Fr. Tom Bartolomeo
T'is the season, Part Two
By Fr. Tom Bartolomeo
December 7, 2014

The poet, William Butler Yeats, described "The Second Coming" of Jesus,
    A vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel the shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats was describing in this poem the Sphinx in Egypt guarding the tombs of Egyptian kings, the vision of death slouching into extinction by a child in a rocking cradle.

Last week a parishioner was leaving the church and asked me why priests wear violet vestments in Advent as in Lent and not white vestments to celebrate the birth of Christ? I could have asked why we don't wear red vestments of martyrs, the color of Jesus' blood shed on the cross? The days leading to Jesus' birth are marked by God's call to repentance before his Son's crucifixion and resurrection for the restoration of our lives. We associate the color of violet in Advent with royalty, the purple robe put on Jesus' shoulders by soldiers who mocked Jesus as "King of the Jews." Were I to choose one word to describe Jesus's mission it would be "Repent." It was the same message John the Baptist heralded to "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths." (Mark 1:3). "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:2).

Some people, however, simply see Christmas as a holiday, a break from the winter doldrums, time to gather with family and friends and exchange gifts – removed from the hearts and minds of shepherds in their fields and wise men on their journey from a foreign county who came to celebrate Jesus' birth and witnessed the threat to his life by a jealous king who slaughtered every child in Bethlehem hoping he had eradicated one child's plague on his throne. Jesus' life was always in danger. Jesus' enemies eventually succeeded in putting him to death which, ironically, Jesus vanquished by rising from the dead. At Christmas we celebrate the joy awaiting us as we repent our sins, as Jesus said, "for the kingdom of heaven is near." (ibid.) Death can only be overcome by the cross, Jesus' ultimate purpose in being born. "Unless you take up your cross and follow me you can not be my disciple," Jesus taught. The birth of Christ is much much more than a . . .
    Holly, jolly Christmas
    It's the best time of the year
    I don't know if there'll be snow but have a cup of cheer,
which we hear in the shopping malls. Our hope in Emmanuel (God with us) is our joy in the crosses we carry to God' world as we follow Jesus:
    O come, O come, Emmanuel,
    And ransom captive Israel,
    That mourns in lonely exile here,
    Until the Son of God appear.
Jesus, remember, first came in secret and our exile remains. There will be no mistaking the "Son of God" in his Second Coming. Jesus first appeared two thousand years ago and continues to teach us that he is still "the way and the truth and the life." Jesus is the rocking cradle methodically moving sin and death into extinction, the pitiless sphinx who "slouches towards Bethlehem to be born" and die forever.

Immediate and complete conversion is rare. Bad habits and stubbornness are too often the rule. Even Jesus' Apostles had hardened hearts near the end. Their complete conversion came only after Jesus' death and resurrection. The Apostle Peter who had cursed and denied that he knew Jesus wept "bitter tears" when Jesus looked at him after his betrayal. It's a hard truth but we can not have it both ways. Happiness in this world on its terms and happiness in heaven. "You can not serve God and the world" are Jesus' words, not mine. (Matthew 6:24).

"Slouches towards Bethlehem" amid "shadows of indignant desert birds" conjures up a frightening picture but not as much as separation from God and others we are bound to in the life of God forever. A kind of weariness can settle in while we repeat the same patterns of our lives over and over again. So often this happens where it should least happen – inside our families when the center breaks apart and everyone in various degrees of breakage goes his or her own way. It may not be intentional but it happens. So where do we look for remedy, a model to follow and emulate? The Holy Family, the inseparable family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is our remedy to model and follow. How would the world today respond to Joseph, Mary and Jesus' plight and circumstances? Joseph discovers his fiancé is pregnant, Mary leaves Joseph to stay with her cousin for three months and Jesus at the age of twelve reprimands his parents who for three days thought they had lost their son then to be told by Jesus, "Don't you know I must be about my Father's business?" (Luke 2:49). In similar circumstances how would fathers, mothers, children and families today respond? And why would so many react badly? The answer is simple, another one word answer, love. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3:16). That love and no other! It will always be tested in this world as it was for the holy family. Every family's troubling circumstances are unique. The worse reaction to family trouble is denial and avoidance which can not suppress our anxieties and fears. People who live as Jesus taught and his family practiced live their lives in love and peace despite conflict and the reeling shadows of indignant birds above and around them. Jesus is their hope in a better world. "Not as the world gives," Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you . . . Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." (John 14:27). This love has nothing to do with this world. What the world gives are lies. Buy this, do that, act this way and you will be happy and others will love you. Would we have ourselves perennially in the school gym at the junior prom facing each other from opposite walls waiting for someone, anyone, to make the first move? It is a repetition of the old story of Adam and Eve who failed in their marriage when each separated from the other and decided on their own to each go his and her own way in their shame. Don't say, "Have it your way" to a spouse or child. Listen. Don't tell you son or daughter, "Whatever makes you happy" and walk away. You may have already predisposed your grown child to ask the approval of the indefensible particularly concerning girlfriends and boyfriends. Just living together does not make a family like Jesus, Mary and Joseph's family. Love is service of others for their improvement, not a partnership of 'you give me' and 'I give you' as some undefined 'fair' exchange. For Christ his selfless love bridges the exchange of hearts and minds between spouses and children. Read the gospel where Jesus reserves his espousal relationship with us as a bridegroom. (Mark 2:19).

What binds a family "in good times and bad" is selfless love. True marriage depends on love greater than one's love of self. "There is no greater love," Jesus taught, " than to lay down your life for your friends." (John 15:13). This sacred season is a time of repentance – losing our selfishness in the concerns of a spouse, a son, a daughter, a brother or a sister. Joseph, Mary and Jesus faced many dangers and uncertainties in their escape to Egypt and their return to Israel. Each step of their journey together deepened their resolve and union as a family. They were relieved of all false pretenses of love – making and revising Christmas card lists and deciding who gets which presents while avoiding important family issues.

Mary and Joseph conformed their lives to the concerns of a child and consequentially were united in their concerns for each other. Nothing else brings more love and fulfillment to God's family than service to a spouse and a child. Work, money, school, daycare and personal activities may weaken the bonds of spouses and children. Before the "holly jolly Christmas tree" is set out on the curb for removal make the Christmas season a time of peace and service in the Lord. This may require a entirely new make-over of family relations especially with growing children. With grown children it may require a re-establishment of relationships which only a father and a mother can initiate as difficult as that may be. Jesus, Mary and Joseph pray for us.

© Fr. Tom Bartolomeo


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Fr. Tom Bartolomeo

I am the founder and director of the Families For Families Retreat House, a refuge for anyone who wants to rethink his or her life in a quiet non-demanding environment in an historic house c.1709 when life was less complicated. I am also and primarily a Catholic priest having been a college and university teacher, business-owner and executive among other things. I received my Bachelor's and Master's degrees in English literature from Saint John's University, Jamaica, New York and completed post-graduate studies at Kansas State University. Contact me at (Fr. Bartolomeo passed away on September 18, 2018. His obituary can be found here.)


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