Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Mom's a Priest --- Holy Families

Hard to believe, isn't it? Yet, I am fearless in this area. The Bible is a great place to visit when you want to watch the respect of women grow in the eyes of God and the hearts of His people. You're thinking that I'm finally going to give you an opportunity to cry at my funeral because this is going to be so stupid that I will surely have to pay for it for all eternity. Everyone knows that women aren't priests and never have been priests in the Judeo-Christian Tradition. So why open that can of worms? The answer is simple, "Because I want to celebrate the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a special way with you all." You may all be aware that this feast is always celebrated between Christmas and New Year's Day. This year, as it happens, the solemnity is scheduled for December 31, 2006 and I'm late. As it turns out, this year you are going to meet other "Holy Families" with an emphasis on the Mother. Then, you will meet my mother. So fasten your seatbelt. This is going to be an E-Ticket ride.
Holy Family # 1. Isaac, Sarah and Abraham
Holy Family # 2. Samson, Anonymous Mom and Manoah
Holy Family # 3. Samuel, Hannah and Elkanah
Holy Family #4. John, Elizabeth and Zehkariah

Meet Sarai and Abram. (Genesis, Chapters 15 - 17) Two people married for a long time, childless. They were obedient and giving to Yahweh. They had left their homeland upon the beckoning of Yahweh who was in the process of organizing His people. Yahweh had even promised a rich progeny to Abram. At first we don't hear Abram challenging God. Abram and Sarai go from place to place under the inspiration of God and in response to the economic necessities of the times. They even go to Egypt to escape the ravages of a great famine. Everywhere they go, Abram builds an altar and offers sacrifice to Yahweh. After his return from Egypt and after conquering many of Yahweh's enemies, Abram meets Melkisedek who offers a sacrifice of bread and wine to Yahweh to thank Him for turning His enemies over to Abram. After settling down a little bit, Sarai, still childless offers her maidservant Hagar to Abram so that he would have descendants. Hagar indeed bore Abram a son, Ishmael. Now when Abram was 99 years old, God appeared to him and made a convenant with His servant. Yahweh started out by giving Abram and new name, "You shall no longer be called Abram: your name shall be Abraham." (Gen. 17;7) Further on Yahweh tells Abraham that from now on he would call his wife Sarah, not Sarai. He tells Abrahan that she will bear him a son. Abraham now says, "Let Ishmael live in your presence" But Yahweh said "no", Sarah will bear you a son whom you will call Isaac . The rest, as they say is history. Isaac is born, has two sons Esau and Jacob and from them Yahweh proceeds to keep his promise to give Abraham so many descendants that they outnumber the stars in the sky. Along the way, Sarah and Abraham are asked to sacrifice their son Isaac. We don't hear anything about Sarah's reaction, but we do know that Abraham obeyed without question. We never find out what Sarah said, or thought. We do know that she had been through a lot with Abraham and this demanding God. So we have to know that she was a part of the consent to offer the only son that she ever bore to Yahweh, the God of the great promise of love. She was the one who presented her son to the shedding of the blood of circumcision. She was no doubt the one who joined her husband in obedience to Yahweh who was demanding the most difficult sacrifice of all. She had to be the model for Mary who not only accompanied her Son to circumcision but to the altar of the cross. True it is that the priest presides at the sacrifice, but it's the mother who willingly provides the offering.
Meet Samson, his anonymous Mom and his father Manoah. (Judges, chapter 13) The Israelites were now a well formed people. They were also well versed in the ways of evil. They were doing what is very displeasing to Yahweh. So as He did with Noah, Yahweh sent His messenger to the wife of Manoah to tell her, "You are barrren and have had no child. But from now on take great care. Take no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean. For you will conceive and bear a son. No razor is to touch his head for the boy shall be God's nazirite (See definition at the end) from his mother's womb. It is he who will begin to rescue the Israelites from the power of the Philistines." (Judges, 13; 4 - 6) Samson's mom then relates her experience with this angel to her husband. Manoah believes her. (Just like we all would, right?) He kneels by his bed that night and asks Yahweh a favor. Please, says Manoah, send that same man again to both me and my wife so that he can instruct us what to do with the boy once he is born. Now before you go running to your Bible to find out if God really sends the angel again, let me tell you. He does. Back to the woman. She runs for her husband and tells him to come right now because the stranger is here. The message is the same, no wine, no strong drink, no hair cuts. Now this Manoah and his wife must have a very deep, loving and trusting relationship because Manoah invites the stranger to tarry a while so that they can prepare a kid for him. But the angel thanks them with great respect (Hey, after all, he works for God) and instructs them instead to offer the kid up in sacrifice. As the smoke from the holocaust arose, the angel arose as well and disappeared into the heavens. Now, Manoah is downright scared. He says, "Now we are certain to die for we have seen God." (Judges, 13, 22) The dedicated, believing woman replies, "We shall not die. If Yahweh meant to kill us He would not have accepted a holocaust and oblation from our hands; He would not have told us all these things." (Judges, 13, 23 - 24) This woman bears a son, names him Samson and Samson indeed goes through many adventures, slays a whole host of Philistines, falls prey to the wiles of Delilah but in the end delivers the Israelites from the oppression of the Philistines.This woman is like Mary because she appears now and then in the story to support her son. She is a brave woman who believes in God so much that she willingly offers her only son to Him for the good of His people. The first holocaust in the presence of the angel is just the beginning of her priesthood. She does all the "heavy lifting" in this parable. True her husband believes her, but he wants to be sure that she got it right. He is a very proper person, hospitable and trusting. He trusts that his wife is not too close to the stranger in the story. Then when he sees the presence of God in his life, he's sure that he's going to die. But look at her. Tough. Believing. Not afraid of God nor of her husband. Not afraid to offer her only begotten son up to God. This woman is so tough that she has even offered her own name up in the holocaust of anonymity so that her son and Yahweh alone remain the true protagonists of the story. Has there ever been a priest so thourough as that? Maybe "yes", maybe "no". But we know of one for sure, Samson's Mom.
Meet Samuel, Hannah and Elkanah. (1 Samuel, Chapter 1) You have my permission to shed tears at this story. Big, huge tears of respect, love and joy. Elkanah is an important person. We know that because he has a pedigree. He also has two wives. He also fears Yahweh and makes a yearly pilgrimage and offers sacrifice with his family. He also loves Hannah deeply and knows that she loves him. One day during one of the pilgrimages Elkanah notices Hannah sad and despondent. He approaches her and asks why and she tells him, "I have no child". She then goes to the temple and starts to pray intensely to God and makes a vow to Him in these wonderfully poetic words: "Yahweh Sabaoth! If you will take notice of the distress of your servant, and bear me in mind and not forget your servant and give her a man-child, I will give him to Yahweh for the whole of his life and no razor shall ever touch his head." (1 Samuel, 1; 11) While she was praying, Eli, the priest saw her praying and after her prayer approached her and supported her in her relationship with God. After hearing her story, he bade her, "May the God of Israel grant what you have asked of Him." and she replied, "May your maidservant find favor in your sight." (1 Samuel, 1; 17 - 18) Yahweh granted the wish of Hannah. She called her son Samuel (His name is God). She told Elkanah her plan and he agreed with her saying oniy, "wait until you wean him." She did this. Then took him to the temple, Handed him over to Eli. "There she left him, for Yahweh" (1 Samuel, 1; 28)You are asking yourself why this family is on my list of five best. My answer is, because Hannah could have finally found herself with child, allowed her love for her husband to dim and lose herself in the love of her dearly prayed-for son. Elkanah could have demanded that she preserve Samuel from the vow that she had made so that a new line of descendants be formed. But no. These two people, close to Yahweh, fulfilled their covenant and Samuel became one of the holiest leaders of God's people. Has a greater sacrifice every been made by a mother? Yes, and Mary knew where to look for an example when she needed inspiration. Once again, the mother brings the holocaust to the altar and offers it to God Almighty in the supreme act of adoration. The perfect priestly act. The perfect act of unconditional love.
Meet John, Elizabeth and Zechariah. (Luke, Chapter 1) This is the second to last story of chosen women who are going to get their wish, only to have to offer it back to the Giver. It is clear that the messenger nevers hides the mission of the issue. In Hannah's case, she offered the fruit of her womb without knowing what would happen. In the case of all the others, the mission was clear, this person will be great in the eyes of God and it is going to take a lot of work. All these women, except Mary, was deep into life without having borne a child. The annunciation that leads to John's birth is different in that it serves two purposes, it is a mission to greatness and a sign of another mission to greatness. John has a mission even before he is born. He is the precursor even while in the womb. His father is a Temple official, the only one of all the special miraculous births retold on the Bible. The interesting element in the birth of John and of Jesus is that their mothers offered them to God through the Temple. Both John and Jesus are the people's sacrifices. Their mothers saw them swallowed up by the community and condemned to violent death for the sake of those to whom they were sent. Elizabeth is the last of the miraculous ladies in advanced age who gave birth through the intervention of Yaweh. She is certainly not the least of the group.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph need no introduction, right? The last of the annunciations goers the same way as the first ones, not all of which appear here.
1. Ave, Maria, full of grace and favored by God. I am Gabriel.
2, Please do not be frightened. You will conceive and give birth to a son.
3. You will name Him Jesus.
4. He will be very great and He will be called the son of the Most High.
5. That cannot be since I do not know a man.
6. Don't worry, the Holy Spirit will come over you and take care of everything. By the way, to show you that this is true, your cousin Elizabeth has conceived in her old age.

What we have here is another mother offering her son back to the one who gave him to her. The altar is of a different shape, but it is an altar nonetheless and the sacrifice is a holocaust. None of the mothers named had a very easy life watching their sons be used, abused and put away by the very people to whom they were sent. None of the Prophets, no matter the difficulties that they suffered, had to go through what these "Miraculous" sons suffered. It got worse and worse as time went by. The sins of the people got to be more and more grievous and the deaths of the victim more and more vicious. Finally, all this sacrifice culminated in God Himself getting involved so that we could all share a piece of the pie in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The story of mothers putting their sons on the altar of sacrifice doesn't stop with Elizabeth and Mary. We all have mothers and if we really think about it, they are all priestly people. They cry at our weddings, they cry when we have our first children and they even take care of us when they have the misfortune of nursing us through the end of life to our premature death.

My mother, Mélina Justine spent a lot of time in front of the altar of sacrifice. I was first. Everyone knows I was her favorite. The third one was the girl that my father always wanted. She was diagnosed with diabetes at age four. That was a challenge for plenty of years. Two more children after that. Then when the "baby" was twelve, my father died. When that happened I was in seminary. I offered to come home and help my mother to support the family. She said, "no, you continue." Two months later I called and said that I had the opportunity to go finish my studies in Rome, Italy. She said, "yes, go". Four years later I finished but she could not overcome her agoraphobia, so she waited for me to come home before celebrating.

My sisters took a stab at the convent, they both decided that it was not for them. The diabetic was particularly devasted. Six months after she left the convent she was assaulted on a "date". In the meantime I was separated from my mother again because I went to the La Salette Mission in the Philippines. She worked hard at raising funds for the mission. Two years later she and her team got defrauded by the mission procurator. Some good things happened, but then the bomb went off and I left the mission. Two years later I married and a year later saw a boy come into the world. My mother was three thousand miles away but this time she wasn't going to wait. She was going to offer it all up and come to California even if it killed her. It didn't kill her. She actually said that it gave her life. She went back home and she finally had to see her daughter go through the throes of a slow death at the hands of the diabetes devil.

I went to the funeral in Massachusetts. During the season of obsequies, my late father's birthday marked the union that had just taken place between him and his favorite child. My mother didn't shed a single tear at the funeral. She shed a few tears of joy on my father's birthday. "I'm so happy that they are finally together again." At the time she also said, more than once, that she felt like Job's wife, but that she was happy that God gave her the strength to offer it all back to Him. I know that I have never been more a priest than that.

Ladies, you don't have to aspire to the sacrament of ordination. We all know that God has a special priesthood reserved for you. We all see it. When you live it, you give us spiritual life on top of the physical life that you share with us. So be proud of the action of God in you.
When you stand by my coffin, remember that it is the altar on which my mother placed me for the greater glory of God. If you shed a tear at that moment, you will disappoint her for not recognizing all that she did to offer all five of her lambs back to the one who chose her to be his special instrument.
Nazarite (naz'rit') [Heb. nazir=consecrated], in the Bible, a man dedicated to God. The Nazarite, after taking a special vow, abstained from intoxicating beverages, never cut his hair, and avoided corpses. An inadvertent breach of these rules called for purificatory rites. His vow was for a fixed term (though it could also be for life), at the end of which he was released. Samuel, the prophet, and Samson were Nazarites. This also explains why the angel told Zechariah never to give John wine. The name is also spelled Nazirite.
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