I don’t mean to slight or undervalue the testimony of John the Baptist that was just read (in John’s Gospel). After all, he’s “The voice of one crying out in the desert.” He was the star of the show last week with his cry: “Make ready the way of the Lord!” This week let’s turn our attention to the admonitions of St. Paul – in our second reading – in his Letter to the people of Thessalonica about how to prepare the way of the Lord. Paul says: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing! In all circumstances!” IMPOSSIBLE! You say. Always? Without ceasing? In all circumstances? Who can possibly do that in today’s world with all the violence, discord, illness and death? But Paul has an answer for us. “THIS IS THE WILL OF GOD. DO NOT QUENCH THE SPIRIT. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil….. the One who calls you is faithful, and will accomplish it.”
With his solicitous instructions, Paul sounds like “helicopter parents” as they drop their children at a new neighbor’s: “Remember what I’ve told you: Always be respectful. Listen closely. Put away the toys you play with. And, if you forget everything else, remember: ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ go a long way. Call me if you need anything.” Most times the kids know the spiel by heart, “Okay, Okay! See yah Mom.” Many of us may have memorized Paul’s exhortations. Maybe our ears will perk up this round when we hear tomorrow’s reading proclaimed.
You may be surprised, if you consciously look for good, at all the positive things, all the surprises that God sends you each day – making Paul’s words ring true when he says: “The one who is faithful, will accomplish it.” In the 1950s the number one book on the New York best sellers list was Norman Vincent Peale’s: The Power of Positive Thinking – for 48 weeks – that’s almost a full year.
Peale said he wrote the book “with the sole objective of helping the reader achieve a happy, satisfying, and worthwhile life.” His techniques were simple and, the best part, if you are serious about it, they were achievable. For example:
Bet you’re thinking, that sounds like advice of someone I know? Like maybe John the Baptist, the Proverbs, my mother or grandmother… and certainly Jesus!
Perhaps one of the most reassuring statements in history is “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” I have not examined my Bible to prove it, but “Siri” tells me that the phrase “Do not be afraid” can be found 365 times in the Old and New Testament.” Think about it: that’s one time per day, for a full year that the expression is recorded in Scripture. Goodness only knows how many times in the short span of our own lives someone has said words meaning: “I’ll be with you; you don’t need to be afraid.”
Simple reminders like those given to a child before a first piano recital, or acting in play, or the first day at a new school. Or right here in this house, assurances to the first-time table reader, or Lector, or cantor. Sometimes the advice is silly, at other times, simplistic. But, if we let it soak in, it works. “Keep your eyes on me, I’ll be the one smiling.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe … like the person who says: “This dog doesn’t bite – I’ll hold him. “Don’t be afraid!” This one is from a movie but could have been heard in our back yard. Julia Roberts and Richard Gere are pushing their way through a tall grass short-cut. She says: “Watch out for snakes.” He: “I don’t like snakes.” She: “Then walk nice; snakes won’t get you.”
Now – here it is the 3rd week in Advent – rose candles and vestments to remind us: “Be joyful!” The church offers us once again for our consideration – Paul’s admonitions as we await the celebration of Jesus’ birth and His final coming. Paul is insistent that Christ will come again! Pandemics, death, pain, suffering, turmoil, sadness do not get the last word. We await a Savior who has conquered Death. This period of waiting, though, is not a time to twiddle our thumbs. The words, the phrasing that Paul uses are all active verbs (nothing passive about it). Rejoice! Pray! Give thanks! Test EVERYTHING. Retain! Refrain! Model what is good and peaceful! Allow God’s Spirit to shine in your midst.” And why? Because: “The God of peace is really at work among us.”
Today, this year, Advent has already dawned, the sun is up in the east. It arrived in a world in the midst of a pandemic in a way that reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog.”
Here, in our country, it seems, more so than usual, that Advent is being eclipsed to begin celebrating Christmas…. TV ads, house and yard light displays, Christmas music (What happened to the plaintive Advent songs?). Others are experiencing anticipatory dread of a holiday separated from loved ones. Thousands of heavy hearts daily grieve the loss of family members, neighbors and friends. Circumstances have left many without work, no dependable source of income or the means of providing food and life’s necessities. A pale of depression and loneliness hangs over people aching for a human touch, a phone call … any sign that someone is aware of their pain.
Every Advent we have to delve into the Scriptures in order to feel the sense of the messages of hope, peace, love, and joy. Our nighttime darkness will continue to lengthen until December 21 and the winter solstice moving us ever closer towards the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The advent hymns we’ll sing – and the antiphons used at Morning and Evening Praise – keep impressing upon us the need to pray for “comfort for those who sit in darkness” and those whose “hearts yearn for the light of Christ.” We must announce to a “world that waits in silence” that “our souls in stillness wait.” We believe the words of the prophet Habakkuk: The message I give you waits for the time I have appointed. It speaks about what is going to happen. And all of it will come true. It might take a while. But wait for it. You can be sure it will come. It will happen when I want it to.
While Advent is certainly a time of waiting it is also a time of anticipation and celebration in its own rite. It is the between-time that Karl Barth speaks of: “Unfulfilled and fulfilled promises are related to each other, as are dawn and sunrise. Both are promise and in fact the same promise. If anywhere at all, then it is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation. But faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. It is fulfilled faith because it lays hold on the fulfilled promise. This is the essence of Advent.”
We’ve all had experiences of waiting … that’s part of all our lives. The season of Advent reminds us that waiting is often the cost of love. In waiting for someone, our own everyday business becomes almost meaningless as we anticipate, worry, and prepare for a loved one’s return, or an estranged family member or the unknown visitor who becomes the friend we had just never before met and now recognize as Christ personified. In waiting, we realize our own powerlessness; we realize our deepest hopes, and needs and yearnings. People and events we didn’t know we missed until we encounter them.
More than ever, this year, in the midst of the pandemic, I suspect the spirit of Advent will pale in the face of the hurry to put up decorations and play some Christmas music. People can’t wait for Christmas to come with the promised vaccine.
May our waiting for the coming of the Holy One this Christmas help us understand and carry on the mystery of compassionate and generous waiting. Don’t expect a dramatic vision but do try to become more conscious of the Christ coming through our doors, in one another as each enters our community room or are seated to “break bread” at mealtime. In our corporate commitment we pledge to be the embodiment of the compassion of Christ. And it is obvious from our visitors’ comments that this is one of our signature ministries. Our guests, and we who live here, know that our companions care for us … the question at times may be: “do we care about each other?” One litmus test: “Until you know what hurts me, you cannot truly love me.”
In his 2020 Advent letter, Pope Francis reminds us: “Advent, a time of grace, tells us that it is not enough to believe in God: it is necessary to purify our faith every day.” We pray: “O Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with Advent hope so that we may learn to cope with the delays and disappointments we encounter with patience and wisdom. May a spirit of gratitude and humility guide us on our journey to your dwelling place, enabling us to endure, with joy, the costs of waiting for love, reconciliation, and peace.”
Ask yourself as you turn off the light each night…
+ To whom did I offer a word of hope, affirmation or comfort today?
+ How was I a ray of light to someone who felt the darkness of loneliness?
+ Tomorrow, how will I prepare for Christ to be born anew in my heart?
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to be in Rome. And found yourself In St Peter’s square, you surely have seen the great obelisk that stands in the middle of the square. [Whether you’ve been to Rome, or not, – it is really there.] It about four and half thousand years old and originally stood in the temple of the sun in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis. But it was bought to Rome by the dreadful Emperor Caligula and it was set right in the middle of a Roman racetrack known as the Circus of Nero. It was in that Circus that St. Peter was martyred, and the obelisk may well have been the last thing on this Earth that Peter saw. On top of the obelisk there now stands a cross representing the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion. But in ancient times there was a gold ball representing the sun. On the pedestal of the obelisk there are two inscriptions. The first of them in Latin, “Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat”, freely translated in the words of a hymn “To Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign King:” Christ Jesus Victor! Christ Jesus Ruler! Christ Jesus, Lord and Redeemer! The other inscription, “The Lion of Judah has conquered.” In the two we have the language of victory. Christianity has triumphed by the power of the cross and triumphed over even the greatest power that the ancient world had known, the Roman Empire. Here in the middle of St. Peter’s square stands the obelisk bearing those triumphant inscriptions.
In 1925, Pope Pius XI universally instituted the Feast of Christ the King to be celebrated on the last Sunday of October. However, since the reform in the liturgical calendar in 1969, the feast falls on the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Sunday before Advent.
At the time of the institution of the feast, secularism and dictatorships in Europe were on the rise. Respect for Christ and the Church was waning. Today, we witness the same sense of distrust of authority – accelerated by political situations and the rise of individualism. Some reject the titles of “lord” and “king” for Christ believing that such titles are borrowed from oppressive systems of government. History proves that some kings have been oppressive. Others have been converted to a more Christian style of ruling … often by the influence of a woman.
In 2015, during the Jubilee year of Mercy, Pope Francis added another part to the title: “…the living face of the Father’s mercy.” The combined readings this year for the solemnity give us a glimpse of how Christ is at the same time both king and the face of the Father’s mercy. In contrast to the oppression so prevalent in Jesus’ day, he connected his role as king to humble service, and taught his followers to be servants as well. “You are my disciples if you do what I command you: love one another as I have loved you.”
As we observe the feast of Christ, the King, we are celebrating a ruler who was willing to die for us, for all humanity, to give us true freedom. Jesus radically redefined the concept of kingship. His example of love and kindness is lived out by us, his followers, in our reaching out to those in need – beginning with those we live with.
At the opening of every Eucharistic gathering, the celebrant greets us with the words: “The Lord be with you.” In tomorrow’s opening hymn we will sing: “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven.” And in the responsorial psalm we’ll proclaim: “The Lord is my shepherd.” We profess in the Creed: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ.” We often raise a hand in benediction as we sing: “May the blessing of the Lord be upon you.” Deep down do we believe JESUS IS LORD or is it just from force of habit that we say or sing those titles for Jesus? If we believe it’s true Jesus is Lord, why do we sometimes scramble to find a substitute to replace the word “Lord?”
It strikes me that while we may struggle with the concept of Jesus as king … somehow, especially like on today’s feast (the Presentation of Mary) most of us have no problem calling Mary queen: queen of the universe, queen of heaven, Regina Caeli.
Our prayer intention this week is for the gift of a grateful heart. Look at the person on either side of you – and across the aisle – with eyes filled with the compassion of Christ. Let us pray that we can portray to the world the beneficence of a humble king, truly putting flesh on our Corporate Commitment “to respond with compassion to the hungers of the people of God.”
In the 2nd reading for this 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Paul says to the Thessalonians: Pray that the word of the Lord may speed forward and be glorified.” Sounds like a line from Star Wars or the Narnia Chronicles. “Speed the Word of God forward.” Paul continues – “I am confident that you are doing and will continue to do as the Lord directs your hearts to the love of God and the endurance of Christ.” The “endurance of Christ.” A reminder that, yes, we are the hands and heart of Christ in our world.
Relating to the Gospel seems a bit more tricky. The Sadducees are once again challenging Jesus… describing a most unlikely situation and quoting Moses as their authority. One woman being wed, in turn to seven brothers. Often Jesus answers a question with a question. He responds differently this time. But this time he uses the occasion for instruction. Actually, Jesus makes four points.
First: life here on earth and life after death are not alike. The kingdom of heaven is not simply an extension of the good things in this life. Even though some give the impression “if ice cream will make you happy, yes, you’ll have it in heaven.” Jesus makes it clear that eternity is more than just an extension of what we have here.
Second: Jesus explains that there is no marriage in “that age.” He doesn’t say that a married couple won’t know each other in the age to come, but, Jesus let us know rather that the relationship will be different.
The fourth thing Jesus points out, is that the redeemed will be “like” the angels in heaven – not that they will be angels, but “like” the angels they will be forever praising and serving God.
And, if we drill deeper into the Jesus story, we’ll discover that the Sadducees were impressed with Jesus. Like the twelve-year-old in the temple who amazed the people with his knowledge. The Sadducees congratulated Jesus on his logic and his use of Scripture. Jesus proved, from Scripture, that there are some references to life after death.
As we wrestle with questions about resurrection and after life, especially in this month when we honor our deceased Sisters and our loved ones. And, at times like this week’s Veterans’ Day celebrations, we confirm our belief in Jesus’ promise of life beyond this one. The trivia of this life loses much of its importance, while the values, the important things take on added meaning. Living with the assurance of heaven, we live differently, we live for God. The promise of eternal life is not just some pie in the sky hope for us. In eternity, in the everlasting life, we’ll be ourselves at our ultimate best and will be more loveable and more capable of loving than ever before. [And it would serve us well, also, to think about the one who just jostled our nerves: she’ll/he’ll be more loveable in the life to come.]
[I’ve a story to share but could not figure out how to slip it into the body or the reflection….]
A newly-assigned young pastor had just received his first visitor. The parish council president came by to visit him on a Sunday afternoon. The man was a highly respected member of this congregation for over 25 years and president of the Parish council.
It was a balmy – not too humid kind of day – unusual for a day in August. Taking advantage of the nice day, they were sitting on the back porch of the rectory. The man seemed uneasy but slowly started to speak, “Father, first off I want to tell you this is a personal matter – nothing to do with Parish council business. I want to share this with you, and seek your advice. I’ve never told this to a soul, it’s extremely difficult to tell you this now. Well, here goes: “My wife and I have had a fight almost every day for the past 30 years of our marriage.”
The young priest was taken aback. He nervously took a sip of his sweetened Southern iced tea. He didn’t know what to say. He had never personally experienced that kind of thing growing up. Of course he’d taken counseling courses in the seminary. He wanted to respond with compassion. This was real life, not a set-up scenario from seminary days.
After a brief pause, he asked: “Everyday?” “Yes, just about every day.” “Did you fight before you came to church this morning?” “Yes.” “Well, how did it end up?” “It was different this time. She came crawling to me on her hands and knees.”
Trying to hide this shock, and keep his voice calm, Father ask: “Oh, my goodness what did she say?” “She pounded the floor with her hand and said in a voice that I’ve never heard before. It was low and commanding as she growled: “Come out from under that bed, you coward, and fight like a man!”
Here (in this Gospel) we see Jesus troubled with the knowledge of who is about to betray him. It is more troubling when you realize that Jesus truly did know who would betray him. We may say: “I know what she’s thinking; I know why she did that.” But, we don’t really – we’re second-guessing or assigning a motive based on our own behavior.” Yet still knowing full well Judas’ heart and what would happen when they stepped into the garden after supper – watch what Jesus does. He announces the imminent betrayal, and then proceeds to feed the betrayer: “When he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot.” With the flavor of the morsel still in his mouth, Judas leaves to do his dirty work. The narrator adds, “… and it was night” – the deed is done under the cover of darkness. In this dark moment Jesus says: “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” He speaks of being glorified and focuses on preparing his disciples for what is to come.
Not included in the text for tomorrow, but in John’s Gospel, the conversation continues, with Peter asking, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus responds, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward”. Peter argues, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” But Jesus knows before the sun comes up, that Peter – one of his closest companions – will deny him three times. Yet his parting words to his disciples focus not on blame for their failures. He assures them that although he will no longer be physically present with them, they will not be alone. He reminds them of their need for community. “Love one another,” He counsels, “as I have loved you.”
Seems to me this is what Benedict means in RB 72 … “Show pure love to each other…. don’t pursue self-interests… rather seek to anticipate what is better for someone else …. supporting each other with the greatest patience.”
Jesus demonstrates the kind of love he preaches. He shows no partiality. He does the same for the one who laid his head on Jesus breast as he does for the disciples who will fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest need. The love that Jesus demonstrates is not based on any earned merit or reciprocity. He asks only that we freely love others in the same way He loves us.
It could not be any clearer! Jesus to telling us it’s not by our knowledge of the church law, liturgical rites, the catechism, or even by our sense of morality, our ministerial service, attendance at funerals or obeying driver safety rules; not by my formation experience, nor by how I was brought up; it doesn’t depend on how neat or clean we keep our personal spaces, our table manners, or whether we practice an exercise routine. Simply put: (as the hymn says) “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” We won’t be tested, evaluated or judge by any measure other than this: Have our actions and interactions been loving – has our manner of living exuded love… at all times: not just when there are guests, or we are sporting a Benedictine Sisters logo shirt, or we think others are watching or that we may be overheard.
It comes down to a choice. Like Judas, we’ve seen the evidence – we’ve witnessed Jesus’ miracles in the Scriptures and in our own life-time. Along with other Christ-followers we’ve read and pondered and puzzled over Jesus radical teachings. We’ve been there in spirit with the Marys who sat at the feet of Jesus absorbing his words. We’ve stumbled and been raised up by the same Lord whose teaching we chose to ignore, disregard or just never delved into to. We’ve followed others’ lead when we knew full well the ugliness of gossip, tittle-tattle and unacceptable language or jokes. We forgot Jesus and our guardian angels were in the same room with us … and heard and saw it all. We may have snubbed the prompting of the Spirit. But, that still small voice will keep pestering us until we pay heed. [Persistence must be one of the Spirit’s major virtues…]
As Benedict says in the Prologue, “The labor of obedience will bring you back to God from whom you have drifted.” Ever noticed how a stick thrown into a body of water seems to flounder until it is grabbed by the drift forcing it in a particular direction. It just can’t continue for very long going in circles or struggling against the current. That’s you and me … searching for a direction … striving to give up self-will … awed by all we’ve witnessed of God’s goodness. Now, roused from sleep and equipped with good zeal and a determination to prefer nothing whatever to Christ, we are ready – we’re perked up and prepared to heed Benedict’s first word: LISTEN!
At Noon Prayer earlier this week God spoke to us from long before Jesus walked this earth – long before he endured disappointment and betrayal and death. To this day God promises: “I will never take back my love; my faithfulness will not fail. I will never break my covenant or go back on my promise.”