THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT – December 17, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
A reading from St. Paul’s second Letter to the Thessalonians 5:16-24
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 1:6-8, 19-28

Dear Reader,

The Third Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudete Sunday.  The Latin word gaudete is translated Rejoice!  I add the exclamation point because our rejoicing on this day ought to exceed that caused simply by the realization that this Third Sunday means we are half-way through the penitential Advent Season.  True, half-way means we are close to the celebration of the dawn of our salvation in the birth of Jesus Christ, and the promise of Christ’s coming again in glory.  Certainly there is enough in those realities to give us food for contemplation and to be a source of comfort for the rest of our lives.  Another reason for us to rejoice is our being affirmed in the reality that lives in us, the transformation that has happened to us through our Baptism.

Pardon this digression.  I think it is important.  At the beginning of Jesus’ preaching ministry in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quotes the opening words of today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord.  (Isn’t it difficult to hear that proclamation in light of so much that is happening in these times and in our own country?)  This proclamation took place in the synagogue.  When he finished reading, Jesus rolled up the scroll, sat down in the position of authority, and announced to those in attendance that today Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled in their hearing.

Remember what has happened to you in Baptism.  The Spirit of the Lord came upon you.  You entered Baptismal Priesthood.  The heavens opened over you and God shouted for all to hear: This is my beloved.  Listen!  You became identified with Christ through the outpouring of the Spirit.  Christ took up residence in you.  When God looks at you, God cannot distinguish you from Christ, so complete is that identity.  Therefore, in case there are any doubts, you are embraced perfectly in God’s love forever.  That is your state and condition now.  Rejoice!

So, with all that in mind, I suggest that you hear this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word in that light.  So inspired, you ought to be able to quote Isaiah’s opening words just as Jesus did.  As you do, remember what the Lord is sending you to do, especially in these times.  See how counter-cultural your vocation is in these times as you announce Good News to the poor.  Free captives.  Release prisoners.  Heal the broken hearted.  Tell all you meet that we live in an endless year of God’s favor in spite of whatever other signs loom to the contrary.

Isaiah voiced his lushly poetic proclamation as Israel began to experience release and restoration following the Babylonian enslavement.  Jerusalem would live again.  The Temple would rise from the ashes, renewed.  What for so long had seemed a hopeless situation, a winter that would never yield to a thaw, suddenly transformed into a second spring of life and light.  As that reality dawns, how could there be any other emotion but that of rejoicing?

The Prophet made the message personal, humanized it, so to speak, with imagery the audience could appreciate.  Rejoice in the Lord’s salvation like a groom with a crown, like a bride bedecked in jewels.  If springtime can come to a land in deep freeze, so, too, can God make justice bloom and cause a people to praise God and live in freedom in the relationship that is theirs with God.

You must make it personal, too.  In these times, believe that restoration will happen.  You are the groom with the diadem.  You are the bride bedecked with Jewels.  Or, taking to heart Pope Francis’s call, you are a poorer church tending the needs of the poor.  You shepherd in the midst of the sheep, not over them.  You banish sexism and racism.  You welcome all and embrace them in God’s love.  Peace will be restored in God’s day.  Darkness will not last forever.  The Sun of Justice will return.  The winter of our discontent will be made glorious summer again.

Just as all this begins to overwhelm and give rise to protestations that these expectations are beyond the ability of anyone but the most exceptional to realize, remember that it is God’s grace that empowers.  None of this depends on you alone.  Paul, in the second reading, urged the Thessalonians not to quench the Spirit.  Hear him say the same thing to you.  What are the prophetic utterances that Paul urges you not to despise?  A prophet speaks what God wants people to hear.  When you speak against injustice, that is a prophetic utterance.  When you lift up someone whose spirit is broken, one who feels despised, one who is lost in grief, and you tell that one that s/he has reason to live and to hope because s/he is a beloved of God, that is a prophetic utterance.  You get the idea.  Each time you put love into word and action, you are a prophet.

Something more.  Notice that Paul writes to the Thessalonians, that is, to the Church at Thessalonica.  The message is meant to be heard individually and collectively.  You are not being called to act alone, but in union with your brothers and sisters who gather with you at the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist.  The Church must be prophetic to the world at large.  The parish of which you are a part must be prophetic to the community at large.  You are an essential part of both.  Again, with all that in mind, remember that this is not a time for accusation or exclusion.  It is a time when the Lord’s practice of Table Fellowship must be imitated and carried out.  Come to me all you who are hungry or thirsty and I will refresh you.  You and your parish must embrace those esteemed to be lepers in our society.  Do you think someone judged by others to be a sinner would feel welcomed by your community?  The dignity and worth, the right to life of every individual must be promoted and upheld.  By individuals.  By parishes.  By the Church.  That will translate Paul’s challenge into action, just as loving translates Eucharist into action.

We leave mark’s Gospel this week to hear from the introduction to John’s Gospel.  Who is John the Baptizer?  What is his significance?  The people wanted to know because of the powerful things he said and did.  John so awed the people by the magnificence of his message that they thought he might be the long awaited Messiah, the Christ.  After all, great crowds went out to hear him.  He baptized many of them as a sign of their repentance, and called them all to change their lives and be ready for the one coming after him.  John’s Gospel is the Gospel of signs.  Signs are events seen that point to unseen realities.  The Baptist is a sign for the people pointing not to him, but to the one who will baptize them in Spirit and truth.  John’s witness prepares the way for Christ’s coming into the hearts of those touched by his words and deeds.

You have been baptized in Spirit and truth.  Paul urged the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing.  Be a person of prayer.  It is in prayer that the reality of what has happened to you will become clear, and so will the implications.  Prayer will empower you to yield to the transforming power of the Eucharist, so that you and those gathered with you can be sent to be in the marketplace bread that is broken and cup that is poured out.  If together you do this, the world will notice and wonder.  Those that experience you will notice the power of your love and they will wonder.  They may even recognize Christ embracing them through you.

Rejoice on this Third Sunday of Advent because this reality is dawning in your midst.  It will not be that long until we celebrate the birth of our salvation and are renewed in our hope for the day when Christ will come again.  Commit yourself to working for the realization of Christ’s reign, ready to enter when Christ returns in glory.

May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness.  May he preserve you whole and entire, spirit, soul, and body, irreproachable at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He who calls us is trustworthy/ therefore he will do it.

Rejoice!

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

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SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT – B – December 10, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
A reading from the second Letter of Peter 3:8-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 1:1-8

Dear Reader,

For us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, Advent is a season of diminishing light.  The hours of daylight shorten and night threatens to extinguish the light.  Imagine our brothers and sisters who live in the far north where there is 24-hour darkness these months.  The very thought fills me with dread.  I have always craved the light.  As our days shorten, the voice of the Prophet rings out urging us to be faithful, pleading with us to remember the Lord’s promise, a promise supported by past actions in our behalf.

This Advent is not just a season of physical darkness with a waning sun.  Each day’s news puts before us deeds of darkness and we are reminded how inhumane people can be to each other.  Your experience may be similar to mine.  Just when I think I’ve heard the worst, another story comes to top it.  As I write this, a major city has announced that they have had 600 homicides so far this year.  A friend spoke with me this morning about the suicide death of his 15-year-old nephew.  The boy had carefully planned out his death on his computer, including setting the alarm for an early hour as the time for him to kill himself.  No one knows why.  And his parents grieve.  Drive by shootings, domestic violence and killings, racism, sexism, White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis all spew hatred and give rise to violence.

On the world scene, wars rage and innocent people die.  Children perish in the rubble.  And children starve to death and die of cholera as helpless parents look on.

We need to hear the Prophet’s voice so that hope can be roused lest we sink into despair.

Imagine Israel’s plight as Isaiah’s prophecy was voiced.  Their Holy City was destroyed.  They lived in a foreign and pagan land in slavery.  What happened to the Promise?  Where was the God who led their ancestors out of slavery and formed them into a people whose way of life would signal to their neighbors the wonderful and unique relationship that was theirs with their God and God’s with them?  Not only did they have to deal with these imposed horrors, but also they had to suffer the infidelity of some of their brothers and sisters who had taken up pagan ways and worshipped Babylonian idols.

Comfort; give comfort to my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly.  In their condition, the Israelites thought that all that had happened to them became signs of punishment for their sins and signaled abandonment by their God.  After all, the God of the Israelites could be a God of wrath.  But here, through the Prophet, God speaks of mercy, forgiveness, expiation of guilt, and release.

Could there be a tenderer image in all of Scripture than this?  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.  Imagine how the words would resonate were you in the midst of that suffering borne by that people.  But this is the Living Word of God.  If suffering is part of your present condition, hear these words and be comforted.

From where do we hear the prophetic voice today?  From where do people in suffering find comfort today?  That is the role of Church in the modern world.  If we believe that Church is the People of God, then the responsibility lies with us, each and all of us.  In these troubled times, could that be why Pope Francis is calling for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor?  Is that why he urges the bishops and clergy to shepherd in the midst of the sheep, even to smell like them?  Strange to me the ones who do not want to hear Francis’s message.

In Advent the prophetic message is a reminder to prepare the way of the Lord.  The Lord is coming to make all things right.  The experience of the coming occurs as a result of the deeds of love carried out by the People of God exercising their Baptismal Priesthood.  These actions are the prophetic voice today.  These people of God live lives that can only be explained by faith.  Their compassion rises from the conviction that we are sisters and brothers in the Lord.  The People of God love the little ones, the lowly, those that the rest of society are tempted to ignore lest they have to face their own inadequacies.  They are peacemakers, neither sexists nor racists.  They defend the orphans and the widows and all the vulnerable in society.  They long for the freedom of all people and are willing to lay down their own lives for that cause.  They work for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Peter reminds us not to be discouraged if adverse conditions should persist for a time.  Time and eternity do not have anything in common.  Hence, one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years are as a day in the Lord’s eyes.  Faith convinces us that the Lord is coming to make the new heavens and the new earth transformed by love.  This will happen even if the world as we know it is destroyed by violence or abuse and neglect.  In the midst of whatever conditions and sufferings the People of God must endure, they must be holy in (their) conduct and devotion.  We are to be faithful, loving, and a people who avoid sin.  We watch and wait and believe.

If there is a patron saint of Advent, it is John the Baptizer.  He embodied Isaiah’s prophecy: I send my messenger before you to prepare your way; a herald’s voice in the desert crying, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, clear him a straight path.’  We believe the you in the text is Christ.  John’s role, fulfilled through his preaching and baptizing, is to prepare hearts to receive Christ.

There is a tendency to romanticize Advent.  Already Christmas carols are heard.  Christmas decorations abound.  This year stores were decorated for Christmas just after Halloween.  Songs about the Infant in Bethlehem can make people think that we are awaiting a birth.  No so.  Christmas celebrates the Incarnation, God uniting with humankind, taking on flesh.  We celebrate Christmas and remember.  But we also celebrate Christmas and look forward – to that Day of the Lord when Christ comes in glory to claim the Kingdom for the Father.  We are to be an Advent people by continuing the work of the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord.

The question is, how?  The directives are vague.  Love.  Love God.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Atone for sin.  Forgive.  Accept forgiveness.  Be reconciled.  In practice what does that mean?  Live as Christ’s other self wherever you are, in whatever condition you find yourself.  God will do the rest.  That is why we gather on Sundays to celebrate Eucharist.  We gather as family to be transformed, strengthened and sent to continue preparing the way.

May I share with you an inspiring note I received sometime ago that enfleshes the Advent challenge?

I watched Ben Hur recently, and towards the end, Jesus was truly carrying His cross.  That viewing only reinforced my close affinity to our Lord.  As a child, I wished that I could have been there during that time in history so that I could have helped Him.  Those feelings have not subsided to this day.  It is from that foundation of faith and friendship that I have always felt as if I have been put on earth for a bigger purpose.  Those beliefs were dampened when I was diagnosed with ALS.  I didn’t feel that I could help others with my limited physical abilities.  But in hindsight, I now recognize, from my friends and family, that I am actually helping them to address death in a positive fashion.  I am amazed and humbled to hear them tell me what an inspiration I am to them.  Even a close friend who has been diagnosed with brain cancer has told me he relies on me for my fortitude and stability in the face of dire consequences.  It comes as a surprise to me.  But then I think maybe in a small way I am continuing God’s work, and I am gratified in that realization.  I am fulfilling my hopes; what more could I ask for?

My friend has been delivered of his ALS and is now in the Lord’s embrace in glory.  But I would bet he continues to pray for us still on the way.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT –B- December 03, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 1:3-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 13:33-3

Dear Reader,

Starting points often can be nadirs.  Sometimes people have to hit the bottom before they can begin to rebuild their lives.  Those who struggle with addiction may have to reach that point of helplessness before they realize the strength they have when they surrender to the grace of the Higher Power and so begin the recovery that will be lived one day at a time for the remainder of their lives.  Whether it is self or the world that is being considered, evil, the reality of sin, must be recognized before conversion and restoration can begin.  The saying that became a cliché from overuse is apt as we sit under the Liturgy of the Word for the First Sunday of Advent.  Today is the first day of the rest of your life.  That life is to be lived in continual conversion and steadfastness of faith.

Dare I ask you to consider where are you spiritually as this Church Year begins?  What is your assessment of the World’s state of affairs?  How are your relationships, those with God, with those you love and with whom you are in relationship, and those with yourself?  It may well be that your faith has been tested and you wonder if you believe at all.  There may not be great sins in your consciousness; but there may not be any great deeds of charity either.  It may occur to you that you are not praying with the regularity that you used to pray.  Perhaps you go to Mass every Sunday.  On the other hand you might not be that regular in your practice.  Does anything happen when you are at Mass?  Or do you find yourself wishing the hour would get over so that you can get on with what is really important.

The sense of barrenness in terms of your relationship with God can be exacerbated by the weight of strained or broken relationships with those closest to you.  You may ache with the pain of betrayal.  The sense of barrenness rising from the ashes should not surprise you since Jesus linked the two great commandments and made them one.  Love God with your entire being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  The shortcomings in either commandment affect the other.

If you do not feel loved by those closest to you, your spouse, your family, your neighbors, your brothers and sisters surrounding you in the Assembly, it is not a giant leap to that feeling of not being loved by God.  The same will be true if you are not doing your part in those important relationships.  Self-absorption closes God out.  It is hard to experience the Eucharist as transforming if you are not fully, actively, and consciously participating, if you are not committed to being the Eucharist’s co-celebrant in the exercise of your Baptismal Priesthood.  Much less can you hear the call to put the Eucharist you have celebrated into practice in the market place.  Be bread broken?  Be cup poured out?  For what purpose if love is dead?

Then there is the World community.  The events in recent months in our country in terms of racism, sexism, the emergence of white supremacists, the KKK, the neo-Nazis, mass shootings in churches and as people gather for festivals, all this spewing of hatred and division can shatter your faith and make you wonder, where is God?  How long have we been at war?  How long have we been witnessing the plight of the refugees?  Long enough to be used to the horror that each day fills the nightly news?  Long enough to assume that torture and the rescinding of basic constitutional rights are the presumed adjunct of strife?  Does might make right?  There is ample evidence that the intrinsic worth of each human being is being wholesalely denied – be that through acts of violence toward those in the first stages of life, or those in their final days.  When capital punishment is practiced our society is brought to the level of those who commit the basest of acts of violence.

Are you tempted to despair?  We need the witness of another Anne Frank who wrote in the midst of horrors, at a time when there seemed to be no limit to the exercising of man’s inhumanity to man: In spite of everything that has happened, I still believe that people are basically good at heart.  That is a faith vision, faith in God and faith in those beings created in God’s image.

In this Sunday’s first reading, Isaiah decries the conditions that surround him.  Horrified by the lapses of faith he witnesses, Isaiah wants God to intervene as God did in leading the Jews from Egypt’s slavery to the Desert’s freedom.  Maybe if the mountains shook and the waters parted again, the people would come to their senses again.  Isaiah wants God to do it again, and if God does faith might revive.  We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.  There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us.  At the brink of despair, Isaiah remembers.  God can act even in the darkest of times.  O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Bluntly put, Isaiah asks God to have at us!

At the beginning of this Advent Season, we must remember.  God has called us.  The Spirit has inspired us.  We have died to the old and former life and been reborn in Christ through Baptism.  That is our lived reality.  It is time to yield to Baptism’s grace.  Paul rejoices at the evidence that the Corinthians live in the faith that came to them through Paul’s preaching and the witness to Christ he bore them.  That is evident among them because they lack no spiritual gift as they wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful, and it was God who called you to fellowship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  We know that the Corinthians had their faults too.  They were no a perfect community.  They had to be reminded about the basics of the faith, especially of the primacy of place love had to play in their lives, Love, the greatest gift of the Spirit.

So it is that we come to the Gospel, the first proclamation of the Good News for this Liturgical Year.  What does Jesus challenge us to do?  Watch and be ready!  The journey of faith is one day at a time, and to be lived steadfastly.  More importantly, Christ has left the faithful, the Baptized, in charge.  They are the continuation of Christ’s presence.  We need to hear Christ’s words in his prayer to the Father from John’s Gospel: To them (the disciples) I have revealed your name, and I will continue to reveal it so that your love for me may live in them, and I may live in them.  What the Lord hopes for is that the World, seeing us in action will recognize Christ acting through us.  That is what Christ expects us to be doing until he comes again.

What is our starting point on this First Sunday of Advent?  It should be no surprise that the starting point is Love.  That should not lead us to being dewy eyed with pulsing sentimentality and romanticism.  The Love we are commanded to live in acknowledgment of our identity with Christ is harsh, even terrible, because it is all demanding and all consuming.  Love’s perfect expression is Christ’s pouring out of self in service to the shedding of the last drops of blood and water flowing from his side on the cross.  Like it or not, Love’s perfect expression in us must be the same.

So we come to The Table of the Eucharist to do this in memory of Christ, that is, to recognize Christ present.  The Eucharistic action is one of formation and transformation.  We take and eat what has been blessed and broken for us so that we might be transformed and sent to be that presence in the world until Christ Comes again.  When?  Only God knows that.  What Christ says to you and me and to all: be on guard.  That is, live in the mystery and stand in awe.  When will take care of itself – in due time.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus