What is your sate of mind as we begin this new Liturgical Year? Do the events reported on the nightly news challenge your faith? Wars seem to go on and on, with death tolls mounting. Whose heart does not ache seeing the mounting tide of refugees fleeing their devastated homeland in search of relief and security? Then there are the stories of domestic violence and gang violence. As you sit under the Word this Sunday, what is the message you yearn to hear?
I asked a friend that question the other day. The answer I got? Just let me hear that it’s going to get better, that these terrible times will end. Remember what the word Gospel means. Good news. This year we will hear the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ as it comes to us from Luke. Each time we stand for the proclamation, we stand to let the Good News wash over us as we witness to the presence of Christ in the Word. Our desire is that the Word will impact our ongoing conversion and our continuing transformation into the Body of Christ, i.e., the Church that is the People of God. In that context and influenced by the Spirit, even difficult Scriptures become Good News because of the hope they engender.
As we enter into the Season of Advent, it is important to remember that there are two comings the season promises: the birth of Christ, and Christ’s coming in glory at the end of time. The renewal of the first strengthens our hope for the second. What is important for us as we journey through Advent is a sense of longing. We long for the rebirth of Christ in our lives; we long for Christ’s return in glory when all that is promised will be fulfilled.
So, enter into the silence. Sit with the Word. Let your heart be open. Listen.
We ought to be able to hear the reading from the Prophet Jeremiah. Perhaps a better phrase would be to resonate with. The times during which the Prophet proclaimed were desperate. Four centuries after the era of King David, Jerusalem was in shambles and the Babylonians enslaved the Jews. The people were enshrouded in the darkness of despair, convinced the terrible times would never end. Would Jerusalem ever be restored? There are not a few people proclaiming similar messages of despair in our own times. Have you noticed how popular apocalyptic stories are these days?
Jeremiah says to the troubled and nearly broken people: The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the House of Israel and to Judah. Remember that the Lord promised that David’s reign would last forever. The times seemed to say that there was no way that promise could be realized. What physical evidence could the people seize upon to support their hope in that promise? I will raise up for David a just shoot…in those days Judah shall be safe. The prophecy serves to strengthen the people so that they can remain faithful to the One who chose them to be a people peculiarly God’s own and to believe that God will never abandon them.
We see the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus as the Just Shoot rising up from the stump of David’s family tree, the Messiah, the one who is sent to bring Good News, the one who is our hope and our salvation. Even as the prophecy reverberates in our consciousness, we listen to the Gospel.
Jesus speaks to us from those final days before his Passion, those final days before his disciples will witness the greatest test to their faith in him. Jesus warns that the apocalyptic times will be filled with dreadful signs in the heavens and disastrous natural events on earth that will terrify even the strongest. People will die of fright before the roaring wind and rushing waves. There is no mention of earthquakes, but they might happen, too. The challenge for disciples, for those who walk with Jesus and believe in him, is to be different from the rest of people and to stand tall in the face of all this turmoil, suffering and even death. How? Because we recognize in those dreadful signs that our redemption is at hand. Did you hear Jesus say that that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth? How can this Gospel be Good News? Because even in the face of the worst that can happen, Jesus remains our hope and our deliverance.
In these times that are so difficult for so many, we need to hear Paul’s words first addressed to the Church at Thessalonica. May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all. Paul urges them and us to live what we have become through Baptism, to be Christ’s other self and do what Jesus did. It is all about love, love that binds the community together and reaches out even to those who are not part of the community. Imitate Christ. Be a people whose lives give evidence to the fact that we believe, that our hope is in our Lord Jesus Christ, that like him, we are willing to pour out our lives in service so that even the least will feel the embrace of God’s love that comes to us through Jesus.
These times, it seems to me, are singularly blessed because of the preaching and actions of Pope Francis. He proclaims the universality of God’s love, even for atheists. God loves those others would shun and condemn. You know who they are. We must work together to be sure that the parish does proclaim that all are welcome here. Two operative words: All and Welcome. There are not a few who are vociferous in their condemnation of what Pope Francis is doing to the Church. Of course there were those who said the same thing about Vatican Council II.
The Eucharist must be at the center of our faith lives. Our lives should revolve around the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. We come together at the Table of the Word to be transformed by the proclamation. Wearied by the labors of the past week, we gather at the Table of the Bread to be transformed by the Eucharist we celebrate in the renewing of Christ’s dying and rising. The Assembly is transformed into the Body of Christ to be sent out for another week to be that presence in the market place. Just as the Bread was broken and the Cup poured out so that we could share the Meal, so must we be broken and poured out until all are fed and have drunk.
Perhaps this Advent it is important for us to make the operative challenge for us to be in the word all. Again, there is no shortage of those sewing the seeds of judgmentalism, fundamentalism and division. In the Church, there are those telling others they are unworthy to approach the Table. That seems to carry with it the judgment of those being sinners and therefore condemned. Are we forgetting that we are all sinners and that our forgiveness is in, with, and through Christ? Jesus did warn that what we sow we would reap. What does that say about sowing the seeds of judgment and condemnation?
These are dark days. The Advent Season for us in the Northern Hemisphere happens as the daylight hours are the fewest. Maybe this year we should focus on the darkness and imagine what our lives would be like without our faith. What would it be like to be still in our sins? When the darkness threatens to envelop us, then we remember the Light whose coming we will celebrate this Christmas. Jesus is our hope as he comes with a love that is universal and unconditional. His table fellowship proclaimed that message. So should ours.
Over the years I have learned to be careful when I breathe a sigh of relief when reading some you said and quickly conclude that what you say applies to others and not to me.
Right now I am feeling fairly confident that I don’t have any of those attitudes of the scribes and Pharisees, attitudes that you so clearly denounce. I am just a humble guy who doesn’t even wear phylacteries or tassels. Well, sometimes I used to get deferential treatment when I was invited out to dinner and I wore my clerical garb. But surely I don’t have an attitude that would suggest the expectation of that kind of treatment.
Reflecting on where I am and on what I have, I always remember to give thanks to God when I pray. Now and then I give some of what I have to the poor. You might say I had a degree of authority, but I hope no one would ever have said that I lorded it over anyone. I always remember to be thankful to God’s providence for what I was able to achieve.
Writing these words, I begin to feel that old unease that creeps in whenever I allow myself to think I am doing a good job. I may think of the job as being well done until I compare what I did to what you do. I always fall short.
My name, Didymus, means twin. But whose twin am I? My prayer, of course, is that someday I could be like you, enough to be your twin. If I could look into the mirror and see your face, then I would be at peace.
I was blessed to have been born into comparative security. I’ve never thought of myself as wealthy, but I am comfortable as a citizen of a First World country. But I hasten to add that I am no more comfortable than the people with whom I associate. I am not exactly class conscious, other than when I feel a twinge of envy of those who have a lot of disposable income. Not to be redundant, but I do try to thank God that I am not as poor as some people I have heard about. Thank God, I have a place of warmth and shelter.
I am grateful that I have a beautiful place to go to and in which to gather with my friends to pray. We always remember to pray for the poor. Sometimes we contribute to collections for their needs. Of course we don’t expect them to gather with us where we are. They would be uncomfortable among us and would probably be self-conscious of their difference from us. Some have said that worship spaces and gatherings like ours give others something to aspire for. All the more reason for us to support places where they gather, don’t you think?
Please tell me you don’t expect more than this. Because, if you do, a lot more people are going to leave you for someone or something with more reasonable expectations. Do you realize how many more influential people would be willing to follow you if you promised prosperity? Do you know how many people would be delighted to hear that God wills us to be wealthy? That is the only reason I wear those splendid new brocaded vestments and lacey albs. It’s meant to be a sign.
I wish you could do something now to ease my anxieties. It would be comforting to hear that I am doing just fine. I am serious about wanting to be your disciple among a people exercising discipleship. My trouble is always with the practical application of your teachings. What can I do about this?
Am I heading down a slippery slope if I allow myself to wonder what it would mean to actually be a servant of the rest, of those poor ones who keep themselves at arms length and gather in places where they are not so confronted by their powerlessness? What would I have to do to make them feel included? If I did that, would my perspective change, as suddenly I would have to face my own vulnerability and real poverty?
I remember a poor man I befriended. Actually, he appeared at my doorstep, asking for help. He was mentally compromised and not terribly refined. He had a way of saying inappropriate things. Sometimes he heard voices. Sometimes he didn’t take his medications. He would act erratically and make others uncomfortable. He stayed in the shed and over time he began to think of me as a friend. He trusted me. That became a burden that consumed both time and energy. Already I had a multitude of responsibilities. He was one more. Others complained because of the pressures he put on them. He drank alcohol and used drugs. Sometimes he made them feel threatened. Then there was the question of his odor. They said he should go someplace else where he would be more welcomed.
They were right, I suppose. He felt the chill and so disappeared from our community. Then he was arrested for trespassing. He called me from jail and asked why we had turned against him. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that he was too much of a burden, or that I was embarrassed by his behavior. I couldn’t tell him that the way he dressed just didn’t fit in with the styles worn by the others in the community. How could I have told him he should have showered more often? I couldn’t let him use our showers, could I? So, as bad as I felt for him, I couldn’t give him an answer that would leave him with any sense of personal dignity.
It will be hard to sleep tonight. Over and over in my mind I ask myself how we are supposed to live practically and at the same time be the kind of people you would have us be. I look in the mirror and wonder if I am becoming what you describe as pharisaical.
Something isn’t right. That becomes all the more glaring when I reflect on those with whom you practiced Table Fellowship. I can’t ever remember being criticized for those with whom I dine, or even for those with whom I gathered d around your Table.
There is a gnawing inside me, an idea that is trying to break through to my consciousness. I don’t think I can deal with that right now. I have a homily to prepare.
I might fall asleep tonight wondering if some of those with whom I keep company and some of those with whom I break bread should outrage others among regulars. Please help me. Could you get back to me about all this? Some time when I have more time to listen. I want to be comfortable again.
Let me state at the outset what you already know. I love you. All I desire is to be known as one who follows you. That is the only reputation that matters to me. We are finishing another Liturgical year and are about to celebrate the Sunday that proclaims your kingship. Do I offend you when I say that I have long found this to be a strange feast?
Please do not misunderstand me. From the day I began to believe and to experience your call to follow, that is, your call to discipleship, 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. But when I sift through various proclamations that you made to the crowds and I notice how you always seem to focus on the little ones, the poor and the disenfranchised, I do not hear one who wants to be a king. Kings are not popular in this country, as you know. Our ancestors fought a long and bloody war to end a king’s rule over the original colonies. A king implies domination. Subjects must be subservient. The people of this country take pride in being free participants in a democracy.
Lately I seem to be always questioning apparent realities. I have to rethink assumptions I have lived with for many years. I am not trying to be obstinate, much less impertinent. We have journeyed together through another Liturgical Year. A lot has been stripped away in the process. I wonder if I am any closer to knowing what it’s all about. I just want to understand.
Sudden and unexpected deaths may be clouding my thinking. My emotions are on the surface. Within a week’s time I received two messages informing me that friends dear to me had died. The first was a young friend that had drowned in a rushing river where he was trying to cool off following a hike taken during the heat of a summer’s day. The second call was from a grieving son to tell me that his mother had died suddenly in the midst of an asthma attack. Neither deserved to die. They were both faithful servants of yours and could have had many more years to journey with you. Yes, I believe in the life after this one, but the separation that death brings weighs heavy and I find myself asking, “Why?”
If a king is someone who rules over all his subjects, shouldn’t we have a better Gospel selection to proclaim on this day, one that would emphasize your reign, instead of one that proclaims your kingship in spite of your standing before Pilate on trial for your life?
Daniel’s vision in the first reading is appropriate and is more in line with the revealing of a king. There’s conflict in Daniel’s dream as he sees the worldly powers oppose the coming kingdom of God. Then Daniel sees one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. The church believes you are that Son of Man who receives from the Father dominion, glory, and kingship. But that kingship, it seems, will be exercised only at the end of time when all people, nations, and languages will serve you. Would that that could begin now. You may appropriate Daniel’s vision to yourself in the Gospel, but it will be your crucifixion that will follow.
Are you a king? The question seems apt. The sign that will be tacked to the top of your cross will read: Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews. What kind of king has no subjects? Your Jewish brothers and sisters rejected you for welcoming sinners and eating with them. Even your disciples fled in terror, except for your mother and the Beloved Disciple. A resplendent reign is hard to reconcile with defeat.
My thoughts go back to the poor and to all those suffering atrocities in the war-torn lands. I think of children abused and abandoned. I think of my two friends. It’s here, isn’t it? This is the lesson you want understood if we re to celebrate Christ the King. 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 refugees who have no one to whom they can turn. You won’t be king for those who think they can save themselves.
So often you challenge me to remember. I’ve come to understand that that means to remember with all that remembering entails. To remember is to make all things present. To be remembered by you is to be present to the whole mystery that is you. When disciples remember all your actions and your dying and rising become timeless. Celebrating Eucharist is that kind of action. Do this in my memory is your challenge 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 must have relinquished every other refuge and anyone else on whom we could rely. We have to admit our sinfulness. We have to know that 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, except for you. That is what makes sense out of the Meal we share gathered around your table.
I think of my two friends in their dying. To drown or to suffocate is to experience ultimate powerlessness. That must be like a plunge into a deep and dark chasm. Just when they thought that their situations were hopeless, and that they were helpless, you rushed in and lifted them up. I believe that just as I pray that will be my experience on my last day.
Am I getting close to what you want me to learn as I celebrate the Feast of Christ the King? I believe that you are supreme over the Church and all of creation. But I have to need you and let you reign in my heart.
That is it, isn’t it? I have to let you be king.
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 already share in your reign. We celebrate that, too, on this feast. If I share in your reign, I had better reign the way you do. I can do no better than imitating 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 aspire to nothing loftier than being foot-washers. 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 must be representatives of all walks of life, especially the lowliest, and those who are known to be sinners, and the disabled physically and mentally, all must be welcomed or our gathering will not be the Body of Christ that you want the Church to be.
I remember a quotation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer 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 a sinner and to wonder if we would ever be free of the sin. Then we come to know what it means to be surprised by grace.
Please, Jesus, as you enter your kingdom, don’t forget me. Please let my friends, newly in the face-to-face vision of your glory, know that I look forward to seeing them again when that day comes.