Saturday, December 22, 2012

God's Promises to Us--The Fourth Sunday of Advent. A Time to Hope

 The Gospel text for the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year gives us the story of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. Every line of this wonderful account could be the subject of a reflection, for example the meaning of the baby (John the Baptist) leaping in Elizabeth's womb for joy.  What struck me as significant for this year when we have just experienced the horrible tragedy in Sandy Hook, CT and see violence erupting all over the world was the last line of this text from Luke 1:45 "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."

   These words, spoken by Elizabeth to Mary, apply to the recent acceptance by Mary of God's invitation to her to be the mother of the Savior in spite of Mary's not understanding how this can be.  What might we, today, learn from these words? How do they apply top us?

   Remember, God has made promises to us and with all that is going on today we, like Mary, wonder how all this can be. "What promises?", you may ask.  The promises yet to be fulfilled of peace, of people beating swords into plowshares.  The promise of justice proclaimed in Mary's Magnificat which concludes the visitation account--"He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty." (Luke 1:52-53). Indeed, how can these things be? Can we even imagine it?

   I believe that one of the real evils of our day is the widespread cynicism that besets too many of us.Cynicism is the lack of hope, the belief that things are a mess and that's how it is and how it will always be.  As Christians we must admit that indeed things are a mess, but hope tells us that even though we don't understand how this can be, that yes those promises of peace of the hungry being fed, etc are part of God's plan and will be fulfilled in God's time.  We are challenged as well do do our part to cooperate with God's grace and help those things to come about.  For me the outpouring of love and support to the people of Sandy Hook were a wonderful sign that evil will have its moment but it will not prevail.

    The Advent season is a reminder to us that because God's promise of a Messiah was fulfilled by Mary's fiat, her yest to the Lord, that the rest of His promises will be fulfilled as well--in His time, with our help.  We are called to look beyond the present moment without escaping from it and realize that as believers in Jesus Christ we are part of a bigger picture, a bigger plan. That is our cause, not for optimism, but for hope.  What is the difference between hope and optimism?  Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian, once said, "Optimism is believing that the glass is half full. Hope is believing that when it is bone dry and empty God will still lead us to something good." (My own recollection of words that I read years ago.)

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Gaudete Sunday

  The Third Sunday of Advent is upon us--Gaudete or Rejoice is the theme. We are invited to have joy because Christmas is upon us soon.  Yet in light of the tragic events of the past week, and tragic doesn't even begin to describe them, what is it that we are to rejoice in.  Are we just asked to go along for the ride liturgically as we grieve, ponder and question the meaning of this horrible event where 20 innocent children and 6 adults, some of them heroes who prevented further death, were killed?

  On the surface it is not only absurd, it is an insult to the fallen and wounded people of Sandy Hook, CT to dedicate this Sunday to rejoicing just because the liturgical calendar calls for it.  But let us ask nonetheless whether there is cause for joy and what, after all is joy?

    With these questions in mind I would like to share with you my own journey of the past week.  On Saturday, December 8, I had a wonderful weekly phone chat with my brother Michael.  Both of us were upbeat, waiting for Christmas and my visit to Boston and chatting about the New England Patriots upcoming games and Super Bowl chances.  On Tuesday, Dec. 11 my niece Laurie called to let me know that he had suffered a stroke.  Life indeed has a way of changing the game plan.  I immediately asked for prayers and worked things out so that I could travel to Boston early for my Christmas break. I chose the Amtrak auto-train so that I could have my car when I arrived.  I was quite shaken by this news about Michael's stroke. I fought back tears. He is my younger brother. I remembered the day of his birth and taking him to his first Red Sox game.I thought of the fact that he is due to become a grandfather in May and I asked the Lord to bring him through. Even before leaving Florida I realized that prayers were being answered.  Mike's improvement began immediately. I was hopeful. 

   When the train arrived in Lorton, VA on Friday morning there was more good news of his improving condition, but then as I was awaiting the unloading of my car from the train the station monitors began to show coverage of the horrible tragedy unfolding in Sandy Hook and Newtown, CT.  I have heard the news of too many other tragic mass shootings and always felt both compassion for the victims, anger at the perpetrator and confusion about the irrationality of it all. Certainly every incident form Columbine to the movie theater to the Siek Temple and so forth have evoked prayer from me.  In this case  innocent children were killed and in my already emotionally vulnerable state concerning my brother I drifted into a quiet corner of the station and began to weep. I was mildly embarrassed by this and hoping that no one would see me, but then I thought, "No, this is good. Weeping is the most appropriate response to this."  Later on Facebook I found that someone in response to this horrible event had quoted the well-known line from the Hail, Holy Queen,  "Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears."  At times that is what we need to do.

     After retrieving the car and beginning to drive north I thought of this Sunday and was glad that I didn't have to preach and somehow try to bring joy into all the sorrow and concern that I was feeling. I turned on the car radio however and in addition to hearing more horrible details I heard an interview with a rabbi from Newtown who was offering spiritual assistance to the victims.  I heard that there were to be prayer vigils at two churches, one Catholic and one Protestant.  It was then that i realized where joy came into play.  Our joy is not necessarily a jump up and down, sing and dance kind of joy, but rather the deep inner joy that comes to us at sorrowful times like this when we realize that in spite of the insane, irrational evil that there is a merciful and loving God who never abandons us in these moments.  People of all faiths in that grief-stricken community realized that.  That is why their instincts called for those vigils and for the comfort of clergy.  That is truly a cause for joy as is the realization that in God's plan evil may have its day, but it never has the last word.

    My brother is now at home and facing a long recovery.  As the days have gone on there has been news of the kind of love and good that conquers evil in the persons of teachers and first responders whose actions saved even more children from being killed, some of them by laying down their own lives. 

   After spending a night in northern NJ I traveled on to Boston and had to drive along I-84, right through Sandy Hook.  I said a prayer. Another wave of sadness passed through me. I saw some small children and their parents when I stopped for coffee.  I wanted to give all of them a hug. I prayed for them.  When I arrived in Boston I knew then that there is cause for true joy, not celebratory joy, but the deep joy of knowing what a blessing is life and what a blessing is our faith, the hopeful joy of knowing that evil can never conquer love and faith.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

More Thoughts about Advent--Advent in 3D

            Last week I shared with you my thoughts about Advent as a season in which we focus our desires, ultimately towards our deepest desire, the desire for God. The Church guides us on this journey of desire by taking us through three dimensions in three time zones. As important as it is to prepare our selves spiritually for Christmas that is only one aspect of Advent, one "dimension" if you will.

            Interestingly enough the first dimension is the future.  At the beginning of Advent we look to the end times.  On the First Sunday we are presented with apocalyptic literature with its frightening images of earthquakes and wars.  In spite of these scary scenarios we need to understand that this genre of biblical literature, found especially in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation, but also in parts of the Gospel, was meant to give hope to people who were suffering and oppressed. Is it any wonder that along with the Exodus story the African American slaves found this literature appealing?   For ourselves today who often become discouraged by the situation in the world—the war, the violence, the injustice, it reminds us that in the end God’s promises of peace, justice, healing and happiness will be realized.  At the beginning of Advent we are reminded that Christ will come again. In the liturgy, after the Our Father, we pray that we await this coming as “the blessed hope and the coming of Our Savior Jesus Christ.”  I liked the older translation even better which had us waiting “in joyful hope.”  In either case we do not await in fear and gloom.  Our waiting, however, should be an active waiting.  While there is not complete victory over the ills of this world until the Lord comes again this phase of Advent should spur us on to engage in the works of justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

            The second dimension is the past. We are presented with the figure of John the Baptist and are invited to “prepare the way of the Lord” along with him.  Beginning on December 17 Advent really turns to the past as we pray the O Antiphons and read Scriptures that proclaim God’s preparation of the world, right from the beginning and through the history of Israel for the coming of the Messiah King.  This looking into the past not only helps us to prepare for Christmas it also assures us that God is still providing for us and is leading us forward throughout our present history.

This leads us to the third dimension, the present. Advent is not complete if we only think of the great feast of the birth of Our Lord as a celebration of a past event that took place in Bethlehem a long time ago.  It is above all a time to welcome Christ into our life now, to let him be born in us. I tune in occasionally to the Busted Halo program on Sirius XM radio and check in with them on Facebook as well.  They have some nice two minute clips on various Church seasons and feasts.  The Advent clip tells us that Lenten penance is about overcoming our sins while the work of Advent is to prepare the house to welcome a special guest.  Hopefully we are preparing ourselves to welcome that guest now, allowing Christ to be born in us today.  St. Francis understood this well when he created the live Nativity scene at Greccio.  Br. Bill Short, OFM, in a talk that he delivered on an educational CD that I heard recently, points out that while there were various animals, etc. at the Greccio scene, there was no baby.  Francis wanted people to see their own hearts, their own lives, as the manger.  The image of little baby Jesus is a nice one, indeed an important one, but we cannot imprison him in Bethlehem. He desires to be born in us NOW.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Come Desire of Nations, Come--An Advent Reflection

   Yesterday morning our community celebrated Mass for the last day of the liturgical year. The responsorial psalm was "Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus."  To use a modern word this statement makes for a nice segue into Advent.  One article that I read recently suggests that Advent is the season of desire.  I agree.  But what is desire.

   Our desires are our deepest longings, the things that we most crave for. And what is it that we most desire. St. Augustine answers that question magnificently when he writes at the beginning of his Confessions, "We were made for You alone, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You."  It is God, then that we most desire. This is why Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI in his book, The Holy Longing, says "Spirituality concerns what we do with our desire."  At this point we get into some challenging issues.  Desire can become the desire for wealth and power, or lustful desire.  Over the years this has lead to a distortion of Christian spirituality that leads people to crush all desire.  This leads to a lifeless, dull and boring as well as rigid and legalistic approach to Christianity.  Rolheiser points out that our call is to integrate the other desires into our ultimate desire which is for God.

  Of course we desire love. When young lovers meet, desiring each other so much that they wish to marry, that is a good and holy thing.  That is why I rejoiced at the privilege of presiding at the wedding of my niece, Michelle and her husband Kevin during this past year.  We desire money,not for its own sake, but to provide us with a means of sustenance and support for our families. We can desire power, not to dominate others, but so that we can make a positive difference in this world.  As long as the realization of these desires lead us to that deeper desire for God it is a good and holy thing.  A few months ago a good friend of mine posted on her Facebook page on the occasion of her wedding anniversary a picture of her and her husband in the limo on their wedding day.  Her caption was, "best decision I ever made."  Indeed it was. She found the love of her life, the father of her children and a clear path to God in that decision.

   So what does all that have to do with Advent?  Advent celebrates the desire of the human heart, a desire that was realized in the birth of Christ so long ago.  Yet it also celebrates the fact that all of our desires are yet to be realized. There is still injustice, violence, terrorism and lack of respect for life. In Advent we not only prepare to celebrate Christmas, that first coming, we also open our hearts to prepare for His second coming when all of the ills that we lament will be overcome. There is much talk these days about Mayan calendars and the end of the world.  I would point out that our faith belief is not in the end of the world but rather in the coming of the Kingdom when all the desires of our hearts will be realized in God.  In the liturgy we pray, after the Our Father, "As we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ."  Let us, this Advent, unite all of our desires to that blessed hope.  Come, desire of nations, Come.  Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.

Moving Out and Moving Ahead Cautiosly