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THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT – A – December 18, 2016

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 7:10-14

A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 1:1-7

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 1:18-24


Dear Jesus,

What is Advent, the experience, supposed to be about? Are not these days meant to foster a spirit of pregnant longing for and eager expectation of God’s definitive action among human kind?  Perhaps because these times are difficult for many, people will not allow themselves to enter into the darkness so that they can yearn for the light.  Hopelessness enmeshes.  Once we become entangled in it and stand on the brink of despair, it is difficult to look up and believe that there is reason to hope.  When wars rage and death counts are told, especially the slaughter of children, how do we believe there will be peace?

Is it any wonder that Ahaz dared not ask God for a sign, even though God longed to give that sign to comfort his with a reminder of God’s love and fidelity?  The enemy surrounded Ahaz and threatened his kingdom.  That was the tangible reality for him.  What could god possibly do to alter that reality?

You must notice that in these days people are attuned to expecting instant gratification.  Why should material satisfaction be put off when it can be had now?  Many people do not diet and exercise to maintain the appearance of physical fitness; they have liposuction and plastic surgery to do that.  I remember the era when young couples began their married life in a rental and looked forward to the time when they would be able to make a down payment on a starter home.  Today, for the endowed, those starter homes have a three-car garage and a swimming pool.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some do not have the emotional energy for Advent.  Living in hope doesn’t resonate with them.  I want it and I want it now.

What I said above reflects one side of the chasm in our land.  On the other are the desperate, those locked in poverty, scarcely able to feed the children, much less keep a roof over their heads.  The violence in the streets, the drive-by shootings, the domestic violence, you must hear the anguish of the many crying out to heaven for vengeance.  Or is that a plea for deliverance?  Perhaps these are the ones who like Ahaz will find it difficult to believe there will be peace.

Instead of starkness and the four-week experience of darkness and longing for a great dawn with light’s return, well before the Advent Season even begins, the signs of Christmas, its lights and carols, are everywhere.  It wasn’t that long go that people waited for Thanksgiving before the lights went up and the carols began.  Now we are lucky if Halloween is over before it all begins.  No wonder that by the time the Day arrives all the trappings look tired.  Who in the world could stand The Twelve Days of Christmas?  By the second day of Christmas not a sign of the feast remains, except in church, of course.

When I was a child, Christmas began in our home the way it did in church – on Christmas morning.  After my siblings and I were tucked in bed, our parents put up a tree, a live, evergreen tree, and decorated it with tinsel and lights.  They placed wrapped presents under the tree, at least one for each of us.  Early Christmas morning we came down the stairs, rubbing sleep from our eyes, to be dazzled by the lights, the presents, and the wood fire on the hearth.  We were told that each gift was a reminder of God’s great gift of Love, born this day in Bethlehem.  We knew right from the start that this celebration was all about you and the peace and love you bring.

I must experience Advent’s darkness and not fear it.  I need to experience silence and not dread it.  How else will I know Advent’s longing and hope for fulfillment?  In that darkness and silence my defenses will come down and the events of these days will be able to enter my consciousness where I can contemplate them.  I will look at the horror of war and be confronted by the bodies and hear the wailing of the children rescued from the rubble.  Vulnerable, I will identify with those people that otherwise I might be tempted to ignore.  My brothers and sisters are poor and disenfranchised.  They are people of other races than my own. They are of a different gender from mine, but we are family.  I hear you tell me that the same is true of Jews and Muslims, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders.  And those in prison.  God loves all and unites us all in you, our hope.

If you fill me with the Spirit, I will see that it is unconscionable the portion of the world’s wealth and goods held by and consumed by the elite.  It shouldn’t all be about profit for profit’s sake.  In the Spirit I will see clearly the plight and hears the cries that the cacophonous din that regularly surround me and seeks to lure me and might otherwise prevent me from noticing.

Advent is a time for silence.  In the silence I might recognize that these horrors in the evening news are, in the reality that faith brings, aspects of your passion.  And if I allow myself to be brought to the foot of the cross, dare I ask myself about my participation in the crucifixion?  But that is the stuff of conversion, what St. Paul wants us to remember in today’s first reading.

It occurs to me that Christmas celebrates Incarnation – God’s taking on human flesh and sealing the union between the human and the divine forever.  It is the celebration of God’s love for human kind, indeed for all of creation and so is an invitation to all to live in love and so find hope.  Your gospel does not end in death.  Neither will our story.  As horrible as aspects of the contemporary story might be, the vision that dawns with Christmas is not overcome by evil.  Love conquers.  God is faithful and will raise us up.

Ahaz was challenged to ask for a sign that would give him reason not to yield to despair.  He could not do that.  But God gave the sign anyway – a child who would be called Immanuel – God with us.  In Christmas we recognize that sign, God with us, in you.  I wonder if we listen will we hear you challenge us to be that sign, God with us, today, in the community, and so help the human family live in hope because of the love that surrounds us.

The story doesn’t end in defeat.  It can’t.  God won’t let it.  Isn’t that the Good News you proclaim?




To this day I can feel my father’s hand holding mine as we walked up California Avenue toward home.  I had just had my first haircut in a real barbershop.  We passed a man seated on the sidewalk, leaning against the Woolworth’s storefront, his hat in his hand.  I pointed my finger at the man and laughed.  My father and I kept walking until we were some distance from the man when my father stopped our walk and turned toward me.  In as stern a voice as I had ever heard from him, he said, “Listen to me, Mister.  You will never do anything like that again.  You do not know that man’s story.  You don’t know what has reduced him to that condition.  He is your brother.  Do you understand me?”  Shamefaced, I nodded and tried to keep from crying.

“Dry those tears.”  Then he put two coins in my hand and said, “Now you go back to that man and give him that money.  Then you tell him that you hope he has a nice day.”  I did as I was told.  I returned to my father and we continued our walk home in silence.  It was about a block later that Dad said, “Whenever you see someone in trouble or hear someone’s story, I hope you will always try to understand what the person is going through.  Try to share the experience as if it were your own.  That’s called compassion.  If you are compassionate, you will never ridicule another.  Do you understand what I am saying?”

I said, “Yes, Daddy.”  I didn’t, of course.  Not then.  It took some years of living and experiencing other people’s sorrows.  But, finally I think I got what my father wanted me to understand.  When we are compassionate, we know that we love the other even as we dare to try to help carry a cross.

That memory came to me as I woke this morning.  My sleep had been somewhat restless.  Thoughts of all the hatemongering that has occupied the news lately kept me tossing and turning through the night.  Before retiring, I heard the confession voiced by the young man in South Carolina who killed those people in the church because they were Black.  They had invited him to share Scripture with them.  He responded with his gun, even losing count of how many he had killed.  No remorse.  He had to do what he did for racist reasons he said.  He is a white supremacist.

The KKK is organizing for a march to support the President-elect.  The alt-right speaks ever louder.  Ranting against Hispanics and Muslim refugees and talks of deportation all foster the ever-increasing evidence of division in our society.  My heart aches.

Perhaps it is my father’s words challenging me to be compassionate that cause this reaction in me.  There is Syrian ancestry in my DNA from my father.  The image of that little boy, dazed in the back of an ambulance in Aleppo haunts me.  It doesn’t matter whether he is Muslim or Christian.  He is an innocent child who should not have to experience the horror of being buried in rubble, terrified that he would not be found and freed.  At 5 years of age, he should not have to mourn the loss of his family, killed by the bombs that destroyed their home.

How can anyone look into the eyes of that child and not ache for him?

Last evening I heard the voice over of a commercial.  I hadn’t been paying attention, so I don’t remember what was being advertised.  The voice said, “You can like many.  You can love only a few.”  Really?  Is that the truth to be embraced by today’s society in this country?  What about the Gospel?  I remember those bracelets we wore those many years ago: WWJD.  What Would Jesus Do?

There are difficult sayings attributed to Jesus that we can hear proclaimed without being shocked because we have heard them so often.  It doesn’t occur to us to wonder, “Who can do that?”  Our vulnerable selves should be listening more closely.  We’ve missed the point if we think the challenge of the Gospel is easy.  In this context, I think of Jesus’ challenges regarding love.

“Love one another as I have loved you. “

“Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.”

“By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

In short, the Gospel is about love.  It is not by accident that in the Gospel, so often the great example of response comes from a Gentile.  The Good Samaritan responds with compassion to the man beaten and left half dead by the roadside.  The priest and the Levite pass by to maintain ritual purity.  The Samaritan woman rejoices in who Jesus is and goes to tell others about him.  It is the one Gentile among the ten lepers cured at Jesus command that returns to him to praise God for what has happened to him.  The examples Jesus uses angered his Jewish brothers and sisters who thought of themselves as observers of The Law and God’s favored ones.

Jesus proclaims the universality of God’s love for all, regardless of race, gender, or religion.  Strange how Christians have taken that proclamation and limited it.  How judgmental we have become over the centuries and ready to consign others to damnation.  It’s hard to see the Gospel message in the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.

What are we to do in these times?  The voiceover in the commercial said we can like many but love only a few.  That’s not what Jesus said.  In this splintered and divided society, those who have heard the Gospel and dared to accept the challenge to be a disciple must live in such a way that it is evident that we love all, especially those singled out for derision, the non-Caucasians, the Muslims, the Lesbians, Gays, and Transgenders, the Hispanics and the Refugees.  If you are a Republican, love the Democrats, and vice-versa.  All people are created out of God’s love and are destined to live in that love for eternity.

As believers, we must be about forgiving and raising up.  The survivors of that terrible shooting in the church in South Carolina one by one told Mr. Roof that they forgave him.  We must do the same if there is someone we have to forgive for hurting us.  And if we are disciples, we must do what Jesus did.  We have to pour ourselves out in loving service of those who stand in need.

We have to listen carefully as Jesus challenges us, “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross every day and follow me.”  In today’s divided and judgmental society, loving is that cross.  That’s what my father tried to teach me all those years ago.  And I hear his voice as I continue to try to follow his instruction.





A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 35:1-6A, 10

A reading from the Letter of James 5:7-10

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 11:2-22

Dear Jesus,

Were you a disappointment to John the Baptist?  He seems to have had expectations of a different kind of Messiah from the one you proved to be.  Given his temperament and the rage that churned just beneath the surface, did he look for stronger actions from you?  In last Sunday’s Gospel, John voiced his confidence that the one coming after him, the one whose sandals he was not worthy to carry, would set things right in a winnowing action that would separate wheat from chaff, gathering the wheat into barns and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.  The imagery is fine for harvest time.  But when wheat and chaff are in actuality classes of people, John’s eagerly awaited scene becomes terrifying.

Having given his all in response to his vocation to be the messenger going ahead of you to prepare the way before you, and confident that his vocation came from God, he had every right to expect that he would live to see the realization of the Kingdom of heaven in the coming wrath.  Unless he had no ego at all, he must have suffered a temptation to claim for himself the crowds that came to him.  Many thought he was the Messiah and would have accepted him as such.  Was it increasingly difficult for him to say I am not as his charisma drew more and more to gather around him, listen to his message, hear his call to repent, and submit to his baptism?  Did that temptation grow, as more and more you did not conform to his expectations?  Where was the wind?  When would the winnowing begin?  When would he witness the humiliation of those not following God’s law as he thought they should – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Romans?  Was he scandalized when he heard that you were being denounced because you welcome sinners and eat with them?

When John, from prison, sent his disciples to you to ask, Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another, was he hoping for a clear declaration in the affirmative from you with word accompanying signs to confirm your Messiahship, signs like those he longed for?  Instead you talked about the poor having the good news proclaimed to them, even as you pled with him not to be scandalized by you and your works.

I have always heard that when John’s disciples returned to him with your message that he was relieved.  He could then go calmly to his own beheading.  But I wonder.  Faith walks often do not have that crystal clarity that we would like.  Darkness sometimes does not lift.  John may have had to go to his death hoping against hope.  You did herald his greatness, but immediately added that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.  Was that because as John stretched his neck over the block and hoped that the breeze would stir and the winnowing would begin, he trusted and so entered the Kingdom?

Prepare, Ye, the way of the Lord!  Those words make up a major theme of the Advent Season.  That is what John the Baptist did.  The task is not over yet.  You expect us, the Church, to continue to labor in that arena, making everything we do part of that preparing.  In actuality, looking back on the history of the Church, there is ample evidence that from age to age the kind of preparing that occurred was closer to John’s way of thinking than your own.  How many people went to the stake because they belonged to a different tradition?  The Crusades were fought to rescue the holy places from the infidels.  Many were slain in the process.  There has been no shortage of attempts to force people to faith, compelling them by the sword.  Were those so afflicted supposed to recognize the vengeful God whose wrath John longed to see?

Today, are you not urging us to try a way that is reflective of your own?  Prepare, Ye, the way of the Lord!  Are you asking us to do what you did and not count the cost?  Some still would have the lines of demarcation drawn.  Some want the splendor of the Church to be her attraction.  Some want the sinner condemned and access to the Table tightly governed.  Yours is a gentler voice urging us to love and to imitate you in humble service.  If we do that, will we not be living in the Kingdom of Heaven because you reign in our hearts?

You welcomed sinners and ate with them.  We have to do the same.  You told John’s disciples to report what they saw and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.  When the baptized exercise their priesthood in ministry to the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and the dead – to those in society who are insignificant and even outcast and without hope, isn’t it then that the kingdom dawns?  Those who are touched, embraced, and lifted up will know you in that encounter and know that they are loved by the God who sent you.

That ministry cannot have strings attached.  It cannot be a conditional ministry exercised only on those who meet a criterion others set.  You call us to a ministry that is unconditional, universal, and therefore reflective of the way God loves.  That is what Pope Francis urges on the Church, humble service, imitative of our God who serves.  St. Francis kissed the leper as he recognized you in the leper.  In that moment he knew conversion, that there could be no outcasts of society.  The kiss drew the leper to you.  So will others be drawn to the Catholic Christian way, if they experience that same compassionate love.  They will be drawn to gather around your table and celebrate Eucharist with you, and give thanks to God who touched them.  They will share the meal that is your Body and Blood, so that they can become more and more what they eat and drink and so be more able to go out and continue doing what you do with the others with whom they have gathered and prayed and celebrated.

Others will walk different paths to the same God, following other traditions that speak clearly to them of God’s call.  You do not want that to be a cause of consternation, do you?  Wouldn’t you rather that we rejoice and find new ways of relating with all these sisters and brothers that, via whatever path they trod, are on the way to the Kingdom?

More than a few gasped and ground their teeth when Pope Francis said he thought God loved even atheists.

In the end, you want us to accept that we were created in love.  God’s love sustains us.  We will live in that love for all eternity.  It is all about love.

John the Baptist may have been disappointed that your Messiahship was different from what he expected.  Help us in this age and in this Church to rejoice that we have been called to do it your way.  Help us to be restless in our attempts to proclaim the dignity and worth of the poor as the Church exercises a fundamental option for the poor.

Help us prepare the way of the Lord.

Sincerely, Didymus