What is it all about, this Advent Season we celebrate? Some would have us think that the season is about our getting into the mindset of a pregnancy, looking forward with eager longing for the birth of a child, albeit, the Christ child. That is strange, isn’t it? We know the story. We look back to an event that happened 2000 years ago. We know who was born then and have some familiarity with the life story. Advent is not about awaiting the birth of a child, but celebrating the anniversary of the birth. We prepare for that One, who was born, to be reborn in our hearts and so transform our lives.
John the Baptist dominates the Liturgy of the Word in this season. Have you ever wondered why he was the mega-star that he was? He had a huge following. All classes of people came out in droves to listen to him, the way people today gather to catch a glimpse of rock stars or screen idols. Imagine what John would have had to contend with if those in the crowds had the capability to take a selfie with him. What was the attraction? Can you imagine yourself trekking out to some desert land to listen to someone who seems to have one thing on his mind, to berate his audience? That may be what john seems to be about. No so, really.
People went out in huge numbers to hear John’s message of hope. He touched the longing in the hearts of those who hung on his every word. Many of those assembled were poor. Those days had a lot in common with our own, the number of people living in desperation, and the wide separation of classes in society. The elite saw poverty as a punishment for sin in the same way that leprosy was.
The poor were not the only ones who had an emptiness they longed to have filled and so sought to hear what Hon had to say. The intellectual and religious leaders listened and so did the people in power. They might not have liked what they heard and winced when the preaching struck home. Some came to hear him over and over again. We don’t know how many times Herod rode out to hear him. Many wondered if they could ever accept the message. If they had been certain the message made no sense, why go out for a repeat? But if they did take it to heart, how would they ever be the same again, if what John seemed to be preaching were to happen?
In our parlance we might say that John called it as he saw it. He did use words like hypocrites and brood of vipers in an attempt to wake up a group of people whose actions and way of life did not correspond to what they were teaching, to the life they were demanding others live. John wanted them to be in fact what they purported to be, teachers and observers of the Law. And if they did that they might be more compassionate toward those they challenged. (Pope Francis echoes John the Baptist when he calls for a poorer Church to serve the needs of the poor, for shepherds to stand in the midst of the sheep and not over them, even to smell like them. Not everyone in the Church likes the message.)
The Baptist called his hearers to repentance. Some, today, might cringe at the word because they link it to right-winged-Christian Fundamentalists, the kind who would declare the devastating hurricane Matthew that ripped through Haiti to be a punishment from God on a people who practice voodoo; and then use that event as a warning to the rest of the world so they won’t have to experience what God could send down were God to yield to righteous anger. Some say HIV/AIDS is one of those punishments. If the truth were told, there is no shortage of terrible disasters, natural and human caused, that could serve to make us wonder what worse could possibly happen. Many could cry our to God, wondering what they did to deserve this – if God were that kind of god.
John the Baptist was not about making those kinds of threats. That should not be the message of the Church this Advent.
Prepare, Ye, the way of the Lord! Many Advent Liturgies will begin with that verse sung as the presider and Liturgical Ministers process through the Assembly. That is a seven-word phrase that can be summed up in one word: Repent! Repentance is about changing lives. Remember what the minister said to you on Ash Wednesday as s/he traced the ashes on your forehead? Turn away from sin and believe the Good News. Repent and believe. Those words usher us into the season of Lent. John draws us into the spirit of Advent by urging us to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Those words will resonate with and be attractive to us if we want to see what is promised happen, if we are willing to pay the price. Do we want to see the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven? Is that the holy longing in our hearts?
If we long for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, we long to live Christ’s life. Jesus is the one in who God reigns completely. Jesus’ will and the Father’s are one. If we are serious about living this Advent season, then we must say that we want Christ to reign in our hearts so that our wills and God’s will become one. We pray for the grace to live our Baptism through which we were reborn in Christ. We pray for the grace to live the Gospel. What would this Christmas be like if all the baptized suddenly did that?
Sit with the astounding words from Isaiah that are the first reading for this Sunday. We hear the Prophet speak about the coming of the Messiah, of Christ into the world and how the world will be transformed when he does. Christ is part of the Hebrew tradition, a sprout from the stump of Jesse. David is Jesus’ ancestor. Jesus comes to make all things right, to restore the order in creation that sin destroyed. In that right ordering, the poor and the afflicted will be treated with dignity and justice. The despots will be powerless. All the hostilities that divide people will be transformed into compassion, and natural enemies will live in fraternity and peace. Even Jews and Gentiles will come together to the Lord’s mountain. And the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord. It sounds like the dawning of the Messianic Age. Imagine that. Take it to heart. What if it were to happen this Christmas!
There are those who cannot accept Jesus as Messiah and Lord because that promised age does not seem to have dawned with his coming. What do you think?
Of course there is the individual response, yours and mine, for us to consider. What in me has to change before my heart is ready for Christ’s reign? For what must I repent? Is it obvious that I love others the way Christ loves me? Or, do I harbor resentments and dehumanize those who offend me? Am I forgiving, or do I seek vengeance? What do I see when I look into the eyes of an impoverished person? Do I see the face of Christ? Who are the ones I condemn and deem unlovable even by God? I begin to see what repentance means for me. Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.
The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God. This Advent, the Church must listen to the Baptist’s challenge. When those outside the Church think of the Church, do they witness the impact of a people seeking to reconcile and bring peace? Are they in awe of a people who give primacy of place to the poor, the disenfranchised, the disabled and the aged? Do they see a people who long to serve and not to be served? Or, when they, the outsiders, look on, how easy is it for them to conclude that they would never be welcome in the Assembly? Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
(For those of us in the United States, there is much that was said and done during the recent political campaign that we could sift through this Gospel challenge of John the Baptist.)
On this Second Sunday of Advent, we assemble to sit under the Word to be challenged by it. We stand around the Table to celebrate Eucharist and be transformed by the celebration. Who will be welcome to gather with us? Is there anyone whose presence would scandalize (me) and cause (me) to flee in disgust? Until all are welcome, the Eucharist will not be what Christ has in mind when he says, take this all of you and eat. This is my body. Take this all of you and drink. This is my blood. All of you, do this in my memory.
We still have some days of Advent during which to repent. We can hope in the One who will come with the Holy Spirit and fire to tame the savage beasts and empower the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the young lion, even the child and the adder, to be at peace in each other’s company. And the Black and the White. The gay and the straight. The Christian, the Muslim and the Jew. The Republican and the Democrat. And the believer and the atheist. Maybe this time my heart will be ready. And the Church, too.
A year doesn’t take long. Believe it or not, neither does a lifetime. Both go by as quickly as a wink. It is the height of naiveté to think that there will always be a tomorrow in which to do the important things we ought to do today. I say that neither to be depressing nor to begin our reflections for this new Liturgical Year on a downer. Just the opposite is the truth. If we live by faith, then this is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad! This First Sunday of Advent challenges us to do it right this time, that is, if we didn’t quite do it that way during the last year. That year is over. We cannot undo anything we did in it. We can’t go back and do what we didn’t get around to doing, either. This Sunday marks a new beginning, a new season in which to hope.
There are not many who would say that these are the best of times. Each day’s news is filled with stories that attest to the opposite. Wars still rage. Service people continue to lose their lives in the battlefields. Victims of hurricane Matthew in Haiti, still recovering from the great earthquake, continue to live in rubble and to suffer from diseases like cholera. Add to that list the daily stories of violence in our streets, the innocents being robbed and gunned down, and the tales of domestic violence, and it would be easy to conclude that these are the worst times. And they might be if we did not have faith.
In the Gospel that is proclaimed this Sunday, we will hear Jesus urge us to stay awake! That might sound ominous. Given the parable that he tells about how differently the owner of the house would have acted had he known when the thief was coming, we could interpret the reading that way. But the reality is that the Lord is telling us that we ought to live life in the here and now and be prepared. We don’t want to miss the important event that is coming.
Our history is replete with tales of these who did not pay attention to the signs. Usually the reason they didn’t notice what was happening around them was because they were preoccupied with themselves. The Lord speaks of the days of Noah, the one who was open to God, and who was surrounded by a people so taken up with eating and drinking that they ignored the signs of the impending flood. How different the story would have read had they too heeded the signs and prepared for the onslaught. What will be our excuse? The signs are all about us. Some will notice and act on them. Some will not.
So, what are we supposed to be about during this Advent Season? It is a very busy time of the year for many of us. The frenetic schedule that many people keep exacerbates the anxiety they feel as they hear how few shopping days remain until Christmas. Many of those in poverty agonize over how little money they have to spend on Christmas gifts. It is insidious the way advertisers link the proof of love to the purchase of expensive items. Do you love enough to give the very best?
How the world spends the weeks before Christmas is not necessarily the way we ought to spend these days. We are moving toward the Feast of Christmas. The litany of terrible things going on can weigh us down and depress us. Even the days themselves get shorter and shorter here in the Northern Hemisphere. Darkness threatens to envelop us. These December days can prompt despair. What if the sun doesn’t return this year? Ridiculous, you say. Then we ought not act as thought it won’t.
Christmas celebrates the Incarnation, the Word of God taking on the flesh of humankind. There is no chasm separating the human and the Divine. In truth there never was. Add to that that we believe that when we were baptized, we put on Christ and became identifies with Christ. We ought to believe that that identity is so complete that God loves us with the same love God loves Christ. Christ lives in us. We ought to believe that.
Take a moment to live under the Word. What is this Gospel saying to you? What is the challenge the Spirit invites you to meet? So many of us are preoccupied with our selves. I hate to use the word egomaniacal, but that might not be far from the truth. Even when we are locked in the mindset of how sinful we are, or how weak, or unproductive, untalented, or unworthy, that amounts to being locked up in “I.”
If we start to live the reality of having put on Christ, of Christ dwelling in us, then that “I” will be liberated and we will not be so closed in on self. We will be free to say Yes to God’s invitation to walk with God in love. That means that we will be able to say yes to living in God in the here and now, where we are and among those with whom we share being. Then we can begin to love.
It is true that that reality is something that has happened to us. We were baptized. The Holy Spirit was poured out on us and has come to live in our hearts. But that is not enough. Each of must make the decision to live the reality, to say yes, Amen, let it be!
I am newly taken with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, having just read a magnificent biography of the great man who was executed in a Nazi prison camp one month before the Liberation. Here is a quote that seems appropriate: God today adds his “yes” to your “Yes,” as he confirms your will with his will, and as he allows you, and approves of your triumph and rejoicing and pride. He makes you at the same time instruments of his will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In his unfathomable condescension God does add his “yes’ to yours; but by doing so, he creates out of your love something quite new.”
To accept the implications of what we say we believe means that we will break down the walls that isolate and segregate us. There is a reason why we have been called to love. It is in love that we experience our union in Christ with God. We gather every Sunday to celebrate Eucharist. We can’t do that if we are locked in the isolation of self. Fully, actively, and consciously entering into the celebration of Eucharist means actively loving those with whom we gather and recognizing them to be one with us and together being the reality that is the Body of Christ.
To accept the implications of what we say we believe means that we will be ambassadors of love to those who are most unloved. God expects us to continue Christ’s work. Or, better put, Christ’s work cannot go on unless his body, the people of God, does it. We cannot close our eyes to what is going on out there, remain inactive, and say that we are living the faith. We must love the way Christ loved.
In the Gospel, Jesus talked about the two men in the field, one taken, one left. He talked about the two women grinding wheat to flour, one taken, one left. In each case, the one taken was the one who stayed awake and recognized the moment and yielded to faith.
The Lord’s house, in the first reading, is on the highest peak so that all from afar can see it and make their way toward it. If we as Church let the reality of the Feast we will celebrate in a few short weeks transform us, if we begin to love in the reality, hope will be rekindled even in those on the brink of despair. They would say: Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain. We just might see swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. There just might be a renewed hope for peace.
A final note. Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy has concluded. But that certainly doesn’t mean that Mercy should cease to be a paramount virtue expressed in and by the Church and lived by the faithful. Some still feel shunned by the Church. Some doubt they are welcome to come to the Table. Wouldn’t it be a blessing if, as they entered the church, they could tell that all are welcome here? Could this be the year to end the death penalty? Could this be the time that we begin to see incarceration as a time to rehabilitate the imprisoned and prepare them for life outside the walls?
You know that I love you and that I want to be known as one who follows you. Another Liturgical Year is about to conclude with the celebration of your kingship this Sunday. Do I offend you if I say that I think it is a strange feast?
Please do not misunderstand me. From the day we met and I experienced your call to follow, I have wanted you to reign in my life so that I could be part of the Church’s extension of your reign in the world. Couldn’t we use another kind of title for the feast? Kings aren’t popular in this country, as you know. Our ancestors fought a long and bloody war to remove us from a king’s rule. The title of king seems to imply domination. His subjects must be subservient. We pride ourselves on being free participants in a democracy.
Does it bother you that I seem to be always questioning apparent realities? I am not trying to be obstinate, much less impertinent. Having journeyed through another year with you, I wonder if I am any closer to understanding what it is all about. That is it. I just want to understand.
If a king is someone who rules over all his subjects, shouldn’t we have a different Gospel selection for this feast that would emphasize your kingship? This week’s Gospel proclaims your final hours on earth as you hang in crucifixion, someone rejected and condemned to death. David, your predecessor, had glorious moments when the people acknowledge and anointed him as king. Wouldn’t it give the proper accent to this feast if we had a similar moment to David’s to relish? Instead, we look into the face of what most would concede to be defeat.
Are you a king? The question is apt. The sign tacked to the top of your cross read: This is the king of the Jews. What kind of king has no subjects? I know there is something here you want me to understand and accept, but I am having a hard time seeing what that is.
Do the two brigands, or thieves as they are called, represent us, a divided society? Brigand sounds harsh. I know I am not one, or even a thief. It is hard for me to identify with that type. When people talk about the Good Thief, they often sound like they are thinking of someone who is akin to a saint who just got caught up with the wrong gang. But didn’t he wind up on the cross next to yours because of capital crimes he committed? I doubt he was as soft and gentle as some would have him. I’ll bet there wasn’t much difference in history between him and his comrade in arms hanging on the other side of you, the one who asked: Are you the Christ? Had they heard about you before they made their way to Calvary with you? Or was the conclusion something that rose out of what they had heard and observed along the way?
Whoa! It’s here, isn’t it? This is the lesson you want understood if we are to celebrate Christ the King properly. You are the king of the desperate. You reign in hearts that open to you and are otherwise empty. You are the king of those who, like the Good Thief, have no one else to whom they can turn. You won’t be king for anyone who thinks s/he can save her/himself.
It is such a simple plea: Remember me….” Remember – with all that that entails. The thief was praying that you would make him present when you entered your kingdom where God reigns. If you remembered him, he would be at your side there, too. For you and him remembering means that – making the one remembered present, making the event remembered timeless. Celebrating Eucharist is that kind of action. Do this in my memory is your challenge to us to live the Mystery, and living it, to make the whole Christ event present. That is how you bring us to God.
We have to be empty and desperate in that emptiness. We have to have given up anywhere else to turn, anything else on which we could rely. We have to admit our sinfulness. We have to know what helplessness and hopelessness mean if we are going to enter into your reign. There is no other way to know other than to have lived the experience of being helpless and hopeless. I can thank you now for my having been there, because that is what makes sense out of the Meal we share gathered around your table.
There is an irony as we celebrate this feast this year. This Sunday concludes the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis. Mercy is what we witness at the heart of this Gospel. But wouldn’t you be earnest in declaring the conclusion of the year should not mean the end of the Church’s determination to live your mercy in ministering to others. Rejecting regal splendor and superiority, you desire all the faithful to reign with you in serving, in lifting up the lowly and downtrodden. You demand that the Church proclaim to all, all races, both genders, believers and non-believers, each of you is the beloved of God, created in love and destined to live in that love for all eternity. No one should be shunned or excluded.
Am I getting closer to what you want me to learn as I celebrate the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe? I believe you are supreme over the Church and all creation. But I have to need you and let you reign in my heart because you are a king who reigns in service. I have to let you be king. I must let you wash my feet. And then, if you reign in my life, I must go and do likewise.
What a dolt I am. I must be the epitome of the slow learner. It just occurred to me now that because of our baptismal union with you, we do share in your reign because we are identified with you. We celebrate that, too, on this feast. I will say it again. If I share in your reign I had better reign the way you do. I can do no better than imitate you in pouring out myself in service. Yours is not a community of triumphalists, if there is such a word. Yours is a community of servants who should aspire to nothing loftier than being a foot-washer. I must recognize you in the poorest of the poor and serve you in them.
When I gather with my sisters and brothers in the faith, in that number there should be representatives of all walks of life, especially the lowliest, and those who are known to be sinners. The disabled physically and mentally must be welcome there, or our gathering will not be the Body of Christ that you want the Church to be.
I remember a quotation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who understood what the Kingdom that is the Church should be like: It is much easier for me to imagine a praying murderer, a praying prostitute, than a vain person praying. Nothing is so at odds with prayer as vanity. If we are a people in whom you reign, we know what it means to be sinners and to wonder if we should ever be free of the sin. And then we come to know what it means to be surprised by grace and by mercy.
Please, Jesus, as you enter your Kingdom, don’t forget me.