Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily – 20 December 2015 – Birthing Jesus

Mary and Child by Guido Reni 15c

“Virgin and Child” by Guido Reni (1575-1642)

Fourth Sunday of Advent C – 20 December 2015 – Birthing Jesus

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Of all the religious paintings and sculptures in the history of art the image of Mary holding her child Jesus ranks at the top. Victorian renderings of Mary idolizing her son in a crib while a puzzled Joseph looks on greet us every Christmastime. The portrayal that is most unfamiliar to us in this country shows Mary nursing a contented baby Jesus.

This maternal rendering of Mary and her child is part of popular Catholic culture in many countries around the world. Why not here? Could it be we cannot bear to see Mary’s breast? Maybe the image is too real and religion for many is too surreal?

Works of art tell familiar stories. They also add new insights to old tales. Imagine. Mary, a Middle Eastern teenager, nursing, nurturing a vulnerable and thirsty infant Jesus, the promised messiah! 

This wonderful mythology casts light on parent child relationships and  human interdependence. The experience of God relies on us. The image of Mary breastfeeding the infant Jesus reminds us that all of us are mothers of God birthing the presence of Christ into the world.

Angels, we believe, are messengers from God yet in today’s gospel Mary did not believe the spirited Gabriel. She had to double check with someone she could see and touch. Mary needed a hug! She needed something the angel could not deliver. According to the story her cousin Elizabeth prophetically recognized the presence of Christ in Mary. She cried out, “Blessed are you among women, blessed is the fruit of your womb ….” Notice, blessed are both the mother and child.

Then, and only then, a confused, terrified Mary remembered lines from Hannah’s Song, a song of reversal found in the Book of Samuel. Scared to death, Mary sang out — greedy, powerful oppressors will lose out to poor, vulnerable people.

Often we too doubt the presence of God in our lives until someone touches us with tender love and care. On the other hand we can make it difficult for others to see God in us. Distractions in our lives can shorten our attention spans, cloud our perspectives, sometimes prevent us from living out a radicalized Christian mission.

We underestimate our worth, the value of other humans, our planet and all other creatures. Maybe we have limited our understanding of the incarnation as only the birth of a baby who would grow up and then die to save us from sin. What more is there to this story?

Without denying his mission or his death what might happen when we concentrate more on Jesus who, by his lifestyle, showed us how to to suckle one another with comforting milk and honey? When we practice bold hospitality toward others, when we nestle homeless and hungry persons in our laps, Christ shines through the mirky shadows of life.

Today our country and the world are caught in one long night of bad dreams. But something in our gut, perhaps it is our faith and hope, tells us at the end of such a nightmarish time the sun will rise again. 

A few years ago T. Thorn Coyle wrote about the winter solstice, which happens tomorrow. It is “a chance to still ourselves inside, to behold the glory of the cosmos, and to take a breath with the Sacred.” Great hope and promise are waking in the earth.

This season of Advent has come to an end. Four weeks ago Betsy Rowe-Manning invited us to “become the birthing place of God among us.” On the last two Sundays I asked “well, what are we waiting for” and “what should we do next.” 

The psalm this morning helps us move forward. It reminds you and me that if we turn to the radiance of the “son” we will experience salvation. That bright light, that gift of redemption, is a force deep within each and everyone of us. It is just waiting to be delivered.


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Homily – 13 December 2015 – What Should We Do?

Third Sunday of Advent C – 13 December 2015 – “What Should We Do?”

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Those who chose these biblical texts would not have known how timely they would be for us today. Two powerful human emotions are mixed together — joys and anxieties.

In the first reading the prophet Zephaniah warned the people of Judah that they would be punished because of their acts of injustice and corruption. Zephaniah said by placing their credence in God they would have nothing to fear and would be saved. Only a small remnant listened. To trust in God requires not only faith but also action.

I heard a preacher once say, “the appearances of God in those old biblical stories, as in the one we just heard, were, more often than not, associated with moments of trial and tribulation. They rarely happened when everyone was having a good day.”

We are in a similar situation today. This is a season to be jolly but noxious news informs us that things are not good globally, in our country and for some people. Where is God? How can this world come to reflect God’s vision for a planet without violence, injustice, oppression? [1]

Recent strategies to fix the refugee problem and thwart the threats of terrorism frighten many us and others worldwide. One community denounced recent anti-Muslim rhetoric as morally unconscionable and appalling.

The statement said, such hatred is “generations old and part of a system that thrives on the dehumanization, scapegoating and marginalization of diverse communities.” You and I must repudiate any political or religious ideology that denigrates groups of people because of color, creed or nationality. We must oppose anyone who spews it.

[NOTE: See the Q & A at the end of this homily for some information on Islam and Muslims. The sheet was distributed in our parish this weekend.]

In Luke’s gospel John the Baptizer continues to serve as the warm up act for Jesus. Filled with enthusiasm that someone was finally coming, who would clean up an oppressive socio-political mess, a diverse group of people questioned John. How do we prepare for the One who is to come? What should we do? John’s reply addressed the inequities marked by greed and prejudice. We wonder too. What should we do to recognize God’s presence?

I suspect we are doing our best. We who gather around this holy table, who align ourselves with people worshiping in different faith traditions, are cognizant of the troubles and fears that we and others live with. But, we are ministers of joy and mercy. We have learned in this sacred space that our prayers and hopes carry us beyond these walls and equip us with the strength and conviction that the great and holy One is in our midst (Isaiah 12).

Nadia Bolz-Weber, who spoke at the Hubbard Sanctuary last Friday, is an unpretentious pastor who helps saints and sinners recognize the presence of Christ in each other. “No one gets to play Jesus,” she said. “But we do get to experience Jesus in that holy place where we meet others’ needs and have our own needs met. We are all the needy and the ones who meet needs.”

The Vatican Two Ecumenical Council ended fifty years ago last week. In retrospect, we see one of the documents echoes the same message. In the opening lines of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World it reads, the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age are also the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

This teaching calls us to work with others to secure a peace based on justice and love, to set up agencies of peace and to do so with the help of Christ. Peace cannot be obtained unless personal values are safeguarded with a determination to respect other peoples and their dignity. [2]

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul urges us to rejoice and have no fears or anxiety. He reminds us to share a simple gift — to be kind and merciful to one another. He concluded, the peace of God will win out in the end. Now that’s good news.


  1.  Kent Harold Richard in Attridge, Harold W. (Ed.) The Harper Collins Study Bible NRSV (San Francisco: Harper) 1989, p. 1260
  2.  Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, December 7, 1965, Nos 77-78


In recent weeks some words and phrases have been used in the media in reference to Muslims and Islam. This Q & A list, drawn from different sources, may be helpful in sorting out misunderstandings. Of course, there is much more to the Islamic faith than can fit on this handout. [RSV]

What does the word Islam mean?

Islam is an Arabic word and means “surrendering to God and attaining peace.” Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world and in the United States.

Is there a reference to Islam in the bible?

Jews and Christians trace ancestry to Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. Muslims believe they are descendants of Ishmael the son of Abraham and Hagar. So it may be said that Muslims, Jews and Christians have the same ancestral father!

Did Ishmael and Abraham build anything?

Abraham and Ishmael built a shrine in the Valley of Baca now called Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is the holiest city in Islam. Medina, also in Saudi Arabia, is the second holiest city. The sacred Ka’bah, a large granite cube, is located in Mecca.

What does the word “hajj” mean?

Hajj means pilgrimage. The prophet Ishmael encouraged nomads in the desert to visit the shrine in the Valley of Baca. Today, all able Muslims must make a journey to the Ka’bah shrine in Mecca once in a lifetime to find meaning in life.

Where does Mohammed come in?

The prophet Mohammad was born in 570 CE (Common Era) and died when he was 62 years old. He is considered the founder of modern Islam. His sayings (ahadith) and writings form the basis of Muslim law today.

What is the Qur’an?

Muslims believe the Qur’an is the direct word of God delivered to Mohammed by an angel in small portions between the years 610-623 CE. Also spelled Koran, it means “reading” or “recital.”

Does the Qur’an call for violence again non-Muslims?

No. The Qur’an condemns aggression and sees all religions as gifts from the same God. The book does allow for fighting back against enemies but not to harm or kill innocent persons. ISIS terrorists are ignoring Islamic teachings.

What does jihad mean? Who is a jihadist?

The word “jihad” means “struggle, effort or endeavor.” It does not mean holy war. It could mean fighting for God’s sake, going to school or working for the good of others. The Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daish) or independent terrorists are “jihadists” in a very narrow sense of the word. Islamic law forbids terrorism.

Why do terrorists and suicide bombers cry out “Allah is great!”

People do use the name of God to justify their actions. History shows that extremists often misuse religion to rationalize wars and other brutal actions.

What does the word Shari’ah mean?

Literally, shari’ah means the path to the watering hole. It is the word for the Islamic legal system. It is a body of moral and religious law derived from prophetic teachings and not human legislation.

What about human rights in Muslim countries?

While Islam does not support or propose inequality, the struggle for human rights for women and men is not unique to Muslim countries or the Islamic religion.

Who is a caliph?

A caliph or “kalifah” is a political and religious successor to Mohammed. Today, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is considered the Caliph of the Islamic State by his supporters. A caliphate is a form of Islamic government. Shiites believe a caliph should be an imam (prayer leader), sinless, infallible and chosen by God.

Who are Sunnis? Shiites?

Although Islam is officially against sectarianism, there are many sects in Islam. Eighty-five percent of Muslims in the world are Sunnis. The Islamic State is a Salafi militant sect that practices a fundamentalist Wahabi doctrine of Sunni Islam.

Who are Salafis? Wahabis?

Salafi jihadism is an ideology based on violent jihadism and is practiced by Muslims who want to return to what they believe to be true Sunni Islam. Wahhabism and its extreme ideas of purity is a minority practice in the Muslim world. Osama bin Laden practiced Wahhabism.

What are the five pillars of Islam?

Faith, prayer, charity, fasting and a pilgrimage to Mecca. Christians, Jews and other major religions in the world practice the first four. Pray for understanding, reconciliation and peace.


Homily – 6 December 2015 – What Are We Waiting For?

Second Sunday of Advent C – What Are We Waiting For?

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I like to think of Advent as a time when we are waiting to see what what will happen next. After the Lord’s Prayer during every Mass we hear these words. “As we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” What exactly is it that we are waiting for?

We believe that what we call the “second coming” of Christ will be a time when the familiar prophecy of Isaiah becomes a reality. Valleys shall be filled, mountains shall be made low, winding and rough roads will be made straight and smooth. For us, we hope, it would mean an end to terrorism, hunger, global warming and all other injustices. 

Another term for the “second coming of Christ” is “parousia.” In Greek the word means “being present.” It is not about waiting for something but recognizing what is happening now and engaging with it. Mary the Mother of Jesus was filled with hope in this regard. God will cast down the mighty from their thrones, lift up lowly persons and fill hungry people with good things. God will not forget to be merciful. 

In another translation of Mary’s Song Bishop John Spong used these words. The light of the holy one is within me. This gift is not for the proud for they have no room for it. The strong and self-sufficient ones do not have this awareness [of the light that shines within them]. 

Jesus, according to biblical scholar Karen King, taught that people sin because they do not recognize their own spiritual nature [1] — the light of Christ within them. Paul reminded the Philippians that they were blessed with knowledge and perception. How long will you and I wait before we affirm that we are holy people made as the image of God?

Tonight our Jewish friends begin the celebration of Chanukah a festival of lights celebrating national liberation. The story began about 170 years before Jesus was born. Jerusalem was ruled by Greek imperialism. King Antiochus IV tried to force the Jews to reject their religion but they revolted. After a three year war the Jews regained and rededicated the temple in Jerusalem. The word “Chanukah” means “dedication.” 

Jesus would have celebrated Chanukah (John 10:22). He would have remembered how his ancestors opposed ruthless dictators. He would have identified with the arduous and fatal journeys of the Israelites. Perhaps also he would have thought of the Baruch text we heard earlier, “God is leading Israel in joy by the light of God’s glory, with mercy and justice for company.”

In the gospel of Luke the author references the civic and religious leaders in office at the time of Jesus’ birth. He did so to situate the important role Jesus played into the history of humanity. To set the stage for Jesus, John the baptizer advertised a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

That Jesus was born to redeem us from our sins, to suffer and die so that we might live forever, is a standard Christian doctrine. New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, however, provides a slightly different interpretation of this teaching. He suggests that redemption has much more to do with our role in bringing reconciliation, peace and justice into the world.

This notion changes things. Instead of emphasizing that Jesus came to save us from this mess, Taussig proposes that we focus on another facet of his incarnation. Jesus came to show us how to live, how to be human, how to love, how to show mercy to one another. [2] When this happens we will experience the redemptive actions that Jesus carried out.

Next week Pope Francis will open a symbolic door in Rome to begin a Jubilee Year of Mercy. What does it ask of us? Taking the first step in acts of forgiving when it hurts to do so, letting go of small annoyances without mentioning them, seeing another’s need and responding without waiting to be asked. Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote that Chanukah and Christmas are times to return to hope. “No one is permanently stuck in cynicism and despair …. We have the capacity to choose a new path.”

In her homily last week Betsy Rowe-Manning challenged us to spend these Advent Days “becoming the birthing place of God among us!” If we do that much, and in our own ordinary ways, maybe we will not have to wait so long for peace and justice to become realities. So. What are we waiting for?


  1.  King, Karen. The Gospel of Mary Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Disciple. (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2003) 4
  2.  Taussig, Hal. “The Gospel of Luke.” In the Got Sermon? Lectures. Union Theological Seminary, New York. November 12, 2015. From my class notes.