By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
For the past few years at the Christmas Eve Mass, it has been my part to proclaim the genealogy of Jesus, the beginning of the gospel of Matthew at the family Mass. In our tradition this reading rather than the account of the birth of Jesus, is assigned to the Vigil of Christmas. Starting with Abraham, the list of names, in three groups of fourteen generations, culminates with the name of Joseph, the husband of Mary and then begins with these words: “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.”
My homily is always quite brief, as the children are eager to bring up the crèche figures and narrate the story of the birth of Jesus themselves. But I say a few words about the long wait for the coming of Jesus and the part that person and generation named in the genealogy played in preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah.
As a spiritual exercise (I always pray better with a pencil or a paint brush in my hand) I had hoped during this Advent to hand-letter Matthew’s genealogy as part of an illuminated Tree of Jesse. Traditionally, in medieval stained glass windows and illuminated manuscripts, the father of David is shown reclining in sleep, with a great tree springing up from his loins or side. The various ancestors of Jesus are depicted on the trunk and the branches of the tree. Some versions are quite complex compositions with many figures, others just highlight a few of those mentioned in the genealogy. But always, at the very top of the tree, like a cluster of ripe fruit, is the image of Jesus (or of Mary and the infant Jesus).
This turned out to be a different kind of Advent, with the sudden and unexpected illness and death of our beloved Fr. Thomas Weise, and I never had a chance to even begin this project. The coming of the Lord, which past generations longed for and which this season teaches us to look forward to with anticipation and hope in the future, was immediate and personal for my friend and brother in ministry on December 6th. Neither Thomas nor any one of us knew the day or the hour on which he would meet Christ.
Meditating on these events and on Fr. Thomas’s life, I keep coming back to the image of a tree. Four images come to mind for me: roots, branches, tree in winter and a tree bearing rich and abundant fruit.
The root word (no pun intended) of radical is radix, a Latin word meaning root. And for Fr. Thomas, he lived his life with a radical intensity. Those who knew him saw each day how he lived a life centered in Christ and the gospel. Aware as he was of his own weaknesses, frailty and vulnerability, he was nevertheless ‘all-in.’ As a missionary priest in Southeast Alaska, he was able to remain as he termed it, “Semper Gumby” (always flexible) in his various assignments because he was so deeply rooted in the love and mercy and compassion of Jesus.
Rooted as he was in Christ, Fr. Thomas branched out in so many different and creative directions. Embodying that wonderful aphorism of St. Irenaeus, that “the glory of God is the human person fully alive,” Fr. Thomas joyfully excelled in everything from ceramics and kayaking, pilgrimages and installing heat pumps, social media and contemplative prayer. All of these diverse interests and activities, as significant as they were in themselves, provided many rich opportunities for others to encounter Christ, in whose image, Thomas, as a disciple and as a priest, was configured.
It was winter in Juneau when I traveled down to San Luis Obispo, where Fr. Thomas had been visiting his family when he died and where his funeral was celebrated. Overcast and cold, it was a long way from summer, or even from fall. We gathered for the vigil and the funeral Mass at the old Mission church. At the end of funeral we brought his body from the church through what had been at one time the cloister of the Franciscan friars who had established the mission so long ago. Although it was winter there too, there was an abundance of fruit trees, flowers and fragrant herbs in the cloister courtyard. After we said our final farewell to him, I lingered for a while in the garden and noticed a sturdy little orange tree, laden with ripe fruit. As I took a closer look, I thought about the Jesse Tree, and how it bore fruit in Christ himself. I thought about Fr. Thomas, and all of those who sheltered and found new life beneath the branches of his relatively brief life. I thanked God for the good fruit born in his life and ministry of disciplined prayer, of generosity and sacrifice, of a burning love for Christ and for others that blazed with such intense passion and joy.
And I pondered and prayed over the contrast between the grief that I feel in his death, as real and bleak as the winter we are in the midst of during this season, and how grateful I am that my life is rooted in the abundant new life of Christ, which has overcome sorrow and death forever.
May the life, example and prayers of Fr. Thomas, who passed from this world into the world to come, continue to bear good fruit in my life, in the life of our diocese and in the lives of all who knew him.
– Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 x 23. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org