Dec 7, 2019

2nd Sunday of Advent: A voice in the desert

(John the Baptist: El Greco)

"The kingdom of heaven is at hand!"

Matthew 3: 1-12

Why do we pour such attention on famous Hollywood movie and television stars? Why do we exalt the athletic accomplishments of impressive sports figures? Why do we laud the heroism of ordinary people who step in at times of crisis and save those in danger?
I think it has something to do with our need for impressive heroes and courageous leaders.  When we recognize those among us who stand head and shoulders above the ordinary and do impressive things, we more easily follow them. 

The problem is, we may be misguided and find ourselves scandalized by the flaws of those we thought were without flaw.  Think of fallen sports figures and movie stars who do scandalous things.  If we’ve placed our full attention and hopes on that person, we find ourselves sadly disillusioned. 

On the second Sunday of Advent there is a mighty figure who definitely stands head and shoulders over others.  His voice cries out in the desert: “Repent . . . Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist appeared literally out of nowhere.  He preaches with fire and fury in the line of the prophets of old.  Yet, it had been hundreds of years since the Jewish people had seen or heard a prophet of God among them.  So John’s appearance caught the attention of the crowd and the religious leaders of the time. He preaches along the Jordan River, crying out to various groups of people such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, gathered along the river shore. He confronts their hypocrisy in no uncertain terms and demands they repent of their two-faced behavior. 

John’s reputation, despite his unconventional and strange appearance in camel’s hair and his yummy food choice of grasshoppers and honey, was deeply charismatic.  In the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, his message cuts to the truth: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  His warning to the Jewish elite makes one squirm.  He labels them a: brood of vipers (children of snakes!) who presumed to be above reproach due to their birth right as children of Abraham.

Obviously, John was far from politically correct and used these images of a “coming wrath” and the tree that does not bear good fruit “will be cut down and thrown into the fire” not to frighten people as much as to wake them up!  We may become settled and enamored by our complacency and a false sense of security and self-righteousness, that God slaps us on the cheek for our own good.  John knew his time was limited and he had a sense of some great person about to appear and he had a mission and a message to deliver. God is at work and we had better be ready or loose the whole point of his coming.

Our first reading from Isaiah the prophet, about 600 years before the coming of Christ, speaks to spiritual emptiness with a word of hope. “On that day, a short shall sprout from the stump of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom.”  What may seem small and nearly lifeless will, through the intercession of God, bring about greatness.  This savior will be verified by the nations, peace will prevail, natural enemies will reconcile and even the Gentiles will come to acknowledge this “signal” for the nations.  It is, then, John the Baptist, who appeals to our deepest hunger for wholeness and peace, to prepare the way for that person who is imminent. It is John who we can put our faith in that what he proclaimed, was indeed to take place.

So, in the wilderness John preached.  And it may still be true today.  The wilderness of our day may not be a geographical location but more a pervasive attitude of indifference towards God.  One commentator once said that the danger today is not so much hostility towards religion as it is simply indifference and the fact that many live as if there is no God, rarely if ever bringing the truth of his presence to mind or heart.  The casual attitude towards sin and evil today should be enough to wake us up and consider the ultimate consequences of a life detached from our Creator.

So at the word of John, still heard today in this season, we long for the one he is speaking about.  John’s words are filled with both hope and warning.  Don’t miss the chance because his presence among us will be very brief. Pay attention! Jesus is the one who will bring baptism in “the Holy Spirit and in fire” and bring about mighty change in the history of humankind.  Not by means of violence and fear but by the power of God’s mercy, love, forgiveness and reconciliation.  In order that we too might be ready to receive him, we must identify what may be keeping us from making his path straight for we can be an integral part of personal conversion and repentance.

It brings us to the heart of the matter.  That this is no ordinary child whose birth we remember each year.  Jesus is not just another teacher among teachers.  He is Lord and Savior of humankind. For that reason he rises above any other historical religious figures.

We welcome him in the Holy Eucharist, in the power of his sacred Word, in the faith we share, in the mercy he extends to us despite the sin we find in ourselves, in the many opportunities that come our way to serve selflessly in his name. Pope Benedict XVI once said that our Catholic tradition is not so much street corner evangelization or house to house visiting but rather to create a community of attraction that those who visit find the Church attractive enough to take a look, to come home, to bring about a change of heart and life. But, we must begin with ourselves first and find the desert in our own lives that needs to hear that voice. 

Prepare your way for the Lord!

Almighty and merciful God,
may no earthly undertaking hinder those
who set out in haste to meet your Son,
but may our learning of heavenly wisdom
gain us admittance to his company.
Who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Collect for Sunday Mass)

Nov 27, 2019

1st Sunday of Advent

"So too, you also must be prepared"

Matthew 24: 37 - 44

At this time of year shortly after our national day of Thanksgiving and the famed “Black Friday” retail rush towards Christmas we find ourselves presented with the relatively short Advent season. It may seem to put a temporary damper on the growing Christmas spirit. Colored lights are shining, Christmas carols are heard over car radios and in stores, trees are decorated in public places, people are sending electronic Christmas e-cards over the internet or still doing it the old fashioned way by actually buying Christmas cards and writing in them and lines are noticeably  longer outside the post offices. The annual month long season of Christmas is upon us. 

Let’s face it this extended nearly two months of pre-Christmas talk has nothing to do with the spiritual side of the holiday.  It’s all about the economy and how willing Americans and others are to keep the money flowing, especially at the highest and most profitable retail season of the year.  While it’s wonderful to buy gifts generously for others it is sad to think that the size of the prize is the most important thing.  Our faith must be the gatekeeper in order to face us in the right direction. 

So in our Churches we see the more subdued color of purple and a wreath with four candles that are only lit gradually over nearly four weeks.  No nativity scenes and the signs of Christmas out there in the market place are yet to appear in all their beauty in our worship space.  To make matters even more challenging our Sunday scripture readings take on a more “not yet” theme. 

If we listen carefully we hear a tone of longing and waiting rather than here it is celebrating.  So, we find a tension between our faith and the secular world.  It’s Advent in our Christian faith but do we simply leave that at Church and get on with everything else that is Christmas when the Mass is over? If we do, we haven’t yet captured this time. Advent provides us that reminder and opportunity to spiritually prepare for the coming of Christ.

With the beginning of this new liturgical year, we have another opportunity for personal change. The mystery of God made human, the Incarnation, is truly an astounding belief. What scripture implies pretty obviously is that God deliberately of his own divine will chose a time in human history to insert himself among us.  He left the freedom of the spiritual world and accepted the limitations of his own creation. He chose to reach down, to walk the same earth we do, to get his hands and feet dirty and pierced by nails on the cross, to embrace human suffering and bring the good news of God’s desire to reorder all things and bring his kingdom will on earth in our midst. 

In other words, To say Jesus is our Savior is to look back thousands of years to a time when the ancient Jewish people heard the words of Isaiah in this Sunday’s first reading: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain . . . all nations shall stream toward it .  .”

In rich imagery Isaiah, the prophet of the Messiah, hundreds of years before the coming of Jesus, offers a divine promise that God will set all things right; that a broken world will be healed, that, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise their sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” God will intervene and bring about a profound change in human history or so it sounds.

But, we wonder if and when that time will be because the world around us has not yet become that “highest mountain” of light. For the ancient Jews they held on that God will eventually flesh out his promise. Now, four weeks before Christmas 2019 Advent once again reminds us both to get ready and to reflect on what has happened but also to hope for what hasn’t yet – for that same Christ to come again.

So, the Gospel from Matthew this Sunday is rich with “be prepared” images.  We hear of Noah, aware of God's warning yet those around him who were simply complacent and imagined a never ending life of satisfaction and pleasure.  While Noah was tuned in to the signs of his time, the voice of God in their midst, the general population was asleep.  Jesus states, “Therefore, stay awake!”  Be ready and watchful for the coming of the “Son of Man.” 

What God has done to humankind when he sent his Son, our Savior, has offered us the power to make the image of Isaiah a reality. As Isaiah speaks today of a city where “the Lord’s house” is established as the “highest mountain.”  Jesus referred to his followers as a city on a hill where “your light” should shine for all to see.  He called himself the “light of the world” and that we should not hide our light “under a bushel basket” but the good works we do in his name become an inspiration to others and that by doing so we draw others to that mountain. 

He said that we must “forgive our enemies” and be “peacemakers.”  Isaiah speaks of a time of peace and reconciliation between waring forces that will lay down their arms for the cause of peace and will “walk in the light of the Lord.”  Jesus told his followers to find non-violent ways to respond to violence rather than add fuel to the fires of hatred, division and fear. To imagine such a transformation in human history is to realize that we alone do not have that power so we invite God to work in and through us. 

The point of all this is that God is constantly at work in our midst and that in Christ Jesus he has visited his people and invited us to a new way of life. Therefore, the warning against indifference and laziness in the Gospel is forever timely. 

So, this time we have called Advent is the moment to wake up and reflect on the mission Jesus has given to all of us and to slow down a bit rather than be frenetic about all the stuff of Christmas. To be missionary disciples in the world is our invitation so when he comes among us again we are ready to welcome him.

While we transform our homes we can shine the light of good works to bring joy, the ornaments of prayer should be hung on our days this December and the tinsel of patience can shimmer as we slow down a bit and take time to reflect on who has fulfilled the hope of Isaiah and how we can play a role in making that seen in our world.

Christ is among us in our celebration of the Eucharist.  Grab this season of longing and hope. May we transform ourselves in his light so that the coming celebration of God’s personal intervention in human history will be different than last year.

"Let us then throw off the works of darkness

For he assumed at his first coming
the lowliness of human flesh,
and so fulfilled the design your formed long ago,
and opened for us the way to eternal salvation . . .

(From Preface I Advent)

Nov 23, 2019

Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

"You will be with me in Paradise"

Luke 23: 35 - 43

Our national holiday of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. While the image of the day conjures up Pilgrims and Puritans, in the end the day becomes all about the food, unless of course you happen to be an unfortunate turkey. Therefore, this is not a day to worry about calories and diets but to enjoy the feast.

Yet, as that feast is prepared, the first thing that needs to happen is to gather family and friends to homes and tables. Whether those folks travel great distances by planes, trains, and automobiles or come from close by, the gathering of people is a necessary element of that day.  Most often, it is the same people who gather each year, with an occasional visitor now and then, so before the food, more than anything else, comes a spirit of gratitude.

No matter how easy or challenging the last year has been, the ultimate virtue of this day is one of thanksgiving.  Thankful to be together, thankful for the freedom we enjoy and so often take for granted in this country and gratitude ultimately to the God who has called us all into life. It goes without saying that now is time for the feast!

This weekend, with the close of our liturgical year, we mark the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The title is long and not without implications of grand things.  Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all humankind and of all creation.  The bonds of death and the power of evil have lost the battle and will in the end be destroyed by this “King” of the Universe.

As our readings all throughout the summer and fall season have been instructions, parables, miracle stories from our Lord, this weekend we conclude that long yearly series, by an acknowledgement of what it all means for us. That Jesus, our teacher, wonder worker, and Savior is indeed “King” of all that is.  As we say in the Creed he is: “God from God; light from light; true God from true God . . .” To him we owe our obedience and our very lives.

With an image such as that we may feel more fear and trembling rather than any desire to gather close to this King.  But, the Gospel image this Sunday of this crucified “King of the Jews” is one that gives us pause.

In the fourth century of Christianity we find a familiar quote from St. Cyril of Jerusalem about the reception of the Holy Eucharist: “Make a throne of your hands in which to receive the King.”  Clearly, the reception of Communion in the hand was a familiar practice among Christians before these words were spoken.  It remained the norm for reception for hundreds of years beyond and so was returned in our own day.  Of course, the alternative reception on the tongue is still appropriate.

The point of the practice is this.  In the reception of Holy Communion we do not receive a thing – a piece of unleavened bread.  We receive a person – the Lord Jesus Christ, our King as St. Cyril reminds us, in his true risen presence. This King now will sit upon the throne of our hands.  Of course we don’t thank of that in concrete, literal translation.  We see this in the spiritual sense which is a reality outside of what we know. Have you given that much thought?

He feeds us with his own person for the King is our food.  What sort of King would be so concerned about his sheep, as we see King David called a shepherd in the first reading, to be so invested in his subjects as to lay down his life for them? What King has ever died for his citizens? Not an earthly one to be sure. In a sense, today’s Feast reminds us that our earthly sense of human power, royalty and prestige is wrong when it comes to the fullest understanding of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ the King.

However, from the cross, this Jesus speaks not words of judgment or issues edicts and proclamations.  He turns to the thief next to him and speaks words of mercy: “Amen, I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.” It is the food of mercy and forgiveness to an act of faith in Jesus expressed by the thief: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

This King feeds us with an invitation to gather with him around an altar of mercy and love. As Pope Francis has put: “The Church is a field hospital.”  A place for healing and comfort on the battle field of our lives.  The same is true in the Holy Eucharist, Christ comes to us as the Divine Physician and invites us to present our wounds for healing but he at the same time deserves our gratitude for the sacrifice he has made for our salvation.

We know the origin of the Eucharist – born of a sacred meal but directly associated with an even greater sacrifice less than twenty four hours later – that of the Cross. So we see in Jesus’ sacrifice that body he spoke of the night before: “Take and eat – take and drink my body and my blood.” This crucified, shepherd King, now raised in glory wants to feed us for without this food, we have no life. And “life” here is our ultimate union with this King in Heaven - Eternal life.

From the cross, not only words spoken to a repentant thief, Jesus offers us – take this body and this blood.  Feed on it.

Like our Thanksgiving meals, our response is to gather, to be thankful, to be nourished, and to go and feed others with the good news of mercy and conversion.

How many are hungry that we never see? Though it may feel a bit unusual at first, maybe an extra chair around your Thanksgiving tables this Thursday could be added – a throne for the King who will feed you with more than any table could ever hold. Make room for this shepherd, this crucified Lord, this King risen in glory who feeds you.

Almighty ever-living God,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of the universe,
grant, we pray,
that the whole creation, set free from slavery,
may render your majesty service
and ceaselessly proclaim your praise.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Roman Missal: Collect of Solemnity)

Nov 16, 2019

33rd Sunday: "Is the end really near?"

(James Tissot: The prophecy of the destruction of the Temple)

"The days will come when there will not be left one stone upon another . . ."

Luke 21: 5-9

The end is near! The end is near! That may be the summary of our readings this Sunday and those of the recent past Sunday’s.  Now and then we actually hear of particular self proclaimed prophets of doom who warn us that the last day are coming at a precise date and time of day.  Some may wait with baited breath, others may scoff, and many simply ignore such warnings dismissing them as misguided.  Even Jesus in the Gospel today warns against false prophets who preach in his name: “Do not follow them!” The day comes – and it goes with nothing out of the ordinary happening and that particular person may simply be forgotten.  It is an effort in futility – or is it?

The unsettling imagery we hear in the readings today may at least bring confusion to our present day ears.  We hear of the day coming, “blazing like an oven”. . . that day that is coming will set them on fire . . . and in the Gospel Jesus own words and warnings about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and “wars and insurrections . . . Nation will rise against nation . . . powerful earthquakes, famines and plagues . . . be handed over by parents, relatives . . . put to death . . .hated by all . . .” Makes you want to simply stay in bed with the cover over your head and hope it is nothing more than a frightening nightmare! Yet, it must have pained Jesus to speak these words both as the Son of God and as a faithful Jew. 

Always this time of year as we approach Advent and the beginning of a new liturgical year, we hear these readings with this ominous end of time imagery. We may wonder, at least on some level, if the truth is that God really may have this side of his personality – that is to frighten us into obedience. I may likewise look at my life and easily find moments of worry about many things related to family, health, safety, finances, or the future.

Historically, what Luke describes in his Gospel as the destruction of the sacred Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans had already taken place in the year 70 A.D.  Once conquered, the Romans proudly confiscated the menorah, the sacred lamp stand, from the Temple and carried it off triumphantly to Rome. Was this end? That Temple was never rebuilt to this day. The citizens of Jerusalem found themselves in the midst of rubble and destruction to wonder where God is? While the Gospel reflects the tough social realities under which the early Christians found themselves they still easily apply to us.  But, truly these are words of encouragement towards the importance of faithfulness in following the Lord.  Listen to the words of Malachi as today’s passage ends: “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

And in Luke, Jesus states: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed . . . you will secure your lives.” These are readings of hope and a call to faith.  In spite of great tribulation, God is ultimately in control and for the faithful, he will be their Savior. And he will sit with us in the train wreck to show us the way back.

The real take away for this Sunday, I think, is a great lesson in the uselessness of worry. We would all love to wave the magic wand and have all those who were raised in the faith but now no longer practice to suddenly reappear and fill the pews or to stop time and cease aging. Maybe even have a guarantee that we will live in perfect health for at least 100 years.  But such things that we worry about are beyond our control.

So, the call of this time, then, is to be at peace and to not fear.  To trust in the end that no matter what may come our way, we are called to do good.  If we should worry about anything it might be that I am so worried about things that I am doing nothing good or productive either for others or for myself. That I may not carry out the work the Gospel calls me to do. Rather, I must trust the words of Christ that if I am faithful to the Gospel “not a hair of my head will be destroyed.”

I may find that I am grateful that God put me here in this life, that he has given us the Holy Spirit, called us to a rich faith community, his Body the Church, and given us many opportunities to live out the Gospel in his service day by day and that he loves me more than I can imagine. That he shares his living presence with us in the sacraments and in particular the Holy Eucharist which is he - food for our journey through life. In other words, carry on the work of the Gospel, do not be deterred by what may appear the end of the road, but pick up and move forward in faithfulness. 
Now, that’s good news no matter what other forces may come my way.  The best antidote to the illness of too much worry is to do the opposite, the work of the Gospel. We all have the time and ability to live the Gospel out with joy and trust.

Grant us, we pray, O Lord our God, 
the constant gladness of being devoted to you, 
for it is full and lasting happiness
to serve with constancy
the author of all that is good.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, 
your Son, who lives and reigns
with you in the unity of the
Holy Spirit, one God
forever and ever. 

(Collect of Sunday)