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.

Fifth Sunday in Lent 2021

The past year of the pandemic has been difficult for our world. In the United States alone, more than 540,00 alone have died according to this morning’s most recent NY Times update. People grieve the lost of loved ones. Even those who have not lost anyone to Covid might grieve other kinds of losses—not being able to see family or missing ordinary activities that used to shape our days and the shape of a year. I miss seeing my family over the holidays, as most live a good 20 hour drive away, and with health issues in the family, we haven’t risked a plane flight this past year. I also miss the small conversations that used to take place in the hallways at work when people could just loiter around the kitchen together while waiting for the microwave or sink, or chat near the copy machine. I miss having friends over for dinner, or going out to a restaurant to talk in a small group with my female friends. I imagine each of us has something to grieve.

At the same time perhaps during a time of more retreat from the ordinary, we have also gained some things. I’ve often wanted more time in the morning to pray and reflect in silence before my day starts and without a commute stuck in traffic, I’ve gained ample space to reflect —since it takes me only a few minutes now to move from breakfast to work. There are parts of life I don’t miss, things I used to do simply because I was supposed to want to do them, and I’m wondering whether I will resume them at all once life returns to normal. Forced simplicity has also led to a greater appreciation of simplicity, simple daily rhythms, like eating a leisurely home cooked lunch with my husband every day, or going on a walk and taking time to watch birds, admire trees, see a squirrel or turkey or a playful dog. I think this will all inform my choices about how to spend time once we are vaccinated and back to a “new normal.”

Socially our world is also going through a time of upheaval where we recognize how much of our social and political world needs transformation. In order to let the evils of racism and white supremacy, poverty and political inequity, mistreatment of the immigrant and guest, in order to make sure that these evils come to an end, there has to be some breaking down of old structures. We as a society have to be willing to let some things that used to be part of our old culture die off, because these things were never life giving, but more like the tomb, for so many people in our society. It’s just that now, we’re finally collectively noticing what others already saw.

The Gospel for today might speak to some of these issues. Jesus speaks of the grain of wheat that has to die before it grows and produces new life. In its most primary sense, the passage is about Jesus himself, his own death and Resurrection. He’s also speaking about the fruitfulness of that death, that with his death there comes redemption from sin, a creative force of liberation and new life with God’s resurrecting power, and real transformation of OUR lives and not only his own.

It’s not just statues and monuments, but so much of the fabric of how our workplaces and civic institutions, our media and popular culture function and are structured that needs transformation. We do see positive transformation in many of these areas but there is more left to do —which also means letting go of some of what’s old, letting die off some of the old, to make room for what’s new. Maybe you can let go of that favorite childhood cartoon that also happens to have a racist character in it, and find something else to watch. Maybe you can give up a spot on that committee, so that someone else can have a seat at the table, and the work of the committee can be more diverse and enriched by a new perspective.

Lent itself is meant to be, in part, a time where we let die those parts of life that aren’t really life giving anymore. Then we await where God might come in to fill in those empty spaces. Maybe it’s a bad habit given up, or maybe it’s the pandemic forcing us to give up so much that we can then recognize what really matters—and what doesn’t. Maybe it’s something that’s a familiar part of culture but that we recognize is also problematic for others who are also part of our human family. Can we let those things go and die off? Do we trust that God will breathe new life into what’s left?

In New England, the ground is still frozen outside and while I can’t plant outdoors yet, I have put in a few seedlings indoors this past week. A little dish of soil with fresh potting soil, moisture, and a little plastic wrap over it to serve as a mini greenhouse sits near the window where I work on my computer. For me, it’s a little hopeful anticipation of spring and of warmer, sunnier, better days ahead. But first there’s a time of waiting.

I wonder whether in this last week of Lent before Palm Sunday when the Passion narrative grabs us and we immerse ourselves in Jesus’s story, and in this time where we also see the light at the end of the pandemic, whether there’s still a bit more to be gained from the in betweenness of waiting.

What seeds do we want to plant? What last things need to be let go of or die off, so that we are ready to join in the Passion and so also the Resurrection? Where is God calling each of us to join with Jesus in letting the grain of wheat die so that God’s creative work can give rise to a bountiful harvest?

Mustard seeds, trees, and theological virtues

Nearly all of the Mass readings today are about seeds and trees, and especially about big growth from small beginnings. When I used to teach Sunday School back when I was a Presbyterian, we used a hands on, imaginative curriculum called Godly Play. The children loved the mustard seed parable lesson, as it featured taking a small mustard seed and passing it around the group, then for the lesson, unfolding a large, folded up felt tree that spread wide across the floor. The children were then invited to place cutout birds into the branches and then I’d ask them: how many birds could fit in the tree? How do  you think the birds feel about sitting on those branches? Where are you in this story? The story is ripe with imaginative possibilities, and the children would often offer answers up like “The tree makes them feel safe” or “There is enough room in the tree for all the birds in the world” or “I’m the little bird over there on that branch.”

For me, I can still identify with that childlike imaginative element of where we find ourselves in the kingdom–a roomy place with lots of shade, shelter, and community. More intellectually, the mustard seed parable is also about the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Faith is about believing in that which is as of yet unseen (St Paul’s words, later taken up by Aquinas). When we plant seeds, whether encouraging a child to be imaginative, or teaching a college student a new author, or beginning a new project at work, we don’t know what the outcome will be. The smallest action done with love might have the greatest effect–or not very much at all. But we trust that God will make something good out of our lives and our efforts, even the smallest ones. When I first taught the mustard seed lesson, I used to bring in a real mustard seed from my kitchen spice collection. Then one year I did not, so we passed around an imaginary one. For the little children, the imaginary one that we passed around was just as real–they could imagine the possibility of something that they could not see far better than most adults can. We are also invited to believe in possibilities that God will grow into good, new life.

Hope is about moving into the future with a sense of the meaningfulness of life despite its ups and downs, successes and failures, because the Lord accompanies us in whatever we do or experience. We don’t see the growth of a tree no matter how long or carefully we look at it while it is growing, but can look back it after a longer time and notice the magnificent changes of growth. Likewise, God works in and through us and in the world—slowly but surely, like the growth of the mustard seed into a large, drought resistant tree. Hope is about trusting in the Lord to take care of what we cannot do on our own strength alone (Catechism 1817).

The mustard seed parable is also about Love: the tree provides shelter, shade, and a home for the little birds who— as the children in my Sunday School class knew—are us God’s people, all of us. When we know that we are protected and sheltered by God, we can reach out to love one another in community. God’s love grounds our own love.

Prayer, presence, and healing

In today’s reading for Mass, Jesus is said to heal many demons. Mark’s account of Jesus’s healing practice links together three elements: Jesus’s presence to people in need of healing; his time spent in solitude; and his preaching (Mk. 1:29-39). These three elements are not separated but rather intertwined together. That they are intertwined teaches us something important, I think: that solitude, presence, and preaching are all mutually supportive  of one another.

Jesus heals others in a way that is intimate. We often see Jesus touch those who come for healing, even if they are considered unclean (e.g., lepers or the hemorrhaging woman). He speaks to them in ways that shows that he knows them. Jesus is deeply present to each person he encounters. I don’t think we ever see a distracted Jesus, a multi-taking Jesus. We meet in the Gospels a Jesus who is mindfully present to each person with whom he meets.

Where does this mindfulness arise? I think it must come from a kind of interior tranquility that Jesus experienced in spending time in solitude with the Father. Jesus periodically takes time out of his day to be alone in prayer, to find moments where he is not around anyone else except that most interior space whether the divine and the human meet, where the need he had for rest met up with the plenty of the divine that flowed within. We, too, can benefit from spending time in solitude and silence so that when we return to the busy world of ministering to others, or even simply spending time with family and friends, we are fully “present” to them. When we have quenched our own thirst at the Living Fountain, we have plenitude to pour out to others.

Last, Jesus tells the disciples who come to get him that they also must preach the good news of the kingdom. Preaching is central to Jesus’ practice, and not only healing, because people need to hope and meaning as much as they need physical healing. Indeed, we need meaningfulness and hopefulness even more than physical healing alone. Part of how we are present to others is in offering the good news —the good news that they are God’s beloved no matter what their circumstance, in health, wealth, and times of peace, but just as beloved and known in the struggles of poverty, illness, and tumult. Jesus knows this in his humanity because he has experienced it interiorly in that space of silence and prayer.

Jesus’ healing, presence, and preaching are all aspects of his ministering that we bring to others when we are a listening presence, when we offer hope, and when we accompany others in the healing that Jesus offers to all.

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?

Advent: Conversion and Expectant Waiting

At today’s Mass readings for the second Sunday of Advent, the Gospel passage describes John the Baptist who is baptizing people as they repent for their sins. John knows that he is only pointing the way to another who is greater than he is, and that person is Jesus, who will come to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Advent is a season of waiting, a season of preparation, and a season of conversion. The Greek term for conversion is metanoia, and its most literal meaning means to “change around” what we know. It can even mean to “change one’s mind.” I’m a convert to Catholicism and grateful for the gift of faith and the gift of the Church, but conversion is not so much about membership in the “right” community as it is about being willing to be transformed in how we think and how we feel. Conversion is about having a change of heart.

To some extent, we make choices that contribute to the possibility of conversion. Aquinas, for example, describes faith, hope, and love, the three great theological virtues, as “habits” of the soul. They are habits because they are dispositions that we can practice. Love is not just a feeling for one’s spouse, children, or friends, but a way of attending to another’s needs and another’s good where I can practice paying attention to their needs rather than only my own. John the Baptist baptizes those who come to him because they recognize their need for a change, for a change of heart.

But the readings from today also tell us that any conversion of heart is also very much about God’s action in us. We can all think of aspects of ourselves that we would like to change but find difficult to change through our own volition. Maybe it is a tendency to use a snappier voice than we intend to when we are tired at the end of the day.  Or perhaps we feel self-pity about what we lack rather than gratitude for what we have. Or we can feel discouraged about social ills such as racism, poverty, homelessness, and political exile.

The reading from Isaiah assures us that God is not simply waiting for us to turn around but is actively assisting us in our efforts toward conversion. Isaiah tells the people, “Be comforted!”  God will take the hills and valleys, the ups and downs that make our journey tiring and level them to make it easier for us. This past summer, I started running for exercise. After running up a hill, encountering a long, flat stretch of road is a wonderful break. My slow uphill pace speeds up just a little, and I feel more energy and confidence that I can go the distance when the road is flat.

Isaiah reassures us that God is actively seeking to level the hills for us, to make the road a bit easier: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low” (Isaiah 40:4). Or to take another image, God is like a shepherd, who feeds the flock and carries the little lambs who are too tired to walk any further. When we also are too tired to walk further on our own, or perhaps discouraged by ourselves, others, or by the sinfulness of the larger world around us, we can remember that God’s promise is to pick us up and give us what we need to make those changes. Have hope. “Be comforted.”

Along with hope, we also need patience. The second reading from 2 Peter reminds us that God’s timeline is not our timeline: “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). Why does God delay? Peter tells us it is because God is patient and does not anyone to be lost. God want to rescue not only those who are already doing good in the world, but those who are in need of repenting, but have not yet repented.God is awaiting us, just as much as we are awaiting Him.

In Advent, we wait. We wait expectantly, with patience, and with hope for the Savior that will come and transform our selves and our very world. “Be comforted!”

Being wakeful

Yesterday’s Gospel reading at Mass has Jesus telling us, “Be watchful! Be alert!” We do not know when the Lord is coming. This passage can point us to at attitude that we can bring to bear in our lives at multiple levels. We do not know when the Second Coming will be. We do not know when our own deaths will occur, when we hope to see the Lord face to face. We also do not know when we will meet Christ in another in this world: in the face of a homeless man, in the shape of a newborn baby, or in the morning rising of the sun. The latter kind of encountering of Christ requires a certain watchfulness on our part. Here are three ways to be watchful this Advent:

1. We can savor the sights and sounds of the season. Ignatian spirituality often uses this term “savor” to emphasize the need to slow down and to sink into the graces that we are given, and not to move past them too quickly. Like a good meal that we might savor slowly, we can savor our surroundings.

2. We can be hopeful. Hope is not wishful thinking or merely projecting our own desires into the future. Rather, Christian hope is based in God, based in the belief that God wants to continually give us good gifts, no matter what else is happening in our lives. Part of the watchfulness of Advent is bringing a conscious attitude of hope to our present circumstances.

3. We can practicing gratitude by giving thanks at the end of each day for the graces that God has offered us. God gives us sometimes unexpected gifts throughout the day—what Pope Francis names as the gifts of the “God of surprises.” By naming these gifts at day’s end we also become increasingly aware the next day of the presence of God in our midst.