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THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT – A – November 27, 2016

 

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 2:1-5

A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 13:11-14

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 24:37-44

 

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?

Adeste Fideles!

Sincerely,

Didymus  

 

OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, KING OF THE UNIVERSE – November 20, 2016

A reading from the second Book of Samuel – 2 Samuel 5:1-3

A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Colossians – 1:12-20

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke – 23:35-43

 

Dear Jesus,

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.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – November 13, 2016

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Malachi

A reading from the second Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians 3:7-12

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 21:5-19

 

On this penultimate Sunday of the Liturgical Year, the readings urge us to consider the last things, that is, to think about how our history will conclude, and how we are to live in the mean time.  Remember, we are a people of faith.  As such, we live with the conviction that God is in charge.  As importantly, God ultimately will triumph over everything that is evil.

Don’t we believe that has happened already?  Christ, through his passion, death, and resurrection, is the victor.  That is what our response during the Eucharistic Prayer means.  We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.  If we believe that Jesus is Lord and the savior of the world, then there is no doubt about the outcome.  We live in the tension between Christ’s ascending to the Father’s right hand and his return in glory.  Then there is Christ’s promise to be with us always, even to the world’s end.  That is meant to support us along the Way.

Apocalyptic literature has long been popular.  Think of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.  Disaster films and drams terrify and thrill audiences, especially when they deal with the end of the world.  On the eve of Halloween, 1938, Orson Welles narrated a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’ novel, War of the Worlds.  People tuning in mid-broadcast thought they had happened upon an interruption of regular programming to alert the nation to a disastrous invasion from Mars.  Panic ensued and some got into their cars and headed out for some safe haven, wherever that might have been, while others jumped from buildings in terror.  It’s one thing to be fascinated by the end times; it is another to find one’s self in the midst of them.

One thing must be remembered about things apocalyptic.  While the literature does deal with The End, so to speak, in the end, evil forces are encountered and destroyed by the good.  Far from promoting fatalism and the triumph of evil, the apocalypse gives reason to hope.

Think about that as you enter the Liturgy of the Word for this Sunday, the next to the last Sunday in Ordinary Time for this year.  While the readings are heavy and speak of terrible events, each reading means to support faith and to encourage perseverance in spite of contrary signs.

As I write this, it occurs to me that there is no shortage of prophets of doom.  (The presidential election hasn’t happened yet.  We are not going to even go there.)  There are wars and rumors of wars.  The image of the little boy, rescued from the rubble in Aleppo has become an icon.  What more needs to be said about war’s horror?  Terrorism is a major word in today’s vocabulary and, real or imagined, seems to lurk around every corner.  Almost every night on the evening news there is a report of shootings that inspire racial tensions.  Black Lives Matter!  Because we are all brothers and sisters and God is our source, we can affirm that All Lives Matter.  Natural disasters from earthquakes and hurricanes inflict unimaginable suffering on multitudes.  So when you hear the Prophet Malachi in the first reading, and Jesus in the Gospel, it will not be difficult to visualize what they are talking about.

But listen for the reason to banish despair.  Dante got it right.  The Divine Comedy begins in hell, but ends In Paradiso.

Malachi is a post-exilic prophet.  The people have come back from the Babylonian Captivity.  They have rebuilt the Temple.  The best of times has not followed.  Just the opposite seems to have been the case.  There is a general flagging of faith.  The people do not live by the Mosaic Law.  Even some are following pagan ways and sacrificing to Baal with the hope that there they will find reason for security.

In Malachi’s scathing language, the proud and all evildoers become towering weeds reduced to stubble as fire consumes them.  What is the source of Malachi’s warning?  The Lord of hosts has said it.  There is a lack of specificity regarding when this conflagration will happen.  It might be a while away.  The message is meant to encourage those who fear my name.  (A word about the word fear.  In this context, fear does not mean trembling or being in terror.  Here the word fear means to stand in awe of  I AM.)  Through the prophet, God promises the faithful that after the holocaust, the destruction by fire, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays for those who are faithful.

At first it might not be clear why today’s second reading is the reading from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.  There is an obvious tone of reprimand and an urging to reform.  What occasioned this?  In the Thessalonian community, not a few of the members had determined for themselves that The Day of the Lord, i.e., the day of Christ’s return in glory, would be imminent.  Consequently, they had stopped working at their day jobs and were idling their time away, engaging in gossip and becoming dependent on, and a burden for the rest of the community while they waited for the Lord’s return.  Since they were not working, they had no money for food.  They expected the community to feed them.

Paul says that they should be doing a better job of following his example and imitate what he did when he came among them to announce Christ.  Certainly it would not have been an injustice for Paul to expect food and shelter from them in payment for the service he rendered the Thessalonians.  But that is not what he did.  Paul worked hard and earned his own keep.  He was not beholden to anyone.  Those idlers in the community should imitate Paul.  If they do not and consequently have no food, that should be their problem.  The workers in the community have no obligation to feed them.

That sounds harsh, doesn’t it?  What about Christ’s urging us to feed the hungry?  We call that a corporal work of mercy, after all.  That is true when those hungry have no way to earn the money for their own food.  There is a communal responsibility to reach out to the poor who are trapped in poverty through no fault of their own.  There is a responsibility to reach out to those thousands suffering in Haiti in the aftermath of Hurrican Matthew.  St. Vincent de Paul Societies and other similar organizations have a difficulty keeping up with the daily demands for food and shelter.

Paul is not saying that we have no obligation toward these.  There may be a few among the unemployed and the homeless to whom his admonition would apply.  Certainly, he is not speaking about the genuinely needy.  While this might smack of socialism to some, in faith, and in the Catholic Social Justice tradition, we do have an obligation to feed the poor and shelter the homeless until all are fed and all are sheltered.  Christ’s final coming in glory on the day of judgment just might be the motivation we need to keep shouldering the burden even as we urge the idlers who are content to live on the dole to get busy and work for their own keep or go hungry.

The word gospel means good news.  You might think that today’s Gospel challenges that meaning.  Where is the good news?  Everything Jesus is saying sounds negative and seems to be a prediction of dreadful times to come even for the faithful ones.  What occasions the Lord’s remarks are the musings of the people about the splendor of the restored temple.  If you have ever stood in awe before some magnificent new building, the latest in architectural brilliance, you have had their experience, especially if you cannot imagine such a masterpiece ever falling to rubble.  Luke’s Gospel was written after the Roman invasion and the destruction of the temple.  For those who were dazzled by the glory of the temple, witnessing its destruction must have seemed like the worst event imaginable.  What worse could possibly happen?  Wouldn’t that be signal for the beginning of the last days?

Listen carefully to what the Lord says so that you can hear the good news when it comes.  First of all, there is no promise that it will be a short time until judgment day.  There may be those who will say they are Christ reincarnated.  There may be those who say that the end is near.  (Remember when it was predicted that the world would end on December 20, 2012?  It had something to do with the Mayan Calendar and the prophesies of Nostradamus both running out about that time.) No matter how terrible the signs are, wars, famines, earthquakes, hurricanes and plagues, all of which we have seen, no matter how terrible the signs may seem, they do not necessarily signal the end.  The disciples are called to remain faithful through it all, even as they anticipate the Lord’s coming.

Second, Jesus talks about what is in store for the disciples along the way.  Luke is seizing upon the lived experience of the people as they are being expelled from temple, excommunicated, we would term it.  Remember Saul was on his way to Damascus to round up some heretical Jews who were followers of the new Way when he met Christ in that blinding flash and became Paul, the Apostle.  The Jewish converts no only were thrown out of the temple, declared to be unclean, but their families were disowning them.  Suddenly they found themselves unemployed because their work was not acceptable for followers of Christ.  Similar fates happened to the Gentile converts.  Both Jewish and Gentile Christians became enemies of the state and were persecuted and put to death.  No wonder Jesus had said that if they were going to be his disciples they would have to take up their crosses every day and follow him.

Third, those being persecuted for their faith will become prophets of the faith.  The Lord promises to give the disciples a wisdom that will amaze and refute their persecutors.  Some will rage in response to their witness and kill the Christians.  Others will be moved by what they hear and find themselves powerless to refute or deny what they see and hear.  It is undeniably true that in every age that the Church has been persecuted, the number of new believers surges, even as the faith of the persecuted intensifies.  While thee will be not shortage of those who hate Christ’s followers, there will be plenty of those whose hatred changes to admiration, and from admiration to imitation, and from imitation, to faith.

What is the promise for the faithful?  If they persevere through the difficult times, the worst of times, ultimately there will be for them salvation.  No matter how terrible the signs that confront the disciples, they will not be defeated.  Salvation will be theirs.  The Apocalypse does not end in despair, but in the defeat of evil when Christ returns in Glory.

Does that give you insights into why we are Eucharistic people and Alleluia is our song?  Sunday after Sunday, the day of the Lord’s Resurrection, we gather to give thanks to God in the breaking of the bread.  We renew Christ’s dying and rising.  Having eaten his Body and drunk his Blood, we are sent forth to continue the proclamation through word and action, until he comes in glory.

When will that be?  Only God knows.  Our part in these times is to be signs of contradiction, to trust and to believe that one day it will happen.

Sincerely,

Didymus