forty-six questions. The goal is to encourage bishops, when addressing diverse issues regarding family life, to focus on pastoral sensitivity rather than solely on the application of doctrine. [4]

The second reading today (from Paul to the Colossians) serves as a good foundation for “pastoral sensitivity.” Show heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience toward one another.

Here is one of the questions listed by the Vatican. “How can people be helped to understand that no one is beyond the mercy of God and how can this truth be expressed in the Church’s pastoral activity towards families, especially those which are wounded and fragile?” (No. 20)

While stressing the beauty of successful marriages and solid family life the synod also seeks new directions regarding other pressing issues about human relationships. These would include family units with gay and lesbian members, divorced and remarried couples as well as how to create a culture in favor of life just to name a few.

The birth of Jesus began a new chapter in the history of humanity and it occurred within a family. On this feast of the holy family let us celebrate the wonderful relationships in our lives ever seeking new ways to sustain others who are searching for uncompromising support.


1. Brown, R. An Adult Christ at Christmas. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) 1978, 25 ff.

2. Francis. Homily at the closing of the Synod on the Family. 19 October 2014

3. “Relatio Synodi” The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops: “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization” (5-19 October 2014) No. 4




Homily – 21 December 2014 – Mary’s Challenge

4 Advent B – 21 December 2014 – Mary’s Challenge

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

Works of art in the Western world depict the Virgin Mary in different ways. In early Christian art Mary is a queen surrounded by angels and heavenly stars. During the Renaissance she looks more motherly, often nursing her son Jesus. After the Protestant and Catholic Reformations Mary was portrayed as the powerful mother of God who intercedes for us. 

In most of these sculptures or paintings Mary does not look us straight in the eye. Rather, her eyes are cast down or focussed upon her son. The Catholic religion claims her as a symbol of purity, humility and submissiveness. [1]

Today we heard a familiar narrative about Mary, one that is probably the most rendered in the art world — the Annunciation. This very young woman is caught in a dilemma that all too often may be experienced by women today — being asked to do something Mary believed in her heart was not right.

The angel Gabriel (the name literally means “divine husband”) tells Mary she will give birth to the messiah. She is confused and ashamed. This teenager has not had sex and argues there must be some mistake. This awkward situation also will embarrass her family and Joseph to whom she is betrothed but not yet married. 

This biblical text, written by the evangelist Luke, about a hero born of a virgin, is similar to the births of other heroes found in Greek mythologies. [2] Our story continues. Sensing that she was losing the argument to a messenger from God Mary acquiesces and submits. According to the customs of her time women had little to say about matters that pertained to their lives.

During this festive season when our our dreams are full of Victorian images of Christmas, what can we make of this story? After all the whole Christmas event hinges on Mary’s response. What if she said “no?” But, she didn’t. Something happened that convinced her to say “yes.” Was it the grace of God? Was it the promise that her child would do great things?

Much of what we know about Mary has been prescribed by patriarchal authorities. Rosemary Radford Ruether writes, “In modern Catholicism to call women to become Mary-like has been a call to repressive purity and submissiveness that hardly any woman could actually achieve.”  [3]

This image of a submissive Mary is grounded in Greco-Roman culture and has been sustained for centuries by our acts of devotion and piety. However, there are other examples that portray quite a different Mary. 

In her Magnificat she thanks God for lifting up her lowliness and doing great things for her. She was a liberator, an advocate for powerless people and a protestor who sought to bring down incorrigible and imperialistic leaders. She sings of promoting the insecure and dispensing justice far and near.  [4] There are reasons for us to focus on these other attributes of Mary.

Current events will not let us forget that women are still considered unequal to men regardless of the rhetoric. Whether in boardrooms or bedrooms, supermarkets or religious sanctuaries, college campuses or military bases, young girls and women have to prove themselves in ways that boys and men do not. But, this Annunciation story is not for women only.

Contemporary images of Mary make her less statuesque, less romantic and more like a spouse, a mother, a sister, a friend. These new images look us straight in the eyes inviting us to let the spirit prevail in our lives as it did in hers. How that story plays out will be different for each one of us. What is common is having trust in God and in others in the face of uncertainties. 


1 Prospero. “Holy Mary, Drenched in Symbolism” in The Economist December 11, 2014

2 Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. (NY: Harper Row) 1983, 1048-9

3 Radford Ruether, Rosemary. “Why Do Men Need the Goddess?” in Lipsett, BD and Trible, P. (Eds) Faith and Feminism: Ecumenical Essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox) 2014, 247-248.

4 Winter, Miriam Therese. My Soul Gives Glory to My God” in The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press) 1995, No. 119

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Homily – 14 December 2014 – Preparing the Way for ….

3 Advent B – 14 December 2014 – Preparing the Way for ….

Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1:46-450,53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28 

Karl Barth, a leading 20th century Protestant theologian, regularly told his students: take your bible and newspaper and read both. But, he said, interpret the newspapers from your bible.  [2] That’s what we try to do here in this congregation week after week. Karl Barth would be at home here. 

Perhaps the most familiar and challenging line found in today’s biblical texts, the one that prompts us to “open our eyes and ears to the sounds of the times”  [2] is “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Let us begin with John the Baptist. 

Traditionally we understand that John preached repentance and cleansing. Advent, however, is not a penitential or baptismal season as much as it is a time for reconciling. How do we reconcile ourselves with our God, other humans, animals and the whole environment.

John was mainly speaking to Israelites who had been longing for the promised land, waiting for a messiah to take them there. His message was also cleverly addressed to the corrupt religious and civic leaders of his time. John was considered a dangerous man by the authorities. With the ability to rally a crowd and speak eloquently about moral issues plaguing society he was a threat to their establishment. 

If John were alive today he would be taking his place among the many protest marches occurring in our country. He would be a voice crying in the deserts between Mexico and our southwestern borders. He would be advocating a living wage for workers in every industry. He would be calling for racial justice in our city streets. He would decry the use of torture for any reason whatsoever.

And what else would a contemporary prophet and community organizer like John be addressing today? I asked our youth ministers to ask our teenagers. Here’s what they thought (think). [Note: Here, during the homily, a number of teens announced from the ambo (pulpit) the issues that they believe need attention to prepare the way of the Lord. Here’s what they said]

To Stop Hunger

  • Donate food to our food pantry
  • Don’t waste food
  • Volunteer to serve food

To End Racial Discrimination

  • Not have a stereotype of African Americans
  • Encourage sensitivity training for law enforcers
  • Work to change justice system peacefully

To Treat People with Respect

  • Address bullying in school by standing up for others 
  • Treat people the way you want to be treated
  • Respect people’s boundaries

To Stop War and Work for Peace

  • Avoid violent actions
  • Work to end conflict and war overseas
  • Do random acts of kindness

To Care for Those Who Are Homeless

  • Don’t judge homeless people

To Help Those With Chemical Addictions

  • Convince people to seek help
  • Don’t be afraid to say no at parties

What our teens are reminding us is that there is more work to do to hasten the experience of God’s kindom. You might be saying the task at hand is age old but in this moment we are also saying we cannot be discouraged. We know that the problems we have in this world, our cities, our homes, will never be completely resolved. That does not let us off the hook to work for justice now. We take our place along with others in history by doing so.

Long ago the prophet Isaiah wrote about his mission. The tasks are familiar to us now — to bring glad tidings to the poor, heal the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to captives, release prisoners. Wild and wooly John the Baptizer helped the Israelites keep their hope real for the promised land — a real place in history and an ongoing metaphor for the fulfillment of God’s promises of peace on earth. [Pause]

Today is also called Gaudete Sunday by some. The term is taken from the entrance antiphon “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:4-5). While many of us do have plenty to be joyful about there are others among us who are not so happy or even hopeful. 

As we prepare to commemorate the birth date of Jesus it is helpful to remember that Christ continues to be in our midst regardless. The Spirit of God moves within each of us to stir our minds, hearts and bodies. She fires us up to do good work that will renew the face of the earth. In the words of Paul to the Thessalonians do not quench that spirit, do not ignore the voices of our prophets. Retain what is good. Reject what is evil. Prepare the way of the Lord.


1 Time Magazine piece on Barth, Friday, May 31, 1963

2 Pope Francis speaking to the International Theological Commission, Vatican City, 5 December 2014