Dec 16, 2017

3rd Sunday of Advent - "Rejoice always"

"In my God is the joy of my soul"

Is 61: 1-2a, 8 – 11
1 Thes 5: 16-24
Jn 1: 6-8, 19-28

I think one of the most beautiful things God has created is watching a little baby laugh. They may be responding to the smiling face of their parent, or maybe they’ve been tickled by a sibling, or maybe their older brother or sister has made a crumpled face and they respond with baby laughter.  The very sound of it has an effect on us; we can’t help but smile or laugh ourselves.  Normally, one might say: “Gee, what a happy baby.”

However, if one were to change the phrase a bit and say to the parents, “You have a joyful baby” it may sound strange.  The same would be true if we entered a room full of adults’ in good laughter with smiles on their face.  We might say, “They sure seem happy.” If we changed it and said, “There’s a joyful crowd,” it sounds a bit odd, out of the normal expression.  Yet in the scriptures we hear that when Mary visited her older cousin Elizabeth the baby in the womb of Elizabeth, John, “leaped for joy.” This Sunday we reflect on the great virtue of joy that we often equate with laughter or happiness. Yet, our scriptures remind us that “joy” is something much deeper and more lasting.  

Our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the earliest of Christian writings we have, invites Paul’s early converts to: “Rejoice always . . . give thanks.” Isaiah the prophet speaks of “glad tidings” and to “rejoice heartily.” It’s clear at this point in our Advent walk, as Christmas is nearly upon us, that life may be tough and challenging at times but we can be joyful nonetheless.  Yet, how realistic is that or is this just a kind of "pie in the sky" wish? I certainly don't feel happy every day.  Some days I'm just bored, lazy, upset, stressed out or even sad. 

Yet, St. Paul was no naïve preacher out of touch with reality or trying to be sarcastic. He knew life was hard for the people of his time but the coming of Christ changed everything. It gave to humanity new hope rooted in a fuller understanding of God. We should rejoice always because we come to know that we are not just born into this world with no purpose. As children of a loving Creator, whose heart is seen in Jesus, we are invited to share in the same divine life that Jesus enjoys with his Father.

With God all things are brought together.  The coming of Jesus into the world meant, as John the Baptist reminds us, one who will share his Spirit with us and reconnect with humanity that had been separated by sin.  So, joy in the deepest sense means that all is at it should be. It's not riches and power that bring true joy but knowing that we are loved by God. Obstacles are removed and brokenness is healed.  We see this in the ministry of Jesus – his healing and teaching; his reaching out to the separated and shunned. In Christ we know we are not abandoned or forgotten by God so our lives of faith can be made the same.  If we seek the good in all things, to follow in his Way, we know we are right with God despite opposition we might find, and all is balanced and as it should be.  To know that is a call to go beyond emotion which is happiness and to enjoy a deeper sense of connection with God which brings Joy. If that is our conviction, then we are able to “rejoice always.”  

So, John the Baptist prepares us to hear this new perspective.  For hundreds of years there had been no official prophets among the Jewish people.  The ones we often hear from, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, were long past.  As long as the prophets spoke among the people, they recognized the active presence of God among them.  Although these prophets were all generally treated badly by authorities, still the common people felt that the position of a prophet of God was a significant sign of God’s faithfulness to his people.  But for hundreds of years before the baptizer appeared, no one claimed that position.  So, the people wondered what happened and if God had abandoned them to be forever oppressed by a hostile government which had taken captive of their ancient country again. 

Suddenly, a voice cries out in the desert in the same spirit of their ancient prophets and his message raised hope that maybe now was the time that the Messiah would come.  Or, in fact, that John may be the One. So, they ask the simple question:  “Who are you?”
John leads them through a process of elimination and finally says, “I am not the Christ, the prophet Elijah or the Prophet” but his purpose is to point to one greater and say in essence:  “There HE is.” This Voice, as St. Augustine wrote, prepares us for the Word to come. This creates anticipation in the people and sets the stage for Jesus entrance. Such an event must have filled people with great joy hoping that now all things will be made right between them and God.

While many must have felt joyful in anticipation, this time of Advent reminds us that the joy of this time is far more a conviction than a feeling. In spite of what may seem hopeless or our endless reasons to not be joyful we are hopeful nonetheless because we know that God has come and is present with his people in his Church and in our lives.  If we feel lost, confused, sad, unfilled, unsatisfied, or disconnected it is likely a symptom of a spiritual hunger in our hearts.   

Maybe this has not been an especially joyful year for you.  You’ve been juggling concerns about health with limited finances.  The job is all right but not especially fulfilling and you hope for something better in the new year.  Maybe adult children still haven’t returned to the practice of their early Catholic faith or it has been a tough year for grandparents and you’ve had to make some uncomfortable decisions about caring for them.  Maybe life has just been more of a roller coaster than a smooth highway.

Where do we go for strength and comfort when times are rough? If we view joy as a conviction and not a feeling then we can know that if we are convinced God lives among us and walks with us in our joys and sorrows. As St. Paul implies today God is with us “in all circumstances” we can rest in a joy rooted in God’s promise. This may be a time to identify what is lacking in my spiritual life; that I really haven’t connected much with God this past year.  I’ve gone through the motions but never took the time to seek more.   

The words of Pope Francis remind us of good news strong enough to give us a reason for hope.  In his letter entitled The Joy of the Gospel our Holy Father writes:  There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.  I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty.  Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty, that when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.” (EG, # 6).

Dec 15, 2017

Mercy in action

The Jesus of mercy, the God of generosity

I ran across the following story and was deeply moved (link below).  In kind, grateful in abundance for all we have.  Such stories move us to consider not only our fortune but more our call to do the same.  These corporal works of mercy are in action in such extremely remote and forgotten regions of the world.  In this true story, they are happening now in an African region where we may wonder if we could survive.  We in this Country enjoy abundance and by comparison, we may say abundance to the point of near scandal. Yet, this opportunity to reflect on our own personal generosity towards others as the great feast of God's generosity to send his Son among us is nearly here. 

You may find the read equally challenging:

Dec 11, 2017

Pope Francis and the "Lord's Prayer" - a change coming?

"When you pray, say . . ."

This past weekend I was asked by a few parishioners, who are obviously in touch with Church news,
"How can Pope Francis change the Our Father?" or "Do you think he will do this?"  or "When do you think he will change the Lord's Prayer?"  All pretty similar questions asked with a bit of confusion and mild angst.

For one thing, the Pope's comment was given to an Italian reporter doing a story, not about the Lord's Prayer, and somewhere in the questioning a comment was made on how the French Catholic Bishop's have adopted a re-translation of one line only in that most well known of Christian prayers as this Advent began about a week ago. Rather than praying, in French obviously, the line: ". . . Lead us not into temptation," French Catholics will now state: ". . . do not let us fall into temptation."  Clearly, God does not lead anyone into evil, he offers us the grace to avoid temptation which comes in many forms from various sources. In fact the Spanish speaking countries have prayed the proposed rewording for a long time.  So, what about us English speakers?

Pope Francis simply commented on this one line, not on the entire prayer, and stated that the new rewording is a more correct understanding of how God operates in our lives.  It is a more correct meaning of the original text in Greek.  While linguists may debate this, language we know never translates literally, word for word, from one language to the next.  Jesus did not speak a word of English but rather Aramaic, Hebrew, and perhaps a few words of Greek since those were the prevailing languages of the middle eastern region in which he lived and ministered. Maybe a bit of Latin as well due to the Roman occupation.  The point is he spoke the words of the prayer we know in Aramaic and left it up to future cultures to translate as correctly, if not word for word, certainly the specific meaning of the prayer.

So, Pope Francis is not proposing that we may want to rethink the words of this sacred prayer taught to us by Jesus but rather rethink a more correct rewording of that specific line only.  Personally, I would be all for this.  In fact, during our Masses this weekend, I whispered those new words when reaching that line as we joined in the praying of that prayer before Holy Communion.  It fits just fine and presents to us the true meaning of it's words and of God's grace.

So, will this be changed?  Good question.  It may well be but when right now is anyone's guess.  I remember, shortly after Pope Francis was elected, he proposed the addition of one line to all of our Eucharistic Prayers.  Joseph, as spouse of Mary, was mentioned only in the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer 1.  The Pope suggested we add the name of Joseph to all of the Eucharistic prayers after the line which states: ". . . with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and blessed Joseph her spouse . . ."  However, all of the new Roman Missals had already been printed and published so some publishers sent a kind of lay over that would be applied to the page with the new additional wording.  At any rate, hardly a world shaking event yet most appropriate indeed.  A bit of Roman Missal trivia for you all!

The link below gives a very clear explanation of exactly what Pope Francis said about the Lord's prayer.  It's helpful . . . stay tuned! No harm in trying out the new words when you pray this prayer today. 


Dec 9, 2017

2nd Sunday of Advent - "Prepare the Way!"

 (Leonardo da Vinci
John the Baptist)

"Prepare the Way of the Lord, make straight his paths!"

Mark 1: 1-8

I have wondered now and then that if the internet, websites or blogs were available to Jesus, John the Baptist, the Gospel Evangelists and St. Paul, would they have used them? Surely, St. Paul at least would have found the internet useful for communication between the ancient Christian communities.  His famed Epistles would have been spread far and wide in an instant.  Jesus’ preaching could have been read over and over again by crowds in distant regions.  The Gospel writers could have told the powerful life changing events of Jesus’ ministry, his death and resurrection and offered a blog for their personal reflections.  Indeed the Good News of the Gospel would have developed in a far different manner than it did.

Yet, this Sunday we see a far more primitive, by today’s standards, and basic method of communication: “John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  The baptizer, a strange and unsettling figure in some ways, stands along the shore of a well-known river and apparently engaged the hungry crowds through his charismatic preaching and his cleansing baptism in the Jordan River. No books, no newspapers, no internet, websites or blog -  just a voice of conviction and his charismatic persona.

Yet the force and presence of this “voice” in the desert has become the quintessential call passed on from generation to generation as we “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  The fiery cry of John, like a television or radio announcer about to present a significant person of great notoriety, prepares anyone who would listen for Jesus formal coming.  As he (Jesus) is about to appear, we must be prepared and ready.  How?  Conversion and repentance of personal sin and the water of baptism is a rich sign of that repentance.

However, this figure John points to is no rock star, movie personality, or influential political figure, here today and gone tomorrow. This is the humble servant of God, the Lord who now enters our lives in human history and pushes forward the spirit of the ancient prophets and specifically of John himself.  He, John reminds us, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” He fulfills all that the prophets and Jewish people hoped for.  John sets the stage and raises the bar of expectation that something, someone in fact, will profoundly move history in a new direction.  John’s voice, then, is to be heard over and over again since the call to conversion is a daily invitation we all have.

We know there is something innate in the human spirit that longs for someone more powerful than us.  Those who study the power of an addiction, for example, may feel the pull of the addiction is more powerful than them.  It could be alcohol, smoking, drugs, gambling, or even technology. It could be something less but some repetitive behavior that I feel impossible to live without and that which consumes my time in an unhealthy way.  In its darkest most destructive form an addiction can destroy not only the person who is the addict but his/her family as well.

That power over us can only be overcome through hard work and in its purest form through faith as well.

We also long for community.  We are social creatures; made for one another and God intends us to live in relationship not isolation.  True loneliness is a feeling of isolation and pain.

John’s voice promises all a way to follow that will free us from isolation and powers which can destroy rather than build up.  As Isaiah speaks in our first reading this Sunday: “Comfort, give comfort to my people . . . every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low . . .then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”  Jesus’ coming among us provides the WAY to freedom and peace.  In his coming the isolated are brought to community and the powers that destroy our freedom are broken though an embrace of his role and his way in our life.

Both Isaiah and John provide these images of great geographical changes which are symbolic of these forces and powers over us.  This person of whom John speaks is the One who will free us and, as Isaiah writes: “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.”

These words of Isaiah brought solace to a people enslaved in a foreign land; a people exiled to Babylon who feared God had abandoned them.  For us, they may symbolize enslavement in the form of moral confusion and a life weighed down by bad choices or the unexpected surprises we all deal with at time to time.

So we are ready to welcome a God who is mighty and strong yet at the same time gentle and comforting.  In this end, this God will visit us not with force and fear but with mercy, gentleness and love.  Yet, we must prepare and we must accept whatever process we need to turn our lives around and to welcome him at his coming.

Come Lord and set us free!

That, when he comes in glory and majesty
and all is at last made manifest,
we who watch for that day
may inherit the great promise
in which now we dare to hope . . .

(Preface 1 for Advent)