First Sunday in Advent 2021

What does it take to believe in a promise? In a way, Advent is about believing in a promise, a promise that God has made to us. In today’s readings, Jeremiah speaks of this promise in terms of both security and justice. In his own day, Jeremiah was deeply affected by political events. The leadership of Israel had been sent into exile when the kingdom of Babylonia defeated the Assyrians. Jeremiah hearkens back to the “good old days” of a Davidic king and looks forward to new days when a “shoot” from the Davidic line will rule again. That was his hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise of justice. He believed in the promise and articulated it to God’s people.

Promises are an essential aspect of our everyday lives. We promise to love our spouses “for better and for worse” and to seek their good every day, even as we trust our spouse loves us and is doing the same for us. We promise to pray for loved ones and their intentions, and to be faithful in it. And we believe in the prayers of others who are near and dear to us in our hearts even if they are not always nearby.

We also make implicit promises of our fidelity, as when a mother or father has children and the children know they are always “held” in familial love and can return to it at any time. At our workplaces, we implicitly promise to treat others with respect. We can even see our larger work or church communities as a kind of extended family where there’s a mutual promise of care and serving of one another. Teaching students, for example, happens in the context of a university where we live in a community that promises to cultivate learning and where we all continue to be formed as well as informed.

The world, though, often poses obstacles to this rosy picture of community held together by belief in a promise. Consider the lack of mutual respect between people of different political perspectives when they lose faith that others are as well intentioned as they believe themselves to be. In churches, workplaces, and personal relationships, people can fail to love, and so trust becomes damaged. Even if we don’t live with the direct threat of a political Babylon, we can and should be aware of the genuine injustice that many people face. This Advent, we know the world still doesn’t fully live in a way that expresses care for the dignity of all people and all life. Just read the newspaper.

In that reality, what does believing in God’s promise to come and be with us mean? What does it look like to believe that God saves?

The other readings from today give us clues. The Psalm, Psalm 25, suggests it begins with an interior experience. Whatever Advent is for us, at its heart is an interior preparation. The Psalmist lifts up his soul to the Lord. What does he receive in return? An experience of kindness, guidance, constancy, and friendship. The Psalmist’s advice is simple and uncomplicated: first, we begin by lifting up not only our intentions, but also also our very selves to the Lord. We can begin Advent by offering up ourselves to God and trusting that God will come to fulfill us in the many and diverse ways that God can come to be present to us in prayer—whether in more active ways or in silence itself.

We also see on Jesus a model of what a life of kindness, faithfulness, truthfulness, and justice looks like. Jesus lived in a broken world, and in a world where people (like his own Jewish people) were oppressed. Rome asserted its power repeatedly over the peoples it governed and Herod was exceptionally brutal, killing off those whom he saw as threatening, those who were supposed to be under his care, and even his own children. The model Jesus gives us, one we will see more of in the readings from Luke in the weeks ahead, is one of kindness, courage, and faithful accompaniment of others.

The Gospel reading from Luke 21 counsels vigilance and wakefulness. Wakefulness requires our own activity: being attentive. What is called for in my world, here and now? How am I awake to what a world with hunger, poverty, sadness, or injustice needs right now? How am I open and attentive to how God wants to come to me right now? Do I trust in the goodness of Love and the faithfulness of Promise? If not, can I recollect past experiences of God’s love and kindness to increase my faith and hope?

Vigilance, though, means trusting that God will act, that we don’t do it all ourselves but know God will come in God’s own way to fulfill the promise. God acts in creative and surprising ways—-for example, sending a messenger to a poor, unknown young woman in Galilee. The biggest promise we have is God’s promise of love to us. That love never fades and never ceases to blossom. Let’s enter into Advent with a spirit of kindness, humility, and faithfulness to our own end of promises, trusting that God will act to fulfill our deepest needs.

Light yoke of Jesus

Today’s Mass readings (for the morning Mass, not Christmas service) include this reading from the Gospel:

Jesus said to the crowds:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Mt. 11:28-30)

Christmas Eve can often be a day of hectic preparation for many people. Perhaps this is unavoidable, especially if one must work until Christmas Eve….and I know it’s likely as I am making some Christmas cake that I’ll discover that we are out of flour, or sugar, or…and so off one of us will go to the store to brave the crowds. Still, Christmas Eve perhaps more than any day in Advent is a day made for restful anticipation. Jesus the adult will tell us that his burden is light, that he shares our loads along with us. The baby Jesus shows this even more clearly in his coming to be among us. Newborn babies are a joy to be around, but they really don’t do very much, aside from eat and sleep, with the occasional open eye glance up at us. We delight in every baby because that baby IS, for the pure existence of new life, and not for what the baby does or achieves.

God delights in us in the same way. Just as Mary’s gaze upon the baby Jesus was a gaze of admiration of Jesus’s pure being, because we are also united with Jesus, God gives us that same gaze of love and admiration. The Prince of Peace comes to give us an interior peace, and one way that we can experience this is to choose to set aside a little time for rest, for quiet, for resting in the gaze of God’s Love and admiration of each one of us. Perhaps we can also pass on this peace by contemplating either in our mind’s or in our gaze of family and friends and even strangers whom we meet today, that they are also the same recipients of God’s look of love. Let us enjoy the lightness of the Light.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Advent, Purification, Desire

Both the reading from Malachi and the Gospel reading about the birth of John point to a certain purification of desire that is part of the spiritual process. Too often, when we think of the purification of desire, our culture runs to something like sexual desire and its transformation. But here in these two readings we see a different kind of purification that is not about sex, nor is it about a lessening or a holding back of desire, but rather about a growth in understanding as to what our desires mean.

The author of Malachi writes,

“And suddenly there will come to the temple
the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant whom you desire….

Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner’s fire,
or like the fuller’s lye.
He will sit refining and purifying silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
Refining them like gold or like silver.”

Malachi points to the people of Israel’s desire for the Lord. Yet he suggests that when the Lord comes to the people, it will be more than they can withstand. In part this is simply in keeping with the idea that God is a God of mystery beyond our capacity to know or to see, a God whom Moses knows at first through a burning bush and later who “sees” God, but who only sees the back side of God lest he be annihilated by the experience. But the words on the purification of our desires like gold and silver point to the idea that perhaps the difficulty in seeing God is not with God but with us. We’re easily distracted by other concerns and desires, whether getting ready for the holidays by buying gifts and running too many errands, or perhaps more deeply not always identifying the nature of our longing as longing for the Lord. What we find as we delve more deeply into our longing is that this longing is not only FOR God, but also that this longing is, itself, God within us. Our desires for God is already the God in each of us striving to meet the God in others. Then the purification of desire is about coming to see and to understand this longing–for–God more fully.

The Gospel reading on the birth of John and the effect of his birth on Zechariah shows us the transformative nature of this purification and recognition. The incarnation touches not only Mary, but many others through a kind of cosmic reverberation, even before Jesus is born. Jesus is in Mary, who goes and meets Elizabeth, whose child leaps within her when the two women touch. Elizabeth’s pregnancy transforms Zechariah, who goes from doubt and silence to exuberant celebration. John comes to prepare the way for others who will be transformed by Jesus. The effect of the incarnation is like light reflected from person to person to person, as if each one were a mirror whose reflected light touches another whose light goes on….

Zechariah’s neighbors are afraid, because in a way, what can be more fearful than recognizing how very close the Lord already is to us, within us, within the person sitting next to you, within the homeless person we pass on the street or the relative who has those unpalatable political views. But another response is the response of joy, to embrace our desires and to know God’s love and presence is already right here, among us, that God comes to fulfill our desires. Emmanuel.

Pope Francis on Three Attitudes of Mary

Today I will be visiting my brothers in a nearby prison that I visit regularly. They are in a lay Dominican group with many having made profession as lay Dominicans either for a short time or for life. To me, their lives are true witnesses of the power of choosing God and choosing hope in the midst of often trying circumstances. Many also choose poverty, chastity and obedience as active ways to life a life of holiness rather than merely as punishments to be endured. How many of us do the same with the circumstances of our own lives that seem imposed upon us from the outside, i.e., do we take them as opportunities to make further gift of ourselves to the Lord?

Today we will be discussing together excerpts from a book of homilies by Pope Francis (these can be found in a new release, The Church of Mercy). In Pope Francis’s homily of July 24, 2013 at the Basilica of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Conception of Aperecida, Francis spoke eloquently of three attitudes of Mary that we can also take on for ourselves. This Advent season, when we often hear the story of the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel delivers his message to Mary, Mary’s attitude toward God can also serve as an inspiration for our own.

Pope Francis says that Mary embodies hopefulness; an openness to God’s surprises; and an attitude of living in joy. Mary is hopeful because she hopes in God and knows that God will never abandon her side. We, too, can hope. Francis’ words remind me that Aquinas said that hope was not a feeling but a virtue that can be cultivated by habit. We can practice being a hopeful people by remembering, by bringing to mind, that God is with us in all that we experience. So while we may not know the outcome of any particular challenge or trial (Mary also did not know exactly what would happen with her life and her Fiat), God will provide.

Mary is open to being surprised by God. Francis says that just as Peter and others who fished at first found their nets empty but then put them down to receive a bounty of fish, we often find God breaks into our lives in surprising, unanticipated ways. We can anticipate the unanticipatable!

Last, Francis reminds us that Mary was a joyful woman. Mary was joyful because she had hope and trust that God was with her , because she was open to God’s surprises, and because she walked in the way of love.

Today on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we also can reflect on ways in which we can choose to practice hopefulness and to practice being open to God’s surprises, to practice generosity even in the midst of adversity, so that we can also be a people of joy and of love.

Questions for reflection: Where do I see hope in my life and in my family/ communities? Where has God surprised me in the past? Am I open to God’s new, often surprising, gifts now? How can I trust in God’s goodness so that I may love more generously today?

Jesus and the human family

The Gospel reading at Mass today from Matthew lays out the genealogy of Jesus. Part of Matthew’s aim to his own Jewish audience was to show that Jesus is connected to the “right” lineage to be the Messiah. Jesus is connected back to David and Solomon, kings remembered as symbolic of a time of prosperity for Israel, and expectations for the new Messiah frequently revolved around this theme of kingship and Davidic lineage.

However, Matthew takes the genealogy back even further than David, to Abraham; Matthew writes this long after it is clear that Jesus will not be a political ruler but will have a different kind of role as Messiah. Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, so Jesus also is shown to be related not only to David, but to the whole Jewish family. The lineage also includes sinners as well as people of faith. Matthew expands his own culture’s understanding of what family “counts” for Jesus.

Still later in the Letter to Galatians, Paul will write about Abraham as the forefather of all who believe and Jesus as transforming who is included in the family of faith, through belief and not ethnicity or heritage. One who believes belongs to this faith, and not only the one who is related by blood. Vatican II and other inter-religious documents today have further expanded our awareness that God’s graces are not only for believing Christians but also for those of other faiths and even agnostics who pursue the good in their own ways. Jesus’s human family just keeps on expanding. We are still learning as a world, often finding ourselves struggling with war and conflict, what it means fully to belong to that human family.

Each of us have ways that we try to keep the wideness and inclusion of God’s familial love at bay. We might distance ourselves from those of other faiths, or those who understand our own faith quite differently (conservatives vs progressives). We might distance ourselves from those of other ethnic backgrounds, from immigrants, from those in other parts of the world and decide that our own country is “more” family than the rest of the human family. Or we might find themselves lonely at the holidays, feeling that family is absent, not fully aware of the love that God is constantly offering to us through friends and strangers alike. All of these are ways of distancing ourselves from our own full participation in the larger human family.

Jesus’ genealogy is an opportunity to reflect: Where I have found family and love in unexpected places in my life? Where does God challenge and invite me to find Christ in the larger human family? 

Light in Darkness

We hear a lot in Advent about Christ as the light that breaks into the darkness. At this time of year of increasing darkness in our calendar year, the words in John’s gospel about Christ as the light, and the new creation, seems especially apropos. Where I live in the Northeastern United States, the sun sets around 4 pm each day—so out go our Christmas lights, the illuminated star in the window, and multicolored lights on the Christmas tree. We are people of both body and soul, and so paying attention to our bodies and our need for warmth and light in the midst of darkness by these small, symbolic gestures can be an act of faith, too.

It’s also a reminder that Christmas is about Christ, the cosmic Christ, breaking into a world of darkness. We head into the holidays in a world where tinsel and trimmings can’t disguise challenges our world faces in matters such as racism, gun violence, war, religious conflict and violence; and then many people also head into the holidays with personal burdens that they carry as well, as with those who are experiencing Christmas for the first time after the death of a family member or those who feel isolated and alone on Christmas. I visit a prison and am always mindful that my brothers in prison experience a mixture of the sadness of being separated from family either physically or sometimes deeper, unreconciled breaks, and the joys of Christmas, darkness and light together.  This world is the world that Christ breaks into, and lest we forget it, his mother and Joseph are denied room in the inn right before his birth, and they must flee the danger posed by Herod immediately after his birth. Christmas itself is a moment of rest and joy, a sparkling, joyful middle, bookended on either side with real, substantial challenges. Yet in these challenges we are not alone.

Two weeks ago a good friend and colleague of mine died, after a yearlong struggle with cancer. The end came quickly. One day I was greeting him at the door to hear that he had a persistent cough and pain that would not abate, and was thinking of returning to the hospital, and a week and a half later he had passed from this world into the next. The last two days before he parted, he faded in and out of sleep and reported to his wife, who then passed on to us, experiences of seeing a staircase; of meeting others who awaited him; of being told that he had lived well and that a room was waiting for him; and his clearest words of all “God takes care of everyone.” After his death, I felt myself that my friend had crossed over to a place of peace and love and in his parting, communicated, and continues even now to communicate to us that depth of peace and assurance of God’s care that can only be a grace from above.

The night before his funeral, I dreamed that I was attending his wedding and not his funeral. Initially in the dream, I felt joy for his wedding, saw him going off somewhere, but then awoke very sad that I was to attend a funeral instead. Soon, though, I realized there was a kind of truth in the wedding imagery–death is not mere destruction, but like a new marriage, to the true Bridegroom to whom we all belong. At the funeral itself, in keeping with the dream, his wife and children were clothed in white as a sign of celebration rather than mourning. His life was a gift to us, God’s gift to us. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Even in death, there is new creation.

Rejoice!

Today is Gaudete Sunday, when we remember where Advent is headed: toward the fullness of joy in Christ. Although we are not yet at Christmas, we pause to rejoice even today? Why?

One reason is that we already have a foretaste of joy in God even here and now, in this world. Eternity is not something that we have to wait for, at the end of life, although I do believe that when we die, we pass into God’s eternal love. We can taste and see some of that joy on earth.

Where do we rejoice? Always our joy is in God. The first reading reminds us how connected, though, that joy in God is found in relationship with others. Before Isaiah says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord,” he says, the Spirit of God has anointed him to go to the poor, the imprisoned, and the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1-2a). Not all of Isaiah 61 is read at Mass, but the reading goes on after these first lines to remind us that God comes to rebuild, not to destroy; to bring joy where there is grief; and to replace shame with a double sized inheritance of belonging (Isaiah 61:4-7).

How do we get to joy? How do we get to a place beyond death, destruction, grief, or shame? Through letting God’s spirit work in and through what we have to offer to others–especially through our relationships with those who are poor or in need of healing–because then we also find joy and healing in what is poor and broken in ourselves.

The reading from Paul in Thessalonians gives concrete advice about how to rejoice: to pray ceaselessly, wherever and in whatever circumstances we are. That means not simply praying often in private or communal prayer, but to make all that we do an act or a sacrifice of prayer to God. Paul also tells us to listen to challenges and to prophetic challenges especially, but without fear, because it’s when we let God break in through our defenses and our defensiveness that the Spirit enters in.  And we find joy when we are people of gratitude, focused on remembering God’s constant giving of God’s self to us.

Joy is the fruit of living a Christian life. We don’t choose joy, but joy comes to us. How do we prepare for joy?

Practice gratitude.

Be prayerful.

Let God break through our defenses, by listening to the prophets of today.

Fear not.

Be with others, especially those who are poor, and be comfortable being with what is poor in ourselves.

Rejoice!