by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
I have to believe that the people who invented the church year
and the ensuing generations
who alternately arranged and revised the liturgical calendar
– especially since all of them lived in the Northern Hemisphere –
had a sense of humor.
The new year begins someplace at the end of November,
Christmas runs into January,
Easter can fall on April Fool’s Day,
Lent can start as early as February 4th
and as late as March 10th,
multiple solemnities can override Sunday
(some of them like the Dedication of John Lateran
a complete puzzlement to Catholics),
and the church has the chutzpah to call the current moment
ordinary on this the Second Sunday in ordinary time
when there is no first Sunday in Ordinary time…
so figure that one out.
Equally perplexing and delightful, at least to me,
is the incredibly porous nature of the liturgical year
as seasons bleed through and leak into one another.
The liturgical year is full of holes.
The season of Advent, for example,
whose opening liturgies conjure end times and the last judgement
erupt even before the first Sunday of Advent rolls around.
After Pentecost, when one would think
that Ordinary Time would kick in
instead, it goes on hiatus for a few weeks
while Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christ
take center stage.
And even now, when Ordinary Time has supposedly resumed –
though I don’t know how
one calls this moment in history “ordinary” –
when popes are burying popes
it takes 15 votes to elect a speaker of the House
and the January 6th insurrection has just been repeated
Even now central themes of the Christmas season linger:
With no wise men on the horizon, there is an epiphany;
there are no angels announcing good news,
but doves are in the air;
no camels to be seen,
but a lamb has taken center stage;
and the child named John who leapt in the womb
when Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth
has now leapt out of the wilderness
and is stirring up considerable interest
around a new visitation.
Maybe it was his unusual diet of locust and honey
or his purifying desert experience,
or maybe it is just because, since his birth,
he has been specially gifted with God’s Spirit
Whatever the reason, John’s Christmas gift to us
is the gift that keeps on giving:
so absent stars and camels
minus singing angels and unkempt managers,
John actually recognizes not the cousin but the Christ.
John does the “behold” thing,
the “ecce” move in Latin,
the “whatup” nod to the Cuz
who has now grown into an adult lamb
about to launch his perilous and saving ministry.
We don’t think much about it, this recognition thing.
We do it all the time.
We recognize our kids and our cat,
our coat and our coach,
our choir director and our congressman
(no matter how painful the latter may be if you live in Long Island).
Some forms of recognition are easy
as illustrated by the young father who, in a predigital age,
lost his wallet.
It held a few dollars, but more problematic
it held his driver’s license,
the credits cards,
The I am catholic, in case of an accident call a Priest card
… so you know how long ago this happened.
Dad walked into a police station carrying his 2-year-old boy.
The sergeant asked if there was anyway
he could verify his identity.
The distraught father turned to his son
pointed to himself, and asked “who’s this”?
The two-year-old knew the game, laughed and shouted
The sergeant filled out the official form
With Dad’s legal name, and the notation:
identified by relative!
The capacity to recognize seems second nature to us,
But actually, it is very complex.
There are, in fact, people
who do not have the ability to recognize
objects, sounds, shapes, smells and even other people.
It’s called agnosia – a neurological phenomenon
affecting a small percentage of people.
But it is pretty dramatic when someone cannot recognize
their own car or car keys,
coat or classroom.
Then there are people who cannot even recognize the faces
of their parents,
or their children.
Less dramatic, yet still perplexing are perception issues such as
‘How do you recognize a true friend
and not just one of those fair-weathered ones?’
‘How do you recognize a true colleague
and not just a clever competitor angling for your job?’
and ‘How do you recognize an authentic love
and not just some amorous opportunist?’
True to form, the gospel goes even deeper:
How do you recognize the Christ?
Not only the historical Jesus,
the long ascended bodily savior,
but the enduring presence of Christ among us?
Animals have uncanny abilities to recognize their young.
This is particularly important among some species
who breed in huge colonies, like some ocean-going birds
who need to abandon their young for food
and then return into a maze of look-a-like-chicks
though only one of them belongs to mom.
Some recognize by shared vocal calls,
and some by scent.
Other animals are cued to distinctive visual markings
and others by imprinted experiences of touch.
As Christians, we are bombarded by gospel vocalizations
by an abundance of olfactory cues like incense
sometimes overstimulated with worship spectacles
and, at least at OSP, can hardly escape eucharist
without being touched, handled, hugged
or at least fist-bumped numerous times.
But what is the litmus test?
How do we sniff out gospel recognition,
confirm an evangelical sighting,
or even affirm a graced touch?
Sometimes, maybe even too often,
our instincts for self-preservation
disallow us from perceiving real presence.
In the fall of 2022, a young woman with a hearing loss
attended a critically acclaimed musical on Broadway.
Increasingly attentive to the needs of people with disabilities
the theater provided the young woman with a captioning device
so that she could enjoy all aspects of the product.
Nonetheless, in the middle of the production
the star of the show called her out from the stage
not once, but twice
accusing her of trying to record the show on her iPhone,
rather than fully enjoying it.
The resulting diminishment and humiliation
ricocheted across social media
and the theater – but not the star –
It’s one more example,
less lethal but nonetheless devastating
of the “I thought it was a gun
but I guess it was an iPhone” tragedy
when our inability to recognize
ends up with lives littered in our wake.
A different kind of recognition story:
a number of years ago a good friend,
flew to Chicago in the dead of winter
to attend an exhibit from the Faberge workshop
at the Art Institute.
After his budget airline flight to Midway,
he took the train into the loop and enjoyed the exhibit.
On the return trip to the airport, however,
he encountered someone panhandling on an L platform;
Someone looking for help to stay fed and warm
in the brutal Chicago weather.
My friend gave him twenty bucks and later reflected
that he should have given him his coat.
More touching, however, was the closing comment in his email:
“the Faberge exhibit was beautiful
but I did not experience God in the museum.
On the L platform, however, I sincerely believe
that I encountered the face of Christ.”
Jan Richardson is a gifted soul,
a splendid painter,
a graced wordsmith,
and someone who has experienced enough
loss and diminishment,
joy and gratitude,
that her vision is clearer than most.
In her reflection on the dawn of awareness and blessing
I cannot tell you
how the light comes.
What I know
is that it is more ancient
That it travels
across an astounding expanse
to reach us.
That it loves
what is hidden
what is lost
what is forgotten
or in peril
or in pain.
That it has a fondness
for the body
for finding its way
for tracing the edges
for shining forth
through the eye,
I cannot tell you
how the light comes,
but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way
into the deepest dark
that enfolds you,
though it may seem
long ages in coming
or arrive in a shape
you did not foresee.
may we this day
turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces
to let it find us.
May we bend our bodies
to follow the arc it makes.
May we open
and open more
and open still
to the blessed light
Such is our prayer in this extraordinary time, that “eyes see and ears hear what God has ready for those who love him,” through Christ our Lord.