Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Mary, Mother of God “A Non-Violent Peacemaker” 01 January 2017


1 January 2017 — Mary Mother of God  — A Non-Violent Peacemaker

Note: Today is is the 50th anniversary of the World Day of Peace, which was inspired by Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris and established by Pope Paul VI in his letter Populorum Progressio in 1967. It is also the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God on the Catholic calendar. Happy New Year! 

Click here for today’s biblical texts

Shakespeare used it. John Toynbee used it. It’s a phrase engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. “What is Past is Prologue” creates a context for understanding and shaping current events.

Aaron’s blessing recorded in the Book of Numbers calls upon the people of his time to be aware of all that God is and all that God has done for creation — humanity, animals, plants, the environment. The passage from the Letter to the Galatians speaks of developing our relationships with God, as children of God, gifted by God. It reminds us we are coworkers with God called to share the blessings we have with others.

In today’s gospel we hear again that Mary, Theotokos, God Bearer, the Mother of God, stunned the world in birthing the boy, Jesus. In this story Luke reminds us also that Mary took time to ponder and treasure what was happening to her, what was going on all around her. 

Life was not any easier at that time in the Middle East than it is today. Jesus and his mother Mary participated in the events of their lives just as we do. Together they shaped history by taking actions against the oppression of the Roman empire which had ruled over Judea.

As a prologue for the future whenever we practice what we believe to be true, everything we’ve learned from these two Jews about seeking peace and justice, everything we say and do is bound to have influence on other human beings. 

Mary is often shown in Christmas cards, on our church calendars, in artistic renderings as a meek, mild, pure, even mindless woman. Nancy Rockwell writes that this image has slowed down the advancement of women for centuries when they hear over and over how the obedient and humble Mary was a perfect model for womanhood.

But Luke offers another side of Mary’s personality, one that reveals a spunky young woman who was radical, bold, full of grit and bursting with convictions about justice in her community. The first clue about her sense of self came when she questioned the angel “Wait a minute, Gabriel, how can I be pregnant?”

Shortly after the angel’s call Mary’s Magnificat resounds as a political bombshell delivered right in the home of a temple priest Zachariah, husband of Elizabeth, father of John the Baptist. Mary was pursued by God for her daring, independent spirit. And, she said “yes, OK I am going to do it! I can do this!” I am going to scatter the proud, bring the mighty down from their thrones, fill hungry people with good food and send the greedy rich away empty handed.

This message is surely timely for us on the first day of a new year, a day of world peace. Mary’s “yes” charges us from then to now to be strong and unafraid when confronting the unknown. It is a call to grab a hold of whatever comes our way without knowing exactly the outcome.

Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace  message, “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace,”  challenges us to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, refusing to harm the environment, or refusing to win at any cost. To do so, Francis reminds us, requires “the willingness to face conflict head on, to resolve it and to make it a link in the chain of a new process.” 

The miracle of Christmas began with Mary and Jesus of the past and continues with each one of us today. What they did way back then serves as a prologue for what lies ahead for us but … with a caveat. 

We remember the past as a way to direct ourselves not to repeat the past, nor to be discouraged by it, but to be buoyed up with a new enthusiasm, a vigorous and feisty hope for the future.


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Christmas Eve 2016 – Time to “Hit the Streets!”


Christmas Eve 122416 – Time to Hit the Streets

Click here for the biblical texts

They call it the December dilemma — interfaith households faced with celebrating both Christmas and Chanukah. Tonight as we gather to commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, our Jewish friends are lighting the first candle on their menorahs.

Our celebrations have this much in common. In this Northern Hemisphere, they both take place during wintertime, when nights are long, temperatures are cold and nature appears barren. Both these holidays use symbols of light. Both festivals have roots in a miracle.

Chanukah celebrates the victory of a Jewish rebellion against the powerful Syrians. The Israelites then reclaimed Jerusalem and wanted to purify and re-dedicate their Temple. But they only had enough sacred oil to light the menorah for one day. Miraculously the oil lasted eight days. (Talmud, Shabbat 21b). Those events took place about 600 years after Isaiah had hopes of restoring the City of Jerusalem.

The original meaning of the first reading, taken from Isaiah, is very different from our present understanding of that passage today. Every time a new descendent of David became king, the Israelites hoped that that person would be the ideal savior. And they waited and waited. 

We Christians reinterpreted the dreams of prophets like Isaiah. We have come to believe the birth of Jesus ushered in a time of deliverance from all evil on this planet. We believe Jesus was that ideal king although he never claimed to be so. 

The infancy narrative in tonight’s gospel from Luke is symbolic and biblical. It reveals to us the mystery of a God becoming human and modeling for us a way of living. It is a tale of deliverance similar to the story of the Maccabean’s revolt against their oppressors. Rabbi Howard Berman wrote, both [the festivals of Chanukah and Christmas] ultimately affirm the miracle of liberation and salvation … of God’s love … and of the deliverance of humanity.

The birth of Jesus was only the beginning of the Christmas story. The rest of the chapters depend on us, our constant attention to peace on earth and to that end, our belief in miracles. We yearn for peace and harmony like people have for generations before us.

According to St. Augustine (354-430 CE) “The purpose of miracles is to teach us to see the miraculous everywhere.” We are miracles for one one another. We keep the candles burning on our trees of life, we allow the radiance of the light of Christ to burn brightly in a time when fears arise everywhere. 

A phrase from a Chanukah song reminds us, “we have come this far always believing that justice will somehow prevail.” A familiar Christmas carol echoes the same expectation, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

Our Jewish friends light candles to recall how their ancestors set aside their fears of tyranny. Angels in the bible told Mary, Joseph and the shepherds not to be afraid. 

As we celebrate Christmas we, too, decide again and again, amidst our fears, to walk and speak with courage at home, where we work, at school and in the public arena. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, described the birth of Jesus in this way — “God hit the streets.”

Like our ancestors in faith we have been waiting for a savior for a long time. The author Alice Walker reminds us, however, like other poets and sages have, that we are the ones we have been waiting for. In her words, “With so much greater awareness than our ancestors – and with such capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy – we are uniquely prepared to create positive change within ourselves and our world.” 

Christmas is the  creation of something new where God – who is always with us – is essential to what we are to become. God has hit the streets after all and will continue to do so whenever we do.


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4 Advent – 18 December 2016 – And Joseph Said, “I Have a Dream”


4 Advent A 18 December 2016 — And Joseph Said “I have a dream!”

A long time ago, while teaching a religion class at Cardinal McCloskey high school (now Bishop Maginn HS, Albany, NY), I noticed some students looking out the window. It looked like they were daydreaming. Maybe they were thinking about school work or a ball game or the end of class. At first, I thought, how can I get them to listen to me? Then I recalled something I once read — if you do not have daydreams you will have no dreams to come true. [1]

Dreaming is a popular theme in literature, music, plays. We dream when we sleep and when we are awake. Studies suggest that dreams can play back for us what may have already happened. And, they can trigger our imaginations with ideas, help us wrestle with fears and anxieties. They also tap into our yearnings. For example, the 1943 song “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams” was written about a soldier stationed overseas during World War II.

In Matthew’s gospel Joseph had four dreams. We heard one this morning where an angel tells him it was OK to take Mary as his wife because she was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Imagine Joseph sitting on the edge of his bed thinking about this puzzling situation. Maybe he remembered something his parents told him or what he may have heard in the synagogue about the prophecies of Isaiah.

He could have thought maybe Mary’s baby is the one who will bring about justice. Maybe Jesus is the one for whom John the Baptist prepared the way. Maybe Jesus is the savior that Isaiah hoped for when the earthly kings he admonished failed to trust in God and, instead, built alliances with powerful nations.

Perhaps the evangelist Matthew and the apostle Paul also recalled the text from Isaiah and then said the same thing in their writings. The Rev. Beverly Bingle suggests that Matthew repeats Isaiah’s prophecy as if it were a 700-year old prediction of Jesus’s birth.

Time after time the Israelites waited for someone who would bring real peace and prosperity to them. Isaiah dreamt about such a leader. John the Baptist had a hunch that his cousin Jesus would be the One. A courageous Mary of Nazareth said yes to her surprising pregnancy and Joseph agreed to become her partner.

Time after time we, too, look for leaders to surface in our religions and in our governments. Take a moment to think of someone who had dreams and hopes for humanity. Dorothy Day dreamt of a time when all people would have jobs. Martin Luther King Jr dreamt of overcoming racism. Over 1.5 million children who are undocumented in our country are dreaming of the Dream Act becoming law.

There are organizations whose mission is prophetic, for example, the Parliament of World Religions. This group is committed to bridging religious, cultural, and ideological divides. The Parliament has issued this challenge: “Don’t distance yourself from the issues because they don’t touch you, or remove yourself from the challenge of making this world better because it seems like a futile effort.”

Other prophetic voices work to make dreams realities in our local communities. Family Promise of the Capital Region envisions a time when all families will have permanent housing and lasting independence. The Religion-Labor Coalition envisions a minimum wage and fair contracts for all workers. Our own food pantry along with other city-wide pantries and kitchens envisions a time when there is no more food insecurity.

We cannot all be prophets. But, like Joseph we often dream of what may be unimaginable. Like other prophets we, too, know that dreams come true with hard work and a little luck. We can sing and pray for peace and justice believing that God will come to the rescue and save us. But in order for God’s merciful and generous plan for humanity and all of creation to come true, God has summoned you and me to help out.

We do not hear much more about Joseph in the bible. He did not accompany Jesus on his missions like Mary did. Joseph did his part by adopting Jesus and helping him grow up. 

As daylight begins to lengthen it is a time for us to bring about the radiance of Christmas joy. It is the gift we give to one another — to take action to make dreams come true. Eleanor Roosevelt said it: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

_________

  1. I think it was Oscar Hammerstein who may have said this about dreams.


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Homily – 3 Advent – 11 December 2016 – What Do You Expect to Hear and Do?


Third Sunday Advent A –  11 December 2016 – What Do You Expect to See and Do?

Click here for today’s biblical texts

You may have heard by now that the Oxford Dictionaries have announced the word of the year. It is Post-Truth implying that facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than that which appeals to emotion and personal belief. Benjamin Corey, who studies theology and culture said, “the problem isn’t that people write things that are untrue, but that so many people are quick to believe things that are untrue.” 

This is the season for listening to prophecies. Prophets speak what they feel is true and inspired by God. Sometimes we don’t want to hear the truth especially when it calls for making changes in our lives. We are not any different from those Israelites who complained to Isaiah (Is 30:9-10) “Give us some good news for a change.” There is some good news for the people of Judah in the first reading today (Ch 35) — on a Sunday that calls for us to rejoice because God is with us. Isaiah paints a picture of a parched land blossoming with fresh flowers. 

And, the prophet also charged that the Israelites would have to be patient, they would have to wait. In the second reading the author strikes a similar chord. Like farmers who plant seeds that take time to produce good vegetables prophets are often models of patience in the midst of hardships. The Christians living in those apostolic times were waiting for the one who would deliver them from all anxieties and fears of oppression. But this would not happen overnight.

Prophecies are not predictions. They do not foretell the future. They point out what is going on in the present. They serve as correctives calling people to get back on a moral pathway. The late Fr. Rich Broderick once wrote, “A prophet calls her community back to authentic relationships with God and each other… she interrupts business as usual.” In this sense, they point out what is true and what is not true. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers her thoughts regarding the untruths voiced by elected officials and the media. “Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion.”

Always, we wait for flowers to bloom in a world that is becoming more and more parched. And, next year we will still be singing the same songs, saying the same prayers. Advent focuses on waiting with hope and anticipation precisely because God’s kin-dom on earth is still not in full bloom. The prickly question is this: what are we doing to hasten the day when those people who are blind will see, who are deaf will hear, who are trafficked will be free? The gospel acclamation for today (Is 61:1) reminds us we are anointed by God to bring glad tidings to people who suffer hardships.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, considered by many to be an important modern day prophet, once wrote, “We hold our political allegiances lightly and our theological allegiances dearly. At the same time, we can and should live fully in the world, participating in politics and political life, making the best of it for ourselves and for others, in spite of its inadequacy and ultimate inability to fulfill our needs.” [1] Knowing that life will never be perfect we, nevertheless, strive to do our best for ourselves and others.

In today’s gospel we find John the baptist in jail. Herod worried that his popularity would cause a rebellion. This passage leaps way beyond last week’s text when John was just introducing Jesus. This section comes after Jesus had already put his team together, preached that famous sermon on the mount, healed many people and sent the apostles out on a mission. The flowers were beginning to blossom and John took delight for the small part he played as a prophet preparing the way for Jesus. Can we?

This forward and backward use of biblical texts provides a lesson for us. If we could look to the future what would we expect to see? And, as we look back what could we say about our role as prophets, not of doom and gloom, but confident, passionate voices, crying for justice and peace. 

Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, regularly reminds us of the importance to protect the vulnerable, to speak prophetic truth in the name of social, racial, gender, and environmental justice. Now as never before in our time, America needs that advocacy — honest and prophetic truth-telling. You and I can learn to be prophets who speak and act truthfully in every way possible to make the desert bloom with flowers. After all, we believe that God is already with us so now what do we do?


  1.  From a lecture by Charles Marsh “Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Prophetic Citizenship,” The 14th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture, University of Virginia, February 12, 2015 


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Homily – 2nd Sunday of Advent – 4 December 2016 – Hoping Against Hope


Second Sunday of Advent A – 04 December 2016 – Hoping Against Hope!

Click here for today’s biblical texts

How often have we heard someone say “it is all downhill from here” meaning things are looking good. Two weeks ago in the food pantry, however, a woman used the same words to mean things were not looking good for her and her family. 

Last week after Mass a parishioner said to me his life is going up hill now. He was once at the bottom of the heap and now things are looking better but getting to the top is slow and hard work, he said.

Daunting as they are such challenging journeys are normal. They are the storylines for films, music, poetry and literature — our everyday lives. A person trying to overcome difficulties enters a land of possibilities where there may be unknown dangers. Only with perseverance and help from others will the person survive the journey and come out of it transformed.

In the biblical and religious imagination mountain tops are thought to be close to where God lives. If you could just reach that summit you would be OK. Last week the scriptures summoned us to that mountaintop, the eternal City of Jerusalem, a place where one could be safe, secure; living in harmony with other people. 

In the first reading today Isaiah brims with enthusiasm with the hope that a commander will emerge to lead people up to that holy mountain. The larger context for this prophecy is helpful here.

The Israelites were being pummeled by a powerful Assyrian regime that would destroy the people and their cities. Isaiah prophesied that the people would bounce back thanks to a leader who has wisdom, strength and … fear of God; one who will maintain justice for poor and afflicted people. The “shoot of Jesse” rising up from the stump (the destroyed City of Jerusalem) is a reference to military victories.

We Christians have interpreted Isaiah’s prophecy to mean that Jesus will be the hero when actually Isaiah was referring to the liberator of the Israelites at that time — the boy king Josiah. Josiah, a descendant of David, did initiate a religious renaissance, rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. Sadly, the peace lasted for only about 30 years when the Babylonians recaptured the Israelites and placed them into exile.

Much later John the Baptist also preached enthusiastically about a hero, the Coming One, who would be the liberator. John, the educated son of a priest, would be part of an elite class today. Feeling the need to change his life he retreated to the wilderness where he lived off the grid. Like mountains, the desert also has symbolic meaning in the bible. It is a place of transformation, a sacred space where one could go to the depths of one’s body, mind and soul, wrestle with the challenges of life, all with the hope of rising up again renewed.

Because of his desire to change, John identified with those living on the fringes of society. He condemned the elite class for paying attention to their own agendas at the expense of others. His message to repent, that is, to change our ways of living, challenged everyone within earshot.

The gospel of Matthew, which we will read all during this liturgical year, begins with an account of the birth of Jesus, the visit of the wise astronomers and the massacre of innocent children. 

This sets the stage for the passages we heard last week and today. People were frightened. What would happen to them next? Many of them, rich and poor, powerful and weak, scrambled to the wilderness to hear what John the Baptizer had to say. The apostle Paul also addressed the tensions between classes and cultures. He called for endurance and harmony. 

Today, there is great apprehension in our nation given the possibility that the laws of our land could run contrary to some of the values held by us. The passage in Isaiah calls for justice. In Hebrew the word is tzedakah which refers not merely to acts of charity but to a social obligation to defend people from the ills of humanity and oppressive leadership. 

Our role is to assist people living on the edges of society in troubled times. Angela Warner [1] reminded me that the modern day prophet Dorothy Day put it this way. “The greatest challenge is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”  

Advent is a season to think about our journeys and those of others — both uphill and downhill journeys. It is a time of anticipation, preparation, and in the words of Pope Francis written just this past week, “a time of mercy.” Now is the season for you and me to rekindle our faith and our hope against all hope that night will turn to the light of day.”

  1. Angela Warner is the director of the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry where hundreds of families are given food every week.