Wednesday, December 26, 2012

From Joy to Grim Reality

Wednesday: 26 December, 2012 –– Feast of St Stephen, the First Martyr
Acts 6:8–10; 7:54–59 / Matthew 10:17–22
From Joy to Grim Reality

On this second day of Christmas the Church takes us from joy to grim reality as we honor Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Within the hope of God’s Son being born to bring salvation to our world is the ensuing battle with a world that does not want to be saved –– at least not by a God whose salvation brings the message that our own autonomy is what is killing us. We want to be “free”, and anyone or anything that challenges our rebellious hearts is often met with a hostility willing to go all the way to vengeful death.

As we who believe the Good News rejoice in the birth of our Lord, the Church teaches us not to forget what it means to be a believer. Jesus gives a grim warning in today’s Gospel: You will be hated.... because of my name. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a twentieth century German Christian martyred under Hitler, once wrote: “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

At the very least we are called to die to our own self will. Desiring our own way creeps in so insidiously. Especially in a culture where comfort and convenience dictate almost every attitude and value, we reflect on Stephen who chose to give full witness –– the root meaning of martyr –– to the Truth of Jesus even though it meant his literal death.

As our culture continues to unravel and secularism becomes more hostile to Christian Faith, we will be in situations where we will need to “die” to the opinions of others. We will be called bigots; Christian love will be seen as most unloving. Some will hate us because of His Name.

Christians in America may soon find harsh economic penalties if we choose faithfulness.  This could be explicit fines, or it may be the implication of not being able to practice lucrative jobs that demand compromise with Christian belief (and practice –– the two cannot be separated).

The bottom line: the Church wants us to know that to embrace the Christ Child puts us on the path of  St Stephen.

Saint Fulgentius (+533), a bishop of Ruspe (Tunisia, North Africa) and a friend of St Augustine is the source of today’s reading in the Office:

Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier. Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.... And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier.

Lord, give me the strength to follow you.... let your grace enter this day to help me die to myself.... make my life a witness to the reality that you have come and that your salvation is the ultimate reality.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Reflecting on Christmas Eve

Reflecting on Christmas Eve

Perhaps one of the earliest seeds for my journey into the fullness of the Catholic Church started on a Christmas Eve when I was a high school senior. Until then my experience of “church” had mostly been a little country congregation where the word “liturgy” had never been used and the highest celebration of Christmas was maybe a cantata in which there were two parts, melody and country alto/tenor.

I was a conspicuous Christian in high school among the few other students who knew me (I was a shy, introverted loner).  One friend was intrigued with my straight-laced fervor and was amazed that I knew nothing of the kind of Christianity his family practiced. He invited me to join him at a Christmas Eve service (my little church knew nothing of Advent, and “Christmas” was always the Sunday before December 25 –– unless Christmas was actually on Sunday, and then we’d do an abbreviated schedule because “people want to be with their families”).

So Christmas Eve 1968 found me at the Church of the Advent, the Episcopal parish in my hometown. The service started with a pipe organ, majestic hymnody and a processional. It was indeed “glory to God,” and it felt as if I’d been caught up into the worship of heaven described by St John in his Revelation.

Looking back now I know that the Episcopal (or Anglican) liturgy is essentially a Catholic placebo, but I knew nothing then.  It would be almost another forty years before I would attend a Catholic Mass.  All I knew that night is that my heart, which was so committed to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, was touched by something that went beyond anything I’d ever experienced. After that night I would slip into an Episcopal service whenever I could, and especially on Christmas Eve.

Until that initial night I had never been in a church that used the historical forms of confession of sin and the Creed. I had never held a “prayer book” (what, in the Catholic Church, is a missalette). I had never prayed formal, written prayers. I had never seen such a prominence given to Communion.

I was overwhelmed. I prayed those prayers from a mind that was engaged and a heart that was saying yes. I was aware that I was celebrating, on the very night of Christmas, the entrance of my Savior into this world. I was aware –– intuitively, because the concept of Tradition and the continuity of Faith had never been explicit in my own setting –– that I was tasting something that was rooted in what it meant to be part of the visible Church on earth, and yet transcending time and space. I could not have expressed it this way back then, but I was worshipping with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven....

You should recognize that –– it’s from the Preface, the Mass prayer just before we add our voices saying Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts....  It’s like we are joining with the angels that sang to the shepherds on that Holy Night.  It’s why we are here tonight.... only we are not restricted to Christmas; we get to join that heavenly chorus every time we gather for the Mass.

I had no idea when I seventeen years old that Jesus had me on a journey that would lead to the fullness of his Church, but I did believe that the birth of Jesus Christ changed our world.

I still believe that today, and so much more. I base my life on each line of the Creed we say week after week, and I am in the Church now with a role of encouraging you to do the same. No matter how old it is –– no matter how many times we say it –– there is one Truth worth trusting.... one Truth worth giving your life:

one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God....
For us men and our salvation he came down from heaven,
by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man....

And he did that to die for us –– to take upon himself all the pain and death of this broken world. As we celebrate his First Coming, we rejoice in hope of his Second Coming.

It’s all here as we gather on this Silent Night, Holy Night. Let our Lord make himself new to you again.  I got a small taste on a Christmas Eve long ago, and I still hunger for more. On this Christmas Night, Taste and see that the Lord is good....

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Sunday: 16 December, 2102 –– The Second Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14–18a / Philippians 4:4–7 / Luke 3:10–18

Today is Gaudete Sunday –– Latin for rejoice! The Church gives us readings that emphasize the joyous anticipation of the Lord's coming. Zephaniah says, Shout for joy, O daughter of Zion! Sing joyfully O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

I had prepared a homily about rejoicing that I hoped would be challenging and yet pleasant, and then the news came on Friday of the horrible shooting at the Connecticut elementary school and I had to start over. What is a call to Rejoice as we try to wrap our minds around this awful event? Do we, as Christians, understand that faith, hope, joy and love are real even though we can no longer assume our communities are extensions of Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry”?

Christian joy is something that goes beyond circumstances. We live in a society that is obsessed with happiness, but happiness is mostly circumstantial.  Today’s second reading  speaks powerfully to this (especially if we know the circumstances in which it was written): Paul exhorts the Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice! He wrote this when he was in prison (just for being a Christian, no less). He adds to the context as the readings concludes: Then the peace of God that passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Joy and peace go together. 

It is so easy to confuse joy with happiness. It is so natural for us to want to be happy, and and we are so quickly aware of our circumstances. Seemingly, if our circumstances are pleasant we are happy, and if our circumstances are unpleasant we are not happy.  If this were all there is to Christian Faith we are wasting a lot of time and money in the Church!

Yet I am not implying that Christian Faith trivializes circumstances. In his letter to the Romans Paul says, Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (12:15). So today, on this Rejoice Sunday, our hearts cry out for the families of those children and the others who died. Our hearts cry out in a world that is broken, where circumstances are so crushing that we wonder how such evil is possible.

Still, beyond this –– deeper than this –– is a joy that goes beyond circumstances. As we prepare for Christmas we reflect once again on the incredible truth that God himself became one of us and chose to come into this world that is broken and too often throws things across our paths that are too horrible to imagine. I have often taken refuge in something the British author Dorothy Sayers once wrote:

....for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is –– limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death –– He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself (Creed or Chaos).

Even at Christmas we need to remember that Jesus came into our world to die. A mere three days into the actual “Christmas Season” the Church honors the Holy Innocents; this year, our remembrance begins early.

With some irony, hard things can help us grasp the true nature of life in this world and the reason Christian joy is so important. In yet another letter, St Paul gives this perspective: This world in its present form is passing away (1Cor 7:31). This reminds me of one of the last things Jesus told his disciples before he went to the cross: In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33b).

On this “Rejoice Sunday”, the Church points us to John the Baptizer with his preaching of repentance. John even promises judgment (the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire), and then Luke gives this comment: Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people. How many of us connect “repentance” with “good news”? John essentially says, “Turn away from the things you think will make you happy so you can discover what real happiness is.” It is right to pray for repentance –– for our world.... for our nation.... for ourselves.

Do we understand that there is no true and lasting joy apart from following Jesus? And yet we can’t just decide to be joyful on our own. How can we have joy when our world goes into a tailspin of grief?  We have to come to the Lord every day and say, “I can’t do this apart from surrendering everything to you.... live in me... live through me.”

God wants to give us eternal joy. The joy of the Lord is found in a faith that recognizes that God is always at work for our good –– for our salvation. That was the Good News even in Zephaniah’s day. Hear St Paul again on this Advent Sunday: Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice! God’s salvation is not only on the way; it is here and now for all who will see it, even in a broken and sorrowful world. Then the peace of God that passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. And once more hear what our Lord tells us: In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. That is why, in faith, we rejoice.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What To Do?

I put the following on my Facebook page about yesterday's school shooting....

Lots of emotion in the wake of today's events... A sad day and a horrible thing. Many are already calling for gun control as THE answer. We must face the current situation, and that will likely mean more gun control - if for no other reason than to appease public perception. Yet guns have been readily available in our country for over 200 years, but we have not had this kind of indiscriminate ab

use until quite recently. I grew up with guys having shotguns in the back of the trucks they drove to school so they could go hunting immediately afterwards. IF everyone was like me (for example) we could carry guns on airplanes, into schools and anywhere else (not sure why we'd need to!), but the point is - a gun is an inanimate object; it is used by someone who usually chooses what to do with it, and it is that person's nature and values which will affect that choice. At same time, we have devolved into a culture that is unwilling to make judgments about people. In the name of "equity" it seems that if "someone" might misuse a gun, then no one should have one. Further, we refuse to "profile" people and, again, make judgments of who is "good" and who is not –– and we do not take the same measures against people who are not "good" in the way that society did several generations ago. This is a highly complex issue and is rooted ultimately in worldview. Right now we seem to have a majority of people who are not willing to think and act on the basis of Natural Law and absolutes.... and we can't do that without a spiritual revival that goes to the core of all we are and do. My faith is weak for such a thing to happen without even further suffering, so I guess some measure of "control" is all that is left.... It is a sad day - and era - in America. Francis Schaeffer foretold a time in this country when lawlessness would become so bad that people will embrace totalitarian control to get some peace and security..... Again, the America that was is no more.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Desire of Nations

Wednesday: 12 December, 2102
Zechariah 2:14–17 / Revelation 11:19a, 12:1–6a, 10ab / Luke 1:26–38
The Desire of Nations

Charles Wesley is perhaps my favorite hymn writer. I am often dismayed that the few songs of his which have any visibility are also considerably edited. I guess most people do not not want to sing 6–12 verse hymns (I am seldom like “most people”). Wesley’s very popular Hark! The Herald Angels Sing has this unfamiliar verse:

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

In today’s first reading Zechariah repeats an often repeated prophetic theme: Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and they shall be his people....  Even more, Advent brings the prophet Isaiah into prominent focus. Looking ahead to the promised Messianic Servant, God speaks through Isaiah:

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isa 49:6).

It was not enough that God’s salvation would be given to the Jews. It is not enough that God’s salvation was given to the various European peoples through whom the Faith was extended to this country and hemisphere. Today the Church celebrates the Faith being extended to the common and the poor in Tepeyac, Mexico in an astounding way in 1531.

The gospel is for all peoples, everywhere. God gave his Son. God is at work extending the Faith to the nations. What God was doing with the announcement of the angel –– what God was doing when Mary said May it be done to me according to your word –– is what God is still doing in and through the Church (and you and me as we obey). That is one reason we are here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Quest for Comfort

Tuesday: 11 December, 2102 –– Second Week in Advent
Isaiah 40:1–11  / Matthew 18:12–14
The Quest for Comfort

I often think about how “comfort” oriented we are in our 21st Century American society. The slightest inconvenience can trigger a tirade of anger. Any true suffering can cause extended disillusionment and despair. We are conditioned to a cultural expectation of “easier and nicer.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, for people who are comfortable to find any great significance to God’s message: Give comfort to my people. The gospel has no relevance as “Good News” if those who hear it have no recognition of the bad news that engulfs them.

At some point, though, the harsh realization comes: All flesh is grass, and all their glory like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower wilts.... The “natural” response to that –– the sin-blinded, rebellious and autonomous response –– is to chase the bubbles and run toward the mirages that the world offers as substitutes for God’s love and care. This is the context in Jesus’ little story for the sheep that goes astray. An introduction to today’s Magnificat reading says: “We have an incredible capacity to maroon ourselves in life’s rocky gorges and perilous mountain ledges.”

Sometimes a person has to go astray to feel his lostness.  If you’ve ever been “lost” (even temporarily) you know how uncomfortable it is. That is when the gospel becomes Good News –– to hear the comforting words that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  God seeks to save people who are lost.

I never want to become so “comfortable” that I fail to know, in the depths of my being, that I need a Savior.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Chosen to Be Holy

Saturday: 8 December, 2102 –– The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Genesis 3:9–15, 20 / Ephesians 1:3–6, 11–12  / Luke 1:26–38
Chosen to Be Holy

This is a Solemnity –– a holy day –– a “day of obligation” for church attendance. We come to church and go through the familiar forms like confessing our Faith through the Creed, but how often do we think about what we’re saying?  Here is a pertinent part of it for today: for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.

Why come to church for this Solemnity?  I hope it’s because we know we are broken and need to be healed. We too easily bear bad fruit (fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing –– the fruit of the flesh in Gal 5:19–21) instead of good fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control –– the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22,23). We are not holy, and we need to be holy. The second reading tells us: he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Ephesians 1:4). Our calling is to be holy, but how can we be holy when both our legacy and our disposition is to sin?

We cannot correct our maladies by ourselves, so God chose to do what we cannot do –– “undo” the legacy of sin set in motion by Adam and Eve. The Old Testament story is not “just a story.” God worked through Jesus and Mary as a New Adam and a New Eve.

To be truly human, Jesus was born of a real human mother. The Son of God took his humanity from his mother. How could Jesus, as God-Man, take this real humanity upon himself and not become tainted with sin? The Church teaches that by a special act of grace Mary was preserved from original sin from the first moment of her life. This is what we call the Immaculate Conception.

The biblical basis for this is inferred from the angel’s first words to Mary when she is called full of grace (Luke 1:28). If sin is the absence or lack of God's glory and grace (all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God––Romans 3:23), then if Mary was “full of grace” she was not lacking in God's grace, and was therefore sinless. How could this be? Again, the Church teaches that by a special act of grace Mary was preserved from original sin from the first moment of her life.

“Mary” was my biggest hurdle coming into the Church. If Mary was “sinless” why does she call God “my Savior” in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47)? I found this analogy: A man falls into a muddy pit and someone pulls him out. Now the man is “saved” from the pit, but still has the stain of mud on him as a result of falling into it. Again, imagine a woman is about to fall into the same pit, but at the moment she is to fall, someone stops her. She has also been saved, not from just falling into the pit, but from getting stained by the mud.

In the same way, Mary was saved by Jesus –– by the same sacrifice on the cross that saves us –– but at the moment of her conception, preventing her from being stained by original sin. In this way she could be the holy vessel chosen to carry the Son of God. The Immaculate Conception is not first of all about Mary! It is about the total sinlessness of Jesus and the integrity of our salvation. God’s salvation is all about holiness.

Holiness is a major theme throughout Scripture. We are all called to be holy. In the same Letter to the Ephesians Paul says: Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:25-27). This is God's great purpose in creating the Church –– to have a holy and “immaculate” people that can appear before him and not flee from his presence like Adam and Eve did after their sin.

The preface of today's Eucharistic Prayer says: In her.... you signify the beginning of the Church, his beautiful Bride without spot or wrinkle. placed her above all others to be for your people an advocate of grace and a model of holiness. This is what we celebrate in Mary today. She is the one in whom there is a guarantee that the whole plan of salvation will be accomplished. As the angel told Mary: Nothing is impossible with God! Mary is the proof of this. This is why Mary is called "Mother of the Church." 

God’s salvation, as modeled in Mary, calls us to holiness.  We are not born “immaculate” as she was born (by a singular privilege bestowed by God). Rather, we are infected by an evil in every fiber of our being. We are full of "wrinkles" that must be smoothed and "blemishes" that must be healed. It is in our recovery of the image of God that Mary, already fully “saved”, stands before us as a powerful reminder that we are all called to be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). 

So, we are called to be holy –– to be saints. God graced Mary with holiness so that, through Jesus Christ, the same Holy Spirit that breathed into Mary the Immaculate Conception can also breathe into us a conversion that changes us into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthian 3:18).  All we need to do is pray with Mary, May it be done to me according to your word....  That is why we are here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Looking For Heaven

Wednesday: 5 December, 2102 –– First Week in Advent
Isaiah 25:6–10a  / Matthew 15:29–37
Looking For Heaven

It has occurred to me numerous times that the more comfortable I am, the less focused I am on spiritual intensity. Heaven does not seem so important if it seems we have a relative heaven on earth. This is an illusion perpetuated by two things: circumstantial comforts (what this means varies from person to person) and a self-focused mentality (to the extent we can ignore or insulate ourselves from others’ pain, we can more easily have “personal comfort”).

The people who long most for heaven are those whose lives are marked by tears (literally or figuratively). For those who mourn, Isaiah’s promise is indeed good news: The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces....

Think about the people who either welcomed Jesus or rejected him. Those who rejected him were mostly comfortable with their position in life and saw Jesus as a threat. On the other hand, great crowds came to him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others....

Then there’s Jesus’ response –– the One who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.... Matthew tells us, Jesus summoned his disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd....”

The more we are willing to enter into suffering, the more closely we are following our Lord. The more closely we enter into suffering, the more we will treasure the promises from Isaiah that God’s salvation is coming.

The world around us says to seek our own comfort –– to grab a bit of heaven on earth. Those who follow Jesus know the more we are in touch with the real brokenness and hurts of this world, the greater will be our hope and our joy of Isaiah’s promise that Jesus will come again to make everything new.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What Are We Looking For?

Tuesday: 4 December, 2102 –– First Week in Advent
Isaiah 11:1–10 / Luke 10:21–24
What Are We Looking For?

What are we looking for?  This question is at the heart of what it means to have faith. It is also a good focus for reading the Bible.

So often we have our own agendas. We can do religious things with a self-obsessed attitude:  this better be good.... what’s in it for me.... I thought faith would make life easier....

If we read the Bible selectively we can have frustrating expectations. Isaiah gives some incredible projections in his prophecy. He tells of a time of justice and peace that seems impossible, almost unimaginable according to the world in which we live. Every year as we prepare for Christmas we revisit the familiar refrain: peace on earth, good will to men....

Christian Faith means living in the awareness that God is at work.... in  his own way.  Some people cannot –– or will not –– see it. We have to be open to God being God on his terms, not ours. When we are able to see that our deepest longings –– what we’re really looking for –– has been provided in Jesus Christ, we find that peace follows.

What we also find is that seeing the truth in Jesus is out of step with what so many people in the world are looking for.

If you find that your focus is more and more on Jesus.... that you are learning to trust him and obey him and love him more and more.... that you are being changed (that’s what it means to be converted).... then know that you have been given a very great gift:  Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Levels of Faith

Monday: 3 December, 2102 –– First Week in Advent
Isaiah 2:1–5 / Matthew 8:5–11
Levels of Faith

Pope Benedict has called the Church to a “Year of Faith.” The readings today bring faith into focus. What does it mean to have faith? Faith is an alternative way of seeing. Faith is not a mere “add-on.” Faith is not something we pull off the shelf when things get especially hard. Faith is not just a Sunday form of exercise. Faith is more than personal worship. Faith is another way of looking at everything else –– it is a world-view. The writer to the Hebrews says that faith being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (1:1). Faith is recognizing God is there, even though we cannot “see” him.

Jesus commends the centurion’s faith; he believed that Jesus, not even in proximity to the sick servant, could just give a command and the healing would come. We commemorate the words of this faith-filled centurion in every Mass: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

What do we do when our faith is not strong? If you think about it, there are levels of faith. Thomas had to see to believe, and part of Jesus’ reply to him was a gentle encouragement of faith: blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (Jn 20:29). Then there is the father who watched the disciples fail to deliver his son of an evil spirit; when Jesus invited him to believe, the man responded: I believe; help my unbelief! (Mk 9:24).

Then we have the example of an Old Testament prophet like Isaiah. Here is a man who had incredible faith long before Jesus came. He was able to “see” things that go beyond the natural eye. His prophecies still amaze us as they pointed to Jesus’ first coming. His prophecies still baffle us –– like today’s reading –– because their total fulfillment has not happened yet; they await Jesus’ second coming.

Isaiah was given great faith because God used him to communicate special revelation –– Scripture that continues to inspire and guide us even now.  The issue for us is not that we have Isaiah’s level of faith; we may not be able to “see” as he did..... BUT, we can choose to believe what Isaiah says. If we believe what Isaiah (and the rest of Scripture) says, even though the evidence is not tangible, we are exercising faith! And remember the definition of faith found in Scripture: sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

If we choose to believe what the Scriptures say and what the Church teaches, we are putting ourselves in the position of the centurion: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

And even if we sometimes struggle with that, we have this great fall-back prayer that God will honor if we pray with true desire: I believe; help my unbelief!  This is our faith.... the faith that overcomes the world.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

God's Light In A Dark World

December 2, 2012 –– The First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14–16 / 1 Thessalonians 3:12–4:2 / Luke 21:25–28, 34–36

Advent begins with a frank, honest assessment of history's perils, of the present moment's terrors, and of the future's all-but-certain calamities. Today’s readings have a common context of having faith in the midst of threatening circumstances: Jerusalem under siege, Thessalonica under persecution, and natural terrors at the coming of the Son of Man.  Advent begins with passages that remind us of hard things because we live in a world that does terrible things―like crucifying the Son of God. Ours is a world of upheaval, of genocide, of pride, selfishness, greed, and violent acts perpetrated on the innocent and the unsuspecting.  It has been that way since sin entered the world. We would not even need Advent if the things Jesus tells us in Luke 21 are not reality.

Our Old Testament text occurs while Jeremiah was under arrest in the court of the guard of King Zedekiah, during the siege of Jerusalem, because he kept saying there was no use resisting the army of Nebuchadnezzar. King Zedekiah tried desperately to build morale during the siege by forbidding discouraging words. Looking honestly at the situation, Jeremiah declared that God would give the city and the land to the Babylonians. Yet this was not the last word. The promise specifies that a righteous Branch will execute justice and righteousness in the land, and because of this Judah will be eventually saved and ultimately Jerusalem will live in safety.

But as Jeremiah was giving the word of the Lord, there was no army strong enough to protect Israel when its life was riddled with injustice, just as today there is no security system that can protect us when justice is not being done around us. In the meantime, Jeremiah promised further defeat: “I will strike them down,” said the Lord. “The enemy will come, and more will die.” Jeremiah just could not say "Don't worry, be happy." If we are not careful, that is exactly what the culture around us wants to hear. When Christians thoughtlessly buy into the “celebrations” of materialism and partying and cheerful decorations, we can be embracing the very message that God would not allow Jeremiah to give.

Christians are called to be distinctive―to be different for Jesus’ sake. We are supposed to understand the difference between false optimism and real hope. The world says, “Avoid reality... have a party... go buy something that will make you feel good... make everything bright and pretty and life will be that way...” Sometimes this is called “ignoring the elephant in the room.” It is amazing what families will deny in the effort to avoid dealing with hard things. It is also amazing what whole societies will deny to keep from facing the truth that this world is horribly broken and nothing in human power can fix it.

The ability to call a thing what it actually is is necessary for real hope. False optimism is perpetuated when we insist on calling evil good and good evil. Our tendency as fallen beings, as those whose bondage to sin is real, is to insist that real hope comes by refusing to look at evil and call it what it is. This is not so. The whole message and model of Jesus invites us to call a thing what it is and then believe that God is at work even there, in the darkest, most difficult times. Christians can offer a hopeful alternative by being willing to live a life that believes that God is at work, yet without denying that pain and grief, hardship and turmoil, tragedy and death are part of life.

That is what the reading from Thessalonians tell us. First Thessalonians 1-3 reveals that opposition, persecution, and attacks by Satan were all very real experiences of those early believers and their teacher, Paul.  Paul longed to come and see his beloved children in the faith but was prevented, and so he sent Timothy to find out if they survived. Timothy returned with the miraculous report that the Thessalonians held fast to the faith. Because their faith made them different in their response to the world’s pain and evil,  Paul writes and affirms their Christian witness: May the Lord make your love increase and overflow....  Then he gives the reason such a thing can be ― May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

In Advent we are meant to recall and experience this "waiting for God." We believe that Jesus came to fulfill Jeremiah's promise of the righteous branch. He fed the hungry, healed the sick and gave himself a ransom for sin. But in one of his last discourses to his disciples, Jesus promises that there are events still coming that will be more distressing than those of Jeremiah's time. When the circumstances appear darkest, the promise shines brightest. When people are faint from fear they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

Jesus is doing more than telling us that history will be rough. He is also trying to reassure us. Jesus wants us to know that despite wars, earthquakes, and disasters of all kinds, this world still belongs to God. None of those dreadful happenings needs to make us think that the gospel is false or that Jesus is not Lord after all. God still holds history in his hands, even though it is broken. And, all appearances to the contrary, the whole thing is heading in the right direction. Even when Jesus describes terrifying cosmic events involving the moon and the stars (Lu 21:27–28), even then he tells the disciples that believers can hold their heads up high and rejoice. Nothing must shake our faith-given resolve that God is in charge and that Jesus is coming again.

This passage nowhere promises that we will completely escape the terror. The injustice that has worked its way into our varied histories will work itself out in awful ways, and even those who follow the Prince of Peace will share in this pain. There is another warning: We must not become so weighed down by our many amusements or the worries of this life that we lose sight of the larger drama. We are to be on guard, to be people of prayer who are alert to the larger significance of these things. We must be sure where our faith is. Pretty decorations and Christmas songs do not, by themselves, make a society Christian. Appearances can be deceiving.

A story is told about a national magazine that assigned a photographer to take pictures of a forest fire. They told him a small plane would be waiting at the airport to fly him over the fire. So the photographer arrived at the airstrip just an hour before sundown, and sure enough, a small Cessna airplane stood waiting. He jumped in with his equipment and shouted, "Let's go!" The pilot, a tense-looking man, turned the plane into the wind, and soon they were in the air, though flying erratically. "Fly over the north side of the fire," said the photographer, "and make several low-level passes." "Why?" asked the nervous pilot. "Because I’m going to take pictures!" yelled the photographer. "I'm a photographer, and photographers take pictures." The pilot replied, "You mean you’re not the flight instructor?"

Advent is a time to make sure we are on the right “plane,” so to speak. Cultural celebrations of Christmas do not always lead to Christ. It is human nature to want to hear “don’t worry, be happy.” It is not enough merely to join the cultural festivities. Our neighborhoods can look so pretty as they get decked out with lots of Christmas lights. People want to believe if the world looked just that pretty and serene most of the time, then this world would need no Savior. It is especially important to know that we cannot allow “the holidays” to smother the reality of living in a broken world. It is only then that we can keep the faith―maintain the distinctiveness―of living for the end.

Not long before his death, Henri Nouwen wrote a book called Sabbatical Journeys. He tells about some friends of his who were trapeze artists, called the Flying Roudellas. They told Nouwen that there's a special relationship between flyer and catcher on the trapeze. The flyer is the one that lets go, and the catcher is the one that catches. As the flyer swings high above the crowd on the trapeze, the moment comes when he must let go. He arcs out into the air. His job is to remain as still as possible and wait for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck him from the air. One of the Flying Roudellas told Nouwen, "The flyer must never try to catch the catcher." The flyer must wait in absolute trust. The catcher will catch him, but he must wait.

As our hearts desire the promise of Christmas, we need to learn to wait. Advent is a time to think about reality―the hard, painful and threatening realities―and to have faith that what our Lord tells us about the end of all things is good news because he is with us.

Let me suggest a little exercise for the next four weeks. It’s not that we should avoid Christmas trees or skip other common cultural expressions. Instead, when you sit in the soft glow of your Christmas tree some evening or when you enjoy the delicious food at a holiday party, at some point remind yourself that this is not just a distraction –– holiday ambiance is not a chance merely to forget the world's troubles for a little while.  Rather, it is a reminder that even as the darkness still swirls all around, we live in the awareness that a Light shines in the darkness. It is a Light no darkness, no apocalypse, no warfare, no falling of meteors, and no holocaust can prevent from shining. Let the holiday lights shine, but never forget the Light we have been given, and why our world so badly needs to see it.

Time.... Enough?

December 2, 2012 –– The First Sunday of Advent
Luke 21:25–28, 34–36
Time.... Enough?

In today’s language of text-speak we have the brief “24/7” to communicate “every day, all day long.”  I have no idea how many things get characterized 24/7, but the reality is that each one of us lives in a 24/7 world. Not one of us has more time than 24/7 and not one of us has less. The issue is.... what we do with it. We give our time to the things we decide, by intention or by default, that are most important.

Some people are nonchalant about time. They take time as it comes, like the song –– Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be). Others are obsessive about time, seeking to “manage” every moment to be as efficient and productive as possible. Personality, family dynamics and culture have significant influence on how we view time. Our value systems and worldview also affect our perceptions and patterns.

Jesus exhorted his disciples to be time-conscious in a macro –– big picture –– context (he also told his disciples not to worry so much from day to day –– the “small stuff” (Mtt 6:25). In today’s Gospel we are warned about taking time for granted –– or being too occupied with temporal things –– and so being unprepared for those occasions when God does something truly significant, and especially for the Day when the Son of Man [comes] in a cloud with power and great glory.

As Christians we believe that God is outside time. God is eternal, and yet in some way we cannot comprehend, God interfaces with time and even enters it.  St Paul writes, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.... (Gal 4:4). Today marks the beginning of both Advent and a new Church Year.  Advent is a time for Christians to reflect on two huge events that make all the difference in the world: when Jesus made his first appearance to be our Savior and when Jesus will make his second appearance to be our Judge.

In the Gospel Jesus tells us Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life....  I hope that we all avoid those first two like the plague, but how easy it is for us to be consumed with the anxieties of daily life. Each of us  fills our 24/7s with something, yet God gives all of us time enough to live unto him. Are we taking the time to keep our spiritual equilibrium, or do we just “live” from day-to-day as if this world is all there is? Today, as we enter Advent, it’s good to think about our own 24/7, and what we do with it.

If we are honest in assessing our time, and if we face what we actually do with our own 24/7 and why, we can position ourselves to do exactly what Jesus says in today’s Gospel: Be vigilant at all times.... And may it be true of all of us to be people who pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man. It depends on what we do with our time....

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