Water pollution is not new to us earth dwellers. In Jesus’ time and in the land where he lived, water was generally contaminated and distasteful. People didn’t drink it unless they had to. The ordinary thirst-quencher was wine. To be without wine was more that an inconvenience or a hardship: it was also considered a curse from God. In the Old Testament there are frequent references to an abundance of wine seen as a blessing from God, and a lack of wine seen as a sign of divine displeasure and punishment. (Need I say that today such a theology, so pagan in nature, is to be totally rejected?)

There is, then, more than at first meets the eye in the Gospel account of the wedding reception at Cana, which we heard minutes ago. It is not merely a question of embarrassment to the bride and groom or to the head waiter that the wine had run out. There is the implication that since on their wedding day, of all days, this unfortunate couple had received a sign of God’s displeasure, what sort of life could they look forward to after so unpromising a start?

Mary, Jesus’ mother, brings the matter to Jesus’ attention. The very first words of his response give us a clue as to why it is that St. John, the author of the gospel account, has selected this incident to be included in it.

Jesus addresses his mother as “Woman”. We don’t like the sound of that. It’s not warm, not normal, maybe not even respectful. But scripture scholars warn us that those who would change the word to “Mother” miss the point that John is making. Mary is here called “Woman” as a reference to Eve, the mother of all the living, the mother of all who would choose to live in union with her son.

The “hour” of his suffering and death and resurrection had not arrived yet, Jesus reminds his mother. But what he is about to do, this changing of water to wine, will be a sign that a new creation is beginning, that God’s power is entering the world in a way even more wonderful than at the original creation! The sin of the human race will not forever frustrate the coming of God’s kingdom, for Jesus is our Lord and Savior.

Who has not felt the the need of a saving power? When I am told that I have stage 4 cancer, or that my beloved spouse has died; when I lose my job and fear for the future of my spouse and children, when family problems crush me, when I see a world that seems to be mindlessly pursuing its own destruction — don’t I then look beyond myself and cry out to a hidden God? What shall save me from concluding that “Messiah” was a hoax, a useless superstition, the triumph of nothingness over life?

The story of our lives continues to unfold, and the ending is predictable. We are destined to be full sharers in the resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime, if we keep faith, he turns the waters of our lives — contaminated, brackish, irritating, threatening — into rich wine!



In a way, it’s unfortunate that so many of the events described in the Bible, even the gospels, are really altered versions of whatever the original event may have been. First of all, the authors, whoever they were, often slanted the accounts to suit better the various points that they were attempting to make. And then, as always happens, tradition took over: adding, subtracting, and changing the sacred texts from their original content.

The biblical stories of Christmas are a perfect example of this literary phenomenon. How soft and fuzzy and warmly attractive the scene of the nativity, the birth, of Jesus, appears on Christmas cards, and how inviting it sounds in carols.

But reason tells us that it’s far more likely that the stable was an ugly, inappropriate place for the birth of a baby, a stinking animal shelter with nothing to please the eye or comfort the body. I am personally certain, without any solid proof to offer, that Mary’s experience there was the approximate equivalent of delivering a baby in an alleyway. But history and art and popular religiosity have a way of cleaning up unappealing facts.

I’m not suggesting that these sanitized versions of hard realities are all bad. No, I think the editing, however factually false it may sometimes be, has a purpose, too. In the case of Jesus’ nativity, we know two thousand years later what the actual witnesses at the event could not possibly have known: namely, that the newborn baby was the Messiah whom faithful Jews for centuries had been waiting for and praying for.

And yet, knowing that, we people of a more mature and informed faith still find helpful the embellishments like reverent animals, swarms of adoring angels, shafts of heavenly light, visitors from afar who know that they have found the extraordinary and divine event that they’d been searching for, etc.

But the adjustments, so to speak, have all been made for us by those earliest Christians who had come to believe that this child was indeed unique and that, in and through him, God was entering our world more deeply, more intimately, than ever before. Still, the traditional representation of the event, the one we are accustomed to from art and music, does not give us an accurate picture of what it really was like; rather, it more expresses the deeper, more essential reality we Christians have been able to accept through the gift of faith.

Today it is the Baptism of Jesus that we are celebrating, a sacred ritual performed by his cousin John. Not on an infant, mind you, but on an adult. We mustn’t lose sight of the essential meaning and implications of the ritual of water and words: Jesus’ baptism marked his being chosen by God for a task he would accomplish through obedience, personal sacrifice, listening to the Spirit within him, compassion, and ultimately the surrender of his life.

Your Baptism and mine meant the same: we too are chosen by God for a task that is related to, part of, Jesus’ own mission. And we are to achieve it in basically the same way: by listening to the Spirit within us (the meaning of prayer) and obeying even when that is difficult and costly and sometimes what we would not have chosen to do.

Being faithful to our baptismal calling doesn’t mean merely being faithful to the rules and requirements of our religion, but to imitate Jesus in generous and compassionate service to others.

Only when that is the basic style of our lives can we receive the blessing of the Lord’s abiding peace.


By way of introduction to today’s celebration of the Epiphany, I ask you to recall the name of that once popular wrapping called cellophane, which appears to have taken second place to Saran Wrap.

The “p-h-a-n-e” in cellophane is the same as the “p-h-a-n” in Epiphany — they both mean “to see through” or “to make visible.”

In a word, that’s what we are celebrating today: our coming somehow to see that in the person of this Jesus of Nazareth God is being revealed to the world as never before or since.

With that in mind, let us pray.


I once knew a man whom I never heard make any reference to God and who never went to church. But I consistently saw in him qualities of human goodness that could be called only extraordinary, the stuff that saints are made of. Even though there was no sign that he was aware of it, his life was a powerful sermon because it was exactly the kind of joyful, unselfish, simple, charitable behavior that Jesus taught and lived himself. The good man was one of those voices God used to teach me and a lot of other people I know.

It is true that pagans and atheists and heretics are often effective instruments by way of which God’s word reaches us humans. But who are we to dictate how and from whom God’s truth should come to us? Perhaps there are Magi, of a sort, in our own lives whom we have turned away and have not recognized and have condemned or ridiculed out of hand. We called them ”secular” or “pagan” or “radicals” or just plain “crazy.” It never occurred to us, or we could not bring ourselves to allow, that they might have seen and heard God where we did not.

Mary and Joseph apparently welcomed their visitors. And so it should be with us: that we welcome with eager anticipation all who come to us in sincerity and in search of truth, that we remain open to the truth they may be bringing into our lives. With the Spirit of God guiding us, we shall know the Lord better if we simply look and listen.

We must leave to scholars the essential meaning of today’s ancient fable, still revered after so many centuries, even while more & more discerning people recognize it is as precisely that — a wonderful and enduring fable, not to be taken literally. My own limited understanding of it is that it celebrates the truth that Jesus was recognized as the long-hoped-for Messiah even by persons who had no connection with the established religion of the time. The wise men, as they were called, were astrologers who studied the movement of the stars, not the history of God’s revelation to humanity. Their journey to the stable of his birth was not only unorthodox but not even respectable in many people’s eyes. However, so the story goes, they recognized him for who and what he was and paid him the homage reserved for kings.

And then, I suppose we must assume as the logical conclusion of the story, they went back to their own country as missionaries of the Christ. What could they have reported back home except their own deep conviction that in this birth God had entered human history in such a way that humanity would never be the same again.

We’ve got to keep in mind always when reading the Gospels that they are documents of faith — enthusiastic outpourings of the joyful faith of people who had experienced Jesus. They are not biographies or histories. They are human expressions rather than scientific descriptions. We believers have to look beyond the words and details to discover the real message, the truth to which the entire document attests.

In the minds of those who had known him and had witnessed the events of his extraordinary life, there was no doubt that he was indeed the One sent by God to restore human life and dignity. I think you would agree that with all the confusing uncertainties we live with, we often need that reassurance.

Today it’s given to us again by means of a charming story that even little children love hearing.


Life is an endless series of new beginnings.

We rise every day from our hoped-for good night’s sleep to face a routine so unchanging from morning to morning that sometimes one day’s might be a video of the previous day’s.

Birthdays and anniversaries, Christmases and New Year’s Days – what are they but new beginnings? We look back with both regret and gratitude; we look ahead with a mixture of fear and eager anticipation. Reason and experience tell us that things are likely to be much the same this time around, but unyielding hope insists that they can be and will be different – and off we go!

All year long, day by day, the Church puts before us the example of persons who lived extremely difficult lives, who were threatened at every turn but who never stopped believing that life is essentially good because God, the “Ground of All Being,” is good.

I think it would be appropriate if on this first day of the new year, following, as it does, last Sunday’s feast of the Holy Family, we directed our thoughts and prayers to the preeminence of family life. I know of nothing more important than constant, increasingly patient and unselfish attention to the multiple relationships that make up our families. No matter what else interests us or demands our time and effort, nothing should take priority over what we are to, and what we do for and with, our families.

Most of us, I would imagine, have made some mistakes in this regard, doing what we thought was best at the time – or failing to do what we knew we should do — and learning later that there was a better way, or a right way. There’s no point in pining over that, and it well may be true that we did the best we could at the time or that some pressure or distraction kept us from acting differently and better.

But wiser and more experienced now, what we can do from this moment on is to look at each other differently. We can accept more generously each other’s faults and deficiencies, aware that we bring plenty of our own to every relationship. We can savor and honor and praise the goodness of the other person and just keep silent about what we wish we could change. Out of such an accepting attitude come peace and appreciation and freedom of spirit and gratitude and the desire to please in return and to grow together into deeper, more mature and satisfying love.

Maybe the most important thing we can do to strengthen and improve our relationships is simply to listen — not just hear the sound of a voice, but really listen — to the mind and heart from which it comes, listen to this other person with respectful attention, expecting to hear something worth hearing – and acknowledging that with humility and gratitude.

It had to have been that way with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. Think of the tensions those three persons experienced, how much darkness and mystery they lived in, how much they needed the support and understanding of each other. They respected each other and granted wide berth, believing that ultimately the Divine Spirit within them would bring all things into harmony. That may be the main reason we regard them as models of human behavior.

2019 will be a banner year if a change in us makes someone close to us a happier, freer person. That would be only a joy for all concerned!


26 years ago, a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood by the name of Elizabeth Johnson, now a professor of theology at Fordham University, wrote a best-selling book, the title of which was She Who Is: the Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. In one of the many interviews she did following its release, she said this —

My biography is not very juicy; I’m just your ordinary nun. I grew up in Brooklyn, the oldest of seven children. My mother was a college graduate who devoted her life to care of the family. She was great in helping us with homework, especially math. My father worked for the airlines and traveled a great deal. When he came home, he always had adventure stories to tell us. Now and then, when some music came on the radio that was important to my parents, they would dance. As children, we loved this.

They were both devout Catholics. My father took us to daily Mass when I was a little girl and observed a very strict fast during Lent, stricter than he expected us to observe. When noon came on Holy Saturday, we had such a feast.

Both my mother and my father were important to my earliest sense of God. I remember one time when my father brought me to Mass. I was about six and had not yet received my First Communion. He had come back from Communion and his head was buried in his hands to make his thanksgiving. I noticed that the priest had not closed the tabernacle. I could see into the tabernacle for the first time. I tugged on my father’s shirt to tell him, but he paid no attention. I kept tugging on him, but he ignored me. By the time he looked up, the tabernacle was closed.

When we got outside, he asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he said that at that moment God was in him in a way that was more important than any other place. To this day, I know that this was one of the ways I learned how important God is, that God was more important to my father than I was, than even his own daughter.

When I first read that so long ago, I immediately thought it was an excellent description of what must have been the family life of Joseph and Mary and Jesus. A place of warm and constant love and nurturing conversation; a place where the presence of God was always reverently acknowledged and where loyalty to our Creator was the primary virtue. I still think that.

I was proud and pleased to learn on Christmas Day that one of my 17 nieces and nephews, her husband and their children (including their just married daughter and their new son-in-law) had been to New York City the night before for the 10th time over the past decade, not only to see the holiday sights and have dinner together, but also to celebrate Christmas Mass at a small church on the West Side.

My Catholic faith was not given to me in such an idyllic way, but nonetheless it was passed on to me and my siblings by our parents. Chances are that your families, both the one in which you were born and raised and the one you now belong to, have not been perfect. I hope that you are in no way discouraged by that; you would not be listening to me right now if you were not a person of solid, however searching, faith. And, besides, the Holy Family, we are clearly told in the scriptures, had its troubles, too.

So, rejoice and be glad! All is well!


I mentioned in the introduction to last Sunday’s Mass, just two days ago, that a few years back on Christmas eve I had visited a priest friend who, because of a rare crippling disease by the name of dystonia, said to me, “I wonder, if God spares me for still another Christmas, if I could possibly outdo myself next year!“ Having no idea of what he meant, I asked him to explain.

He answered, “At Christmas time I’m as happy as a child! I don’t remember ever being happier than I am right now. I feel like I’m a kid. Christmas always does this to me. Could you believe that, if I had my whole life to live over, I wouldn’t change a thing? For the past several days, I haven’t even thought about the pain.”

To me, those words are pregnant with meaning for all of us. Whether we are crippled or not, sick or well, fulfilled and secure or lonely and fearful, we all experience the pain of being human — the pain of not really understanding one another, of hurting, often inevitably, even those we dearly love. The pain of giving gifts while at the same time knowing that we cannot satisfy our own, and much less someone else’s, deepest needs. The pain of embarking on new ventures, cutting old ties, developing new relationships. The pain of losing those we love when death comes to claim them for another life. The pain of trying to form communities of love and trust and experiencing the frictions and the stresses and the hostilities that the chemistry of personality- mixing often produces.

It is into that world of constant pain, that inescapable condition of the human family, that Jesus was born on Christmas Day. He understood what the potential of the human race was when the Wisdom that had created the human family and all life once more ruled the world in love. Jesus appeared as a light revealing the truth. Because of him, we have the right not to think about our pain — or better: to see it in a new way. It will not triumph in the end. Jesus has assured that. We have only to be patient, to wait in confidence, to do our best at caring and helping and forgiving and loving — and he will make up for what we are lacking. A new kingdom is being built right here on earth because God wants it for us to enjoy, and Jesus is God’s builder.

Today’s Gospel excerpt describes the traditional scene that we all love to hear over and over. The young mother and father, the infant, the manger, the shepherds, the angels, the rites prescribed by the Jewish law. All so simple, so story-like. A promise made long ago, a people who wait for the day of deliverance, signs offered and observed. Little people, the powerless, the simple folk — like Mary and Joseph. People of faith, able to say Yes to a never-seen God. True kin of Abraham. People who felt the terrible pain of being human and also of being involved in the central drama of the history of the human race.

We speak of the spirit of Christmas, by which I think people mean love, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, etc. But Christmas is also about pain and a spirit of victory — a new way of interpreting our human condition, a buoyancy of spirit that enables us to work with optimism even when the results are disappointing and to play with reckless abandon even when there is still so much to do. Emanuel — God Is With Us.

We don’t have to think about the pain.

Then let’s not!

Happy Christmas to all!


If a hundred Catholics were asked if they believe that Jesus established their religion, I would not be surprised if upwards of 95 of them answered, “Yes, of course.” Some years ago, I would have given exactly the same answer.

But the truth is that Jesus lived and died a Jew. There was no doubt in his mind that the truth and the wisdom of God had been understood by the Jewish prophets with uncommonly receptive minds; but he was also painfully aware of corruption and compromise in both Jewish teaching and Jewish practice.

He spoke up, always at great danger to himself and ultimately at the cost of his life. His goal was not to begin a new religion; he believed totally in Judaism as the primary voice of God on earth. He was determined to do all that he could to purify that religion of everything that was unseemly; but authority in any human institution never responds well to calls for reform. It resists them tooth & nail in the frantic effort to preserve its own status. Jesus felt the full brunt of that resistance and died at its hands, agonizing over his failure to accomplish reform but confident nonetheless that out of his sacrifice the victory would eventually be won.

Jesus’ followers for a long time thought of themselves as faithful Jews and became known first as members of “The Way” and much later as Christians. It’s interesting to note that 2000 years later the church calls itself Ecclesia Semper Reformanda, which is translated “church always in need of reform.” The current situation of newly discovered, widespread sexual abuse in the church leaves no doubt about the truth expressed in that title.

Church reform has to do, of course, with the way we Catholics do things, beginning with our worship. But, important as they are, they have to take second place to that overriding concern that Jesus was constantly emphasizing, and that is simply how we relate to each other as human beings.

There can be no true religion, no worthy worship of God, unless they come from persons who are doing their best to relate to each other in positive, affirming, charitable, and forgiving ways. Pick any one of Jesus’ instructions and stories, and you will see how homely and down-to-earth his themes were. The reform for which he labored and gave his life had nothing to do with grand institutions or with style; it was about the everyday behavior of men and women, like you and me — whether it was loving and generous, or hateful and selfish. The change that he envisioned included adjustments and sacrifices that individual persons make for the sake of peace, lifestyles that make room for sharing with others in need. True religion, the Gospel writers had come to understand from him, is shown by the care of orphans and widows.

The disappointment that so many of us rightly feel with the quality of leadership in our church today may incline us to think that that is where the primary focus of reform should be placed, but to conclude that is to deceive ourselves and miss the message of Jesus and maybe even to choose a convenient scapegoat in order to avoid our own personal responsibility. The reform for which all of us are responsible is in our daily, personal lives. No change anywhere in the church outranks that. A holy church is simply a community of people who try to live as Jesus did.

It’s the last Sunday in Advent. Little kids wait excitedly for their presents under the tree; adults hope for peace and love and the stuff that makes happy memories that last a lifetime. But let’s all look forward to a deeper understanding of the simple message of love and what it requires of us that Jesus thought important enough to die for.