Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
In the old days – when I was growing up – today’s feast of the Presentation was the last day of the Christmas season. That has changed, but what hasn’t changed is that forty days ago we celebrated the birth of Christ according to the flesh. Today this flesh draws us together once again – and once more, before our liturgical year continues its record of the progress of the grown-up Jesus – it reminds us that he who is higher than the angels was for a little while made very small.
I’m fond of remarking, at Christmas, that “size does matter,” and we make an error if we reduce, as we commonly do, whatever we cannot comprehend or grasp.
When reality has been reduced enough, then we can deal with it. For when something is small, it’s no longer “awe-full,” it’s only cute. We like babies and puppies because they don’t look much like what they’ll grow up to be, and, in any case, they’re too small to hurt us. It’s the same with Jesus. We cannot grasp the mystery of the Incarnation, so we make the most of Jesus’s infancy. So long as we keep him small, we keep him powerless; what we ought to adore becomes adornment – and the miracle of Bethlehem becomes a decoration for Christmas cards.
The squirrels are yawning and saying that if I wanted to preach a sermon on the Presentation I should have signed up to celebrate this morning’s Mass. So let me bow to the superior wisdom of my elegant and furry friends and give a synopsis of the recent past at St. Albert’s.
Let me begin by remarking January was one of those months that, yet again, proved my father correct. He once observed he disliked growing old because he found himself attending so many funerals. At the time he said this, I had attended only two or three, so they were still somewhat novel and interesting events. I now bow to my dad’s wisdom and concur.
On January 17th several of us found ourselves in Concord, at Queen of All Saints Parish, a church staffed for many years by Dominicans of the Western Province, to bid farewell to Catherine Narberes, mother of our Br. Frederick. Mrs. Narberes was one hundred and one when she died, and had been a member of the parish for something like seventy years!
The following Sunday found me in San Rafael, to celebrate Mass for the Dominican sisters, who were concluding their Congregational Chapter. They had just re-elected Sr. Maureen McAnerney to serve as Prioress, and were completing the remaining business. Sr. Patricia Bruno, with whom I’ve happily worked on a number of preaching projects, gave me a gracious introduction at the beginning of the Mass, and at the conclusion, I asked to bring her comments “full circle,” by saying the San Rafael sisters were my introduction to Dominican life when my parents and I moved to Reno, and I attended school at Our Lady of the Snows, in 1959. I remarked Sr. Imelda, the principal, Sr. Geraldine, who was my teacher, and Sr. Marcella (then Sr. Joachim) into whose classroom those of us who were already confirmed – together with the non-Catholics – would go when Confirmation instruction came about in Sr. Geraldine’s class. Sr. Marcella, I said, terrified us because she was so stern and forbidding. Years later she told me this had been her first assignment, and she was terrified of the students. “You’d never have known it,” said I. After Mass I learned that Sr. Marcella died two days earlier, and her funeral was scheduled for the following Friday.
The sisters had asked Fr. Anthony Rosevear, our Province’s Novice Master, to preside. I’d volunteered to help with confessions at St. Dominic’s for the Vigil for the Walk for Life, so I asked Fr. Anthony whether I might join him for the funeral liturgy. He agreed, so everything seemed all set. Then, came Friday and an email from Fr. Anthony saying he had the flu, and asking whether I’d take his place. What an honor!
I was only sorry I couldn’t attend the Vigil for Sr. Marcella the day before; I would have loved to tell the story of going into her class, and giggling with my classmates over someone’s nouveau spelling of the word “Mississippi.” Be warned: one must read this out loud to enjoy the joke: “Em, Eye, Crooked-Letter, Crooked-Letter, Eye, Crooked-Letter, Crooked-Letter, Eye, Hump-Back, Hump-Back, Eye.” We thought it great fun; Sr. Marcella (claimed she) was not amused.
Earlier that afternoon found me at lunch with the Archbishop -- “doesn’t that sound pretentious?” the squirrels ask. The meal was for those taking part in this year’s Walk for Life. Mine was, admittedly, a tangential role, but I’m a friend of someone who helped Archbishop Cordeleone put together the guest list, so I enjoyed some very pleasant quiche, as well as the company of a large group of seminarians from Menlo Park, and a number of the Sisters of Life, from New York. These latter are mostly beautiful young women, offering various types of support (with no State or City assistance) to women who decide against having abortions. They wear a habit identical to that formerly worn by the Dominican lay brothers, except they have substituted blue for black on their scapular and capuce. I was charmed to see they suffer the same challenges we do when it comes to keeping the cuffs of their sleeves clean.
A good friend of mine was preparing to celebrate his birthday on January 26th, so I arrived at St. Dominic’s early, to pay a visit to a café where he enjoyed the coffee, and where I hoped I might buy some for him. My Friends (furry and otherwise) may imagine my annoyance to arrive and find the place closed, with a sign in the window thanking “all our loyal fans for fourteen years’ dedicated support.” Bah and Humbug!
As I walked through the parking lot to pursue this lost cause, I encountered three young men, fresh from Sr. Anne Bertain’s ministry to the needy. One said something (I thought) about a “handsome suit.” I looked from one to another, and – sure enough – one was wearing a very nice coat. However, I soon realized the three were actually looking at my shoes, debating whether the leather was Italian. They agreed it was not, but one said, “Nice,” nonetheless. “Thanks,” I replied, and tried to escape as swiftly as possible. When I came home and related this to the squirrels, they simply shook their heads and said they told me it was time to get my hearing aids adjusted. In the meantime, I wonder whether San Francisco is the only place the poor attend the footware of those they encounter in church parking lots.
Most of our students took part in January 25th’s Walk for life, accompanied by Frs. Michael Fones, Mariusz Tabaczek, and Bryan Kromholtz, the family of Br. Andy Opsahl, and Dolores Meehan, who co-pioneered the Walk for Life ten years ago. I did not take part, although I made a small contribution by writing a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, taking issue with the President of “Men Who Listen to Women” who’d written to complain about the Walk for Life banners. I’d not seen them, but they, apparently, carried the motto, “Abortion Hurts Women.” He argued this is false, as abortion is 13% safer than carrying a child to term. I was tempted to remark that euthanizing those who celebrate their 65th birthday is undoubtedly safer than allowing them to live out the rest of their lives, but contented myself with observing that church ministers, psychotherapists, and social workers who’ve tried to help women deal with the pain and guilt of an abortion will attest the “hurt” is far more than the surgical risk. Clearly, I must have gotten up from my nap on the wrong side of the chair!
The third of the month’s funerals was that of Mary Rudge, a member of the Dominican Laity, and the Poet Laureate of Alameda. Fr. Augustine Thompson met her in 1976, a month after he arrived in California to begin his Ph.D. at Cal. His roommate invited him to a beach party, and Mary was one of the company. “When was the party?” I asked. “August,” Fr. Augustine replied. “Oh, so you were all wearing overcoats and gloves.” “Yes,” he said. “And caps!”
When I learned of Mrs. Rudge’s death, I thought we ought to have some of her writing for the Dominican Laity section of the Province Archives. I was astounded to discover how very much she had written. In the slim volume, Oakland is a Holy City, I found this charming piece
am a woman known in your city
women of the city know me, with my carpetbag purse
worn at the seams but the fringes swinging
bulged by childrens-snapshots clippings
on social issues letters
that hold generations together recipes
for rye flour even for thousands of cupcakes made
that send children to camp knowing injustices – ignored
as members of Chambers of Commerce men
pop buttons accepting
appointments & prizes
Carrying my mind to the meeting places
Carrying my heart on the sidewalks
Carrying poesy of wry
wandering jew turned shrew, woe men, women of your
city know me, shouldering my carpetbag purse
bulged shapeless and full of good things.
Another death – quite sudden and unexpected – was that of Br. Tuan’s father. I hope you will keep Mr. Ngo, Br. Tuan and his family in your prayers.
Much happier news comes from Fr. Michael Fones, who had to pay a sudden visit to Arizona last week, after he received word that his 91-year-old mother was seriously ill. Mrs. Fones’ doctors were not altogether certain what was the problem, but one of her friends had just died of similar symptoms, so the Fones family were understandably concerned. You may imagine our relief when Fr. Michael sent an e-mail, with a picture of his mother sleeping peacefully, to say everything seems okay.
Fr. Michael will return to Arizona today, to celebrate his parents’ seventieth wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Fones met in kindergarten and brag that they knew, even then, they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. Ad multos annos!
After Mary Rudge’s burial in Benicia, members of the Dominican Laity invited me to join them for lunch, and we enjoyed a number of amusing stories. In one, a child asked her mother where human beings came from. Mom said, “From Adam and Eve.” The child posed the same question to her father, who said, “From monkeys.” She returned to her mother and said, “You told me we came from Adam and Eve, but Daddy says we came from monkeys. I’m confused.” Her mother replied, “I’m sorry, dear, I was speaking about my side of the family.”
What was far more touching, was to hear the folks at table tell how deeply connected they feel to members of the Dominican community at St. Albert’s. “Br. Xx is my prayer partner” said one. “Oh,” said another, “I pray for Br. Yy.” You have no idea what encouragement we derive from knowing that you are “out there” and “on our side.” You make our life possible at St. Albert’s. Our students will be the face, hands and voice of Jesus in the 21st Century. Thank you for all you do to bring Christ to a hungry and thirsty world!
--Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.