Sunday, January 6, 2019

Humble Greetings

Adoration of the Magi (c. 1660) by Bartolom√© Esteban Murillo

With each passing year, traditional Christmas cards seem to become more and more relics of the past. I am as bad about sending them out as anyone. In the age of ever-present social media, and with Skype and FaceTime so accessible for many of us, the practice of actually sitting down to write out Christmas greetings by hand seems increasingly quaint, and perhaps for that reason, all the more meaningful.

If Christmas cards seem increasingly scarce these days, then far rarer still are receiving personal Christmas greetings. In the Gospel today, we heard the story of the original personalized Christmas greeting, not in a card but in a visit. The Solemnity of the Epiphany presents us with an annual opportunity to reflect upon the Magi and the adoration that they come to bring the Christ-child. On the one hand, the Magi are very familiar to us – wearing their fine robes and crowns, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, accompanied by camels. On the other hand, they are quite mysterious – they come from an unknown country, from an unknown past, and then disappear as quickly as they have come, to an unknown future. While many scholars have speculated about who exactly these Wise Men are, and how they could have known about Christ’s birth, the Gospel account highlights instead the purpose for which they have come – to worship the newborn Jewish king. More than where they are from, or what they do after, what is important is the fact that the Magi have actually come in adoration.

As we heard, they came to adore a king – but surely not the kind of king they expected to find. Jesus’s birth was foretold by prophecies and heralded by the light of a star, and yet the Magi find him in a lowly place. It is interesting that the Gospel account gives no indication that the Magi are taken aback by Jesus’s humble circumstances. There’s no doubt the Magi would have expected to find him in some palace, not in a humble dwelling; but nonetheless, having found him, they are not shocked or repulsed but only filled with great joy. And then, as we heard, having presented him the gifts they had brought, they return to their own country by another way.

There is a lot in this account, and about today’s feast in general, that is worthy of our reflection. But perhaps it is sufficient to return to the central theme: the adoration of a king, but a king born in a very un-kingly way. Whatever their expectations, whatever their preconceptions, the Magi worship the one they find. We know even better than the Wise Men precisely who this newborn child is: not just the king of the Jews, but the God of the Jews, born in human flesh. This appearance of God in our world – as a humble child, small and vulnerable – probably does not fit our expectations. It is not how we would have drawn it up – it’s not how we would imagine God revealing himself in our midst. And yet it is what happened.

If there is a lesson for us in this, to reflect upon on this great feast, it is perhaps that God’s humility must always prompt humility in us as a response. We all are guilty at times of creating Christianity in our own image, so to speak. We tend to make of our faith and our relationship with God what we believe it should be. For example, some of us gravitate more toward the doctrinal and theological aspects of our Christian tradition. For others among us, we are attracted to the social witness of Christianity, engaging with various causes and issues in the world around us. Those things are good and necessary, but they are not the core of our faith. Our Christian identity cannot be reduced to dogmatism, or activism, or any other “-ism.” Instead it is about what the Magi demonstrate for us: about a basic encounter with a Person, born into our history, who reveals God to us, and then adoring him.

The great Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles once wrote, “The Incarnation does not give us a ladder to climb out of the human condition. It gives us a drill that lets us burrow down into the heart of everything that is, and there, to find it shimmering with divinity.” Surely, such a drill can only be wielded by humble hands. Until we have grappled with the reality of God becoming Man in the person of Jesus – until the profound humility of his coming elicits from us a similar response, humble, adoring – then we really haven’t grasped what our relationship with God is all about.

It is worthwhile perhaps to reflect upon what “adoration” looks like for us in the 21st century. The Church gives us a certain number of basic foundational points: Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation; confession at least once a year, but probably more often if we’re being honest with the state of our own souls; observing days of fasting and abstinence, and helping provide for the needs of the Church; taking time for daily prayer, whether it be praying the rosary, reading Scripture, quiet meditation or Christian reading. But those make up just the starting point. If we really want to grow in worship, we have to look for God where he presents himself in the unexpected and seemingly ordinary encounters of life. Jesus the newborn king meets us in other places too: around the dinner table, at the water cooler, in the checkout line, surfing the web, in traffic, on our phones, in disagreements and disappointments, in laughter of friends and loved ones, in the quiet moments of believing and being aware of his Real Presence in the Eucharist.

My friends, what kind of greeting will we bring this day, every day to the newborn king? Is it merely perfunctory piety, like a token Christmas card? Or do we instead need to learn how to adore, like the Magi can teach us? Amid the hustle and bustle of our lives, it is easy to let our worship become merely an hour on Sunday and a hasty prayer now and again. It is perhaps all too common to adopt a merely nominal notion of being a Christian. The Wise Men present us with an alternative witness today – that faith is a long and sometimes arduous journey, that we must be always willing to meet God not according to our expectations but rather as he presents himself each day and to be filled with joy at every humble opportunity to adore. That is a wisdom available to all of us if we are humble enough to receive it – a light to guide our steps if we are wise enough to follow it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Prophecy Fulfilled

In his plays, William Shakespeare often used prophecy as a literary device. One of his characters, hearing some prediction about the future, would be influenced by it, often indirectly bringing the prophecy to fulfillment by their choices. For example, in the tragedy Macbeth, the title character commits murder in order to become the king of Scotland. Macbeth’s bold wickedness is partly fueled by his belief that he is invincible, because a prophecy had told him he could not be harmed by anyone born of a woman. Only too late does Macbeth learn that his main adversary Macduff was born via what we would call Caesarean section, and thus he meets his demise at Macduff’s hands.

In our second reading today, we heard Saint Paul also refer to a prophecy: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” This is a prophecy of hope not foreboding. But like the prophecies in Shakespeare, it too is fulfilled in a very surprising way.

As a good Jew, Paul knew about all of the promises God had given to the people of Israel, the covenants made with Abraham, with Moses, and with David. Paul and other Jews of his time expected God to fulfill these covenants by sending the Messiah, the one who would redeem Israel and usher in the kingdom of God. What Paul did not expect – what no one could have expected – was that God would do this by sending his own Son, by being born into history through a woman, sharing in our humanity in all things but sin.

Marianne Stokes, Madonna and Child (1905)

On this Octave day of Christmas, we have the chance to reflect upon this mystery again – not in the abstract, but in the real and the personal. In Jesus, God has given us something much more precious than just general forgiveness of our sins. He has given us Mercy made in the Flesh, Salvation made Incarnate. Mary is the first one, as we hear in the Gospel, to reflect upon this reality. She “pondered” upon the birth of Jesus, and all of the events surrounding it, and “reflected on them in her heart.” No doubt she understood how the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to her, made through the angel Gabriel, but also the fulfillment of all of his promises made to mankind. Jesus is the answer from God to every question of life, to every longing of the human heart. God makes known his definitive self-revelation not in a decree, or a pronouncement, or a rule, but in a person. His Son has been born for us in time so that, crying out “Abba, Father!”, we may become sons and daughters of the One who exists from all time.

God’s revelation of himself in Jesus should spur in each of us a double reaction: first to really understand this Good News, and then to share it. In both of these responses, Mary is our model. The Christian cannot really properly follow Jesus without an interior life, without taking time to ponder God’s mysteries and especially how the salvation of Jesus impacts me directly. This son, born of a woman, is also God’s Son, come for my salvation. The prophecies of ancient history are fulfilled in him, and in him, I have come into communion with the one true God. This is a very important point to grasp. Jesus has come for me, to save me from my sins; he is the visible fruit of God’s love for me.

With that deeper appreciation of God's love – not just for all of humanity, but for me personally – we then are called to share it. It may not be immediately clear how Mary is a model of this as well until we realize that all of the stories of Jesus’s birth and infancy could only have come to us through her own telling. Mary is the first evangelist – the one who reflected upon God’s Good News in Jesus not just for her own sake but for the sake of others. We too must share with others the fruit of our own faith: sometimes through explicit evangelization – whether faith sharing or encouragement or generosity of heart – but probably more often through the example of daily prayer, faithful engagement with the sacraments, a joyful and peaceful spirit, and actions motivated by the love that God has shown for us. Now more than ever, we have to rediscover our identity as Christians: how our belief in the love of God made visible in Jesus must be a point of differentiation for us from the rest of the world.

My friends, as we begin a new year, as we continue our Christmas celebrations, let’s take time to ponder – as Paul did, as Mary did – how God’s ancient promises have been fulfilled in a marvelous and unexpected way. Jesus is the prophecy fulfilled – not in an abstract way, but in a personal, intimate one, in a way more marvelous than even Shakespeare could have devised. May this Eucharist help us to reflect more fully on this mystery of our salvation and make us ready to share it anew.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Guess Who

This past week, I spent a few days at my parents’ home in Little Rock visiting with out-of-town family, including my niece who is four and my nephew who is two. As a priest, without a family of my own, my home life is relatively quiet and uneventful and so I really enjoy those rare chances to be around the hustle and bustle most families experience every day – cooking and cleaning, games and toys, the joys and dramas that surround meal time, play time, bed time, etc.

One particular experience that marked much of my week was the game “Guess Who?” It’s a two-player children’s game, in which each player takes turns asking questions about the character card of the other player, things like: “Does your person have glasses?”, “Is your person wearing a hat?” Eventually one player makes a guess about the identity of the other player’s card. My siblings and I had this game as kids, and my sister gave it to her daughter (my niece), thinking she would enjoy it. Boy, did she ever! I think I’ve played more games of “Guess Who?” in the last few days than I have in the last 25 years combined. Of course, I loved every minute of it.

Our Gospel today also describes an episode of domestic life, but one not nearly as tranquil as playing games at home. Instead, we are told of the rather fraught experience of Mary and Joseph searching for the 12-year-old Christ, believing him to be lost, and then finding him somewhere completely unexpected. Why do we have this story on this Feast of the Holy Family, instead of something more peaceful and joyful, something set in the tranquil setting of the home at Nazareth? Because this story helps us discover again who Jesus really is. We might even say that the Gospel writer Luke presents this Gospel episode to us as a kind of “Guess Who?” exercise, in which the details of the story act as clues to Christ’s true identity.

Let’s look again at the story, but this time looking for hints about what the Evangelist might be trying to tell us about Jesus:
  • Jesus goes up to Jerusalem with his parents to celebrate the feast of Passover. This tells us that the family of Jesus are faithful Jews, doing that which God had commanded the nation of Israel to do each year to mark their freedom from slavery in Egypt. But Jesus is not just any 12-year-old; he is the Messiah, the heir of David, and thus by entering Jerusalem, he enters into his own city, the city of which he is the rightful king. Luke accentuates this point when he tells us that, when his parents began the return trip to Galilee, “Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem.” 
  • Mary and Joseph search for the seemingly lost Jesus for a period of three days. This length of time is not accidental. Throughout Scripture, a period of three days is understood as a time of trial after which God intervenes and restores the one who is suffering to fullness of life. There are too many examples to list here, but this idea can be found in the Book of Hosea, in the Psalms, and in the story of Jonah. Of course, all of them – including this instance here – foreshadow the period of three days between Christ’s death on the Cross and his Resurrection. 
  • And finally, we have the most important part of the Gospel, when Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the Temple and confront him. They ask him, very understandably, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” But Jesus’ response explains the whole episode. The Temple was understood as the place of God’s presence, and Jesus – as the literal Presence of God become Flesh – takes up his place in his Father’s house. He reminds his mother and foster father that he is not just any “Son” – he is truly the Son of his heavenly “Father.” Through his presence in it, the Temple has truly become the “Father’s house.” 
Taken together, these clues from St. Luke answer the question of just who this boy Jesus is. He is the son of Mary and Joseph. He is a precocious 12-year-old. But he is also the Incarnate Word, the Son of the heavenly Father born into our time and reality. 

The Finding of the Savior in the Temple (1860) by William Holman Hunt

And this is Good News not just for Mary and Joseph, but also for us, because this Son has been born for us as much as for them. If Jesus has shared every part of our earthly life – including the realities of family, home life, and all of the joys and challenges therein, – then that means every aspect of our earthly lives can also be means of encountering him, of deepening the relationship we have with Christ in the here and now. We all know that the joys of family life can be one of the primary ways we encounter God’s love. But think also about the parts of your home and family life that are challenging: care for children and loved ones, the mundane tasks of the day-to-day, the rhythm and grind of work and family, even the sorrows that inevitably come. In the light of the Incarnation, those become opportunities for grace, avenues by which we can find the Lord’s presence among us, if only we look to find him.

This also means that, in light of who the Holy Family is, we have to view our own lives and families differently. Jesus desired to share our reality so completely that he became a part of a human family. We, in turn, must desire to make our human families part of his heavenly Family, participating each day in the divine life of God. In many ways, family life – the life lived at home – is the locus of our daily sanctification, the very place by which we learn how to place our trust in Jesus. We all want the best for our children, our loved ones, our families. Only Jesus truly gives that to us. As we saw in the Gospel, without him, we are lost and dismayed. It is only with his presence among us that we are at peace. How important it is for parents and grandparents and children and everyone who is part of a family to understand again how there can be no true happiness at home if Jesus is not known.

Friends, perhaps in this Christmas season the Lord is inviting us to realize not just his true identity but ours as well. Guess who? To be adopted sons and daughters of the Father, heirs to God’s divine life. Jesus shared our human life in order to make it possible for us to share in the communion of love that is eternal life. By his grace, he makes it possible for us to begin to experience that life even now, especially in the holy duties of the family. In the Eucharist we will soon share, may we find with eyes of faith the One who nourishes us, dwells among us, and grants us peace.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Christmas Story

I would like to share with you a Christmas story. 

A few hours before midnight on Christmas Eve, 1993, unexpected visitors arrived at a monastery in the village of Tibhirine in the mountains of northern Algeria. The seven monks of the Abbey of Our Lady of Atlas might have expected well-wishers from the neighborhood, come to bring them early Christmas greetings. Instead, their sanctuary was invaded by armed militants, demanding medical supplies, and threatening to kidnap their physician. The monks of Tibhirine were able to turn away the militants that night, but they knew they would return. Conflict throughout the region had been increasing: skirmishes between rebels and regular army, innocent villagers wounded and killed, kidnappings for ransom, executions. The increasingly precarious position of the monastery had convinced many, including some of the monks, that it would be best for them to leave. They had received death threats, and they knew that spurning the militants once would not turn them away forever. It was simply a matter of time before they too would face death. As it turns out, they were right. A little over two years later, the seven fathers and brothers were abducted, held hostage for a time, and eventually assassinated.

This story may seem a little grim for a Christmas homily. In many ways though it is the story of the Christian experience – all the way back to the Christmas story itself. There is a tendency these days to treat Christmas as a momentary respite from the storm around us, as if to say, “The world is dark and terrible, but here for a moment, let’s have a little light and peace and joy.” But just what is the story that we are remembering? What is the context of the Christmas event?

In the Gospel we just heard [at the Vigil Mass, Mt 1:1-25], St. Matthew tells us precisely. He recounts for us the genealogy of Jesus Christ, listing his ancestors according to the flesh all the way back to Abraham. The names may be unfamiliar to us, but the lineage is full of people who did some pretty unsavory things – prostitution, incest, adultery, murder, blasphemy, idolatry. It is from this line of sinners that the Son of God takes upon himself our humanity. Today we celebrate the feast of his birth – and yet even that birth has a kind of brutality that cannot be overlooked. Christ is born in a dirty, smelly stable, because the hardness of men’s hearts found no room for his mother in the inn. Soon, his family will be forced to flee to another country because of the jealousy of a mad king, and innocent children will meet their deaths as a result. And finally this child, laid upon the wood of the manger in the cave of Bethlehem, will be crucified upon on the wood of a Cross and laid out in a cave outside of Jerusalem. Viewed in a worldly way, the Christmas story can seem as grim as the story of the monks at Tibhirine.

Kazimierz Sichulski, 3 Works: The Birth of Jesus, Light of the World (c. 1915)

There is, of course, one thing that I have left out – and it is the one thing that makes all the difference, in both stories: “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means "God is with us" (Mt 1:23).” My friends, those few words are why we celebrate tonight, despite all of the unsavory externals and brutal outcomes that I mentioned before. It is why we celebrate at all, it is why we are truly a people of light and peace and joy. The world around us harbors much darkness; our Church is riddled with moral decay and dysfunction; our personal lives are full of brokenness and suffering. And yet, still we rejoice – tonight, and every night, in this season and in every season – not because those things are untrue, but because what is also true and real and enduring is that “God is with us.”

If we reduce Christmas to the story of one night, to the birth of a babe in a manger, then there is the danger that it becomes for us little more than a fairytale, a child’s bedtime story. Instead, we must remember Who this babe is – He is the God-Made-Man, the Lord of heaven and earth, who has assumed our human nature precisely so that he may redeem it, who has become part of humanity precisely so that he may die for it. The God that we worship, the God that we praise, is not a god who shies away from our wickedness, who tosses us aside or hold’s us at arm’s length because of our evil tendencies. No, our God is “the God-with-us”, whose love for us is so great that he entered into our midst, into the very heart of our darkness so as to illuminate us with his light. And he still does so, and nothing can keep him from doing so – not the sins of Old Testament fathers and forefathers, not the woes of the world, not the scandalous depravities of priests and bishops, not our own half-hearted affections. God enters into the ugliness of all of it in order to transform it anew.

The great 20th century writer J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’– though it contains some samples or glimpses of final victory.” Surely, we know what he means by the “long defeat;” but do we also know just as truly the “final victory”? No matter how long the losing streak might feel, we see those previews, those glimpses of triumph through the gift of faith. Faith in what? Faith in the Christian story – faith in the Christmas story: in Emmanuel, “the God-with-us.” If we come to believe in that Story as our essential reality, as our fundamental truth, then every other darkness and suffering and sadness is transformed by his Presence, by his being-with-us. The birth of Christ is not a respite from the storm of sin that is the human story, that is our story – it is the onslaught against it, it is the rewriting of the world by the light of God in such a way that no darkness can obscure it.

In many ways, we face a choice about how to proceed from this night forward. This Christmas can be for us as it is for so many: a pause from the squalls around us, with a joy and peace that is temporary at best and contrived at worst. Or – it can be a chance to discover again our place in the true story of the world, the Story of the love of a God-Made-Man, to be reawakened to the deep joy and abiding peace whose source is Emmanuel, “the God-with-us,” who brings light to every darkness: in our world, in our Church, in every aspect of our lives. To celebrate Christmas must be for us more than happy memories and sentimental merrymaking – it must be to renew our belief in the long and unfolding victory of Jesus, oft obscured perhaps, but never undone.

The Trappist monks and martyrs of Tibhirine were beatified on December 8, 2018.

The seven monks at Tibhirine, whom I mentioned at the beginning, faced a choice twenty-five years ago tonight. They could have fled from the darkness, from the threat of violence, but they decided to stay, to remain with the people to whom they ministered. No doubt they did so because of their faith in Emmanuel, “the God-with-us,” who never flees from our darkness but enters into it, who shared not only our life but even our death in order to save us. That faith helped those monks understand their own place in the great Story of the world, and they suffered death for it, but no doubt they did so with a glimpse of that final victory to come. A few weeks ago, they were beatified, declared “blessed” by the Church, and now they see, not in glimpses but with full face, the glory of the God-Made-Man.

My friends, may the Christmas story – as it truly was, and as it truly is – touch our hearts as it touched theirs. May we be reawakened to its power and its mystery and find again our place in it, for it is, after all, our story too: “because a Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Making Ready

I don’t make it out to many movies these days. However, a few weeks back, I made a rare trip to the movie theater to see a documentary about something that happened about eighteen months ago, which made headlines around the world and which has fascinated me ever since. In the early morning of June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold, one of the world’s most accomplished rock climbers, scaled the face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley in California, all 3,000 granite feet of it. Not just any climber can climb “El Cap,” but those who do normally take two or three days to do it. Alex climbed it in a little under four hours.

However, the really stunning thing about Alex’s achievement was that he climbed the face of El Capitan in a style known as “free soloing,” that is, without any ropes or safety equipment. It’s simple and yet terrifying: the only thing keeping you on the mountain is your own strength. One slip of the foot, one loose fingerhold means instant death. The documentary that I saw, Free Solo, described how Alex trained for his climb for months, even years beforehand. Physically, he had to practice the route over and over, so that there were no absolutely no surprises once he was up there without ropes. But even more rigorous was his mental and emotional preparation – imagining every foothold and handhold in his mind, and then visualizing himself climbing the route without any gear.

The movie is gripping and nerve-wracking because even though you know Alex survives the climb, it’s hard not to envision him slipping and falling to his death. What fascinated me the most about Alex’s preparation was that the psychological element was much more intense than the physical. He trained so completely that he says he felt no fear and no anxiety during the climb at all. That may seem hard to believe, but for him, everything that could have possibly happened on the mountain had already been worked out before in his mind. He knew that handling his emotions would probably mean the difference between life and death, and so he prepared by processing all of the possible scenarios and eventualities in advance. For four hours, Alex climbed a perfect route up the mountain face, but even more impressive was how he maintained his composure and calm while doing it.

Alex Honnold climbs the "Freerider" route on Yosemite's El Capitan, from the movie Free Solo.

Preparation not only makes us ready for something daunting. It changes us – it transforms the very way that we face that difficult thing. As was the case for Alex, the most important kind of preparation often is on the interior, managing our own selves, making ourselves ready for what might otherwise seem overwhelming.

In the Gospel today, John the Baptist promotes just this kind of interior preparation. This obscure prophet in the desert proclaims news of great importance that the other men mentioned, tetrarchs and high priests, knew nothing about. The coming of the Messiah, the arrival of the long-awaited Heir to the throne of David, was something that the Jewish people had dreamed of for centuries. Now, John tells them that he is at long last at hand, and that they must make ready to welcome him. The Church gives us this story from the Gospels every year on the Second Sunday of Advent as a kind of reminder that we too must make ready in this season. Our hearts should be just as joyous and anxious to receive Christ into our lives in a new way as were the people of Israel two millennia ago.

In what way does John say that we, like they, should make ready? Through repentance. In Greek, the word is “metanoia.” “Repentance” in English has a connotation of guilt, sorrow, and regret, but that isn’t the meaning in Greek. Instead, “metanoia” simply means “a change of mind,” a turning of the heart away from something trivial or unsuitable and toward something true and lasting. Just like a rock climber might prepare himself for his climb by retracing his route in his mind, repentance is a kind of spiritual training that allows us to see the paths our souls are taking and what kind of course correction might be needed. Repentance is a method of preparation, but a preparation by which we signal that we need to make a fundamental change.

It is important to realize that we don’t make this change all by ourselves. The Lord calls us to make our hearts ready for his coming, but it is he who will primarily do the work. Nonetheless, he won’t force change upon us – we have to make the interior turn toward him, showing our willingness to allow him to prepare us in the ways we need.

Sometimes, what the Lord asks can be challenging. It might mean that we allow him space to “make low” the “mountain and hills” of our lives: perhaps by helping us to detach from material things or unhealthy relationships; or by ridding us of sinful habits of mind and heart; or by removing excesses of pride, anger, lust, and selfishness. But for every place where the Lord may humble us, he also “fills in a valley,” lifting us up through the hope of eternal life, gifting us with friendships that bring us closer to him, consoling us with peace and a sense of his presence in our own quiet prayer and meditation. In the end, if we let the Lord do his work, we will find that the Lord has created within us a straight path, a highway for deeper communion with him. The coming of the Savior doesn’t mean that all of our problems will vanish instantly, or that we will no longer face suffering or discontent. But it does mean that we have an assurance of God’s love and presence in the flesh – in the human life of his Son Jesus.

Friends, the kind of Advent preparation we face is nothing nearly as difficult, nor as dangerous, as the preparation Alex Honnold needed for his climb. But it is just as important, since it requires our interior conversion, allowing the Lord to straighten the paths of our hearts and correct the course of our souls. His work might require some change on our part, but there’s no cause for fear or anxiety because God is in complete control. As we continue our ascent through the Advent season, let us ready ourselves through repentance, signifying our willingness to be remade in such a way that like the people of Israel we can welcome the Lord into every part of our lives.

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Curse... and a Blessing

Are you familiar with the phrase “a blessing and a curse”? Usually, people use it in reference to themselves, about some personality trait they have that is both helpful and also a hindrance. For example, having a really great memory is certainly a blessing if you’re trying to recall someone’s name, but it could be a kind of curse as well if you have trouble forgetting painful or difficult memories. 

The Church has long viewed humanity’s sinfulness in precisely this double-edged way, except reversed: as a curse and as a blessing. In the first reading, we heard about how the sin of disobedience committed by our first parents unleashed all of the terrible things we experience in life: pain, sorrow, death. The fundamental disunity and discord that is at the heart of all of our negative experiences is not God’s doing – rather it is the fruit of humanity’s own sinfulness, begun first by Adam and Eve and then continued by each of us.

But as much as sin has been a curse for humanity, as Christians we also understand that without our sinfulness, we would not have received the greatest blessing God has ever given us – Jesus. On the night before Easter each year, the Church sings in its Vigil liturgy an ancient hymn of joy, including one line about how the disobedience of Adam and Eve is a “felix culpa,” a “happy fault.” In other words, our sin is a kind of self-curse, but God also used it as a blessing, since it is because of our sinfulness that He sent his Only-Begotten Son as our Savior and Redeemer. Through Jesus, we have human beings have received “every spiritual blessing in the heavens”, in the words of St. Paul, not only healed of our sinfulness but also raised to become co-heirs with Christ of all that God has promised.

Today, we recall that God’s blessings upon humanity began even before Jesus was born. God’s plan to redeem us from the ancient curse of sin commenced with the Immaculate Conception of Jesus’ Mother, Mary, when God preserved her from the stain of original sin that has marked every human being after Adam and Eve. God foresaw that Mary would perfectly accept God’s will for her to be our Lord’s Mother, and so at the moment of her conception he applied to her the grace of Christ’s future passion. Mary, then, is the first one who has been remade by God’s grace – the fullness of her being is a blessing, untouched and unhindered by sinfulness.

As we celebrate the amazing way in which God acted in the life of Mary, perhaps there is a chance for each of us to reflect upon how God has acted in our own lives. Do I recognize sin and disobedience to God’s will as the source of much of the pain and sorrow in my own life? Do I thank God for how he has healed me of sin’s curse, and transformed me by his blessing, first at my baptism and then each time that I receive his grace, especially in the sacraments? Am I willing to listen to what his plan might be for my life, as Mary did, and proclaim the Lord’s greatness by following his will rather than my own?

Friends, our Mother Mary is the “New Eve,” the Mother of all those who live not under the curse of sin but in the blessing of being God’s adopted children in Christ. Through God’s grace, she is the instrument by which his plan of redemption begins, and she continues to intercede for each of us, that we might be always free of the ancient curse of sinfulness and receive all of the blessings that God has in store for us. As we continue through this Advent season, may we continue to praise the Lord for how he invites each of us – through his grace, and with his blessing – to respond with Mary’s “Yes” to our part in the mystery of redemption.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Sober and Alert

The Wise and Foolish Virgins (3) (c. 1848) by Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow

Time is a funny thing. Philosophers debate how about *real* time is – whether it is truly accurate to view it in the terms we commonly do as past, present, and future, or whether it is more accurate to see time as an uninterrupted chain or block that only appears to unfold progressively. Whatever their answer, most of us know the feeling of how time can often seem to play tricks on us. For example, I bet Thanksgiving break already feels like ages ago to many of us, but the start of the semester – comparatively – not that long ago. We have just flipped the calendar to December, and many of us may feel, “Where has 2018 gone?” The days get longer, it seems, and the years shorter.

Today we start the new season of Advent, a season very much about time, and for that reason, it’s kind of a strange season as well. For one thing, it’s short – we have only a little more than three weeks until it ends. Indeed, there is a temptation to skip Advent altogether, and just jump on ahead to celebrating Christmas. The culture around us certainly encourages us to do that. The Church, as you might guess, takes things more slowly, in their proper order. There is another reason that Advent is kind of a funny season. On the one hand, it is a preparation for the season of Christmas and the celebration of the birth of our Savior Jesus. But at its heart, Advent really isn’t about Christmas at all; instead it’s about remembering the passage of time, especially how God is its author and time is not forever.

We hear this quite clearly at the beginning of the Advent season. In the first reading today, the prophet Jeremiah foretells the days when the Lord will at last bring his justice upon the world, righting all wrongs and settling all accounts. In the Gospel, Jesus talks again about his return at the end of time, a day that will catch people off guard, and which will bring an end to time as we know it. This Gospel reading – which, let’s admit it, is a little frightening – would be out of place if this new season of Advent were only about preparing for the birth of Christ. But as I said, Advent is a little strange. In order to properly celebrate Jesus’s coming long ago, we first call to mind his Second Coming; to rejoice that he has come once, we remember that he will come again.

This may seem a little strange, but there’s a good reason for it, and it has to do with how we tend to treat time. Most of us live our day to day lives planning different things, making arrangements, and generally operating as if our lives have no end in sight. Of course, we know that we are mortal, and our time here is not infinite, but we generally don’t let that knowledge impinge too much on our way of thinking. Inevitably, then we look for fulfillment in the passing things of time – stuff, pleasure and satisfaction, career achievements, the esteem of other people. The problem, of course, is that eventually we will be caught off guard – we will be reminded of our finitude in some shocking or disturbing way, or we may even find our time drawn to a close in a far too quick way.

The followers of Jesus have to operate differently. As he tells us in the Gospel, the things of this reality are ultimately unreliable, incapable of providing us with true meaning and fulfillment. It is only when we live with a view to the coming reality – especially to him as the constant that guides and forms how we treat everything else – that we have a proper approach to the things of this world.

Jesus warns us about three things that can easily distract us from this. The first thing he mentions is “carousing,” sometimes also translated as dissipation or debauchery. Basically, it is indulgence in the pleasures and attractions of this world. We could think of a lot of examples: sex, money, entertainment, sports, politics, possessions, social media, even knowledge and curiousity – the list could go on. The second thing to avoid is “drunkenness.” It is a sin, usually a serious one, to intentionally do anything which takes away our ability to reason, our sensibility. Certainly, alcohol is a major danger in this regard, and one that our culture misuses terribly, especially on college campuses. But we can become “drunk” on things other than booze, as well – power, prestige, greed, but also anger, despair, sarcasm, and anything else that can overwhelm right judgment and sober thinking. Finally, if those don’t cover all the bases, Jesus warns us not to be weighed down by the “anxieties of daily life.” That’s something we all can take to heart. Jesus knows that we have problems and concerns in our lives right now, but we can’t become so weighed down by them that we abandon faith and hope for an attitude of worry.

In addition to warning us of what can distract us, Jesus also tells us what we can do to make ourselves ready for the Lord’s action in our lives. First, we should “be vigilant” – that is, we should watch, be on guard, and see things with a spiritual perspective. There is a great line from the First Letter of Peter: “Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith.” We should have a discerning eye toward how we view the situations, cares, and things of this world, recognizing that within them often lie temptations. We have to be on guard against whatever might disturb our relationship with the Lord, and rob us of inner peace. This leads to Jesus’s second command – “pray.” We only can be truly ready for the Lord if we are continually communicating with him, speaking to him about the circumstances and concerns of our day to day reality, lifting up what we have and who we are in a offering of love and praise, and then receiving from him the grace to keep persevering, watchful and alert.

Friends, time may be a funny thing – inevitable and yet unreliable – but Jesus is the Lord of the past, present, and future. When we recognize that – when we live now ready for his action, mindful of his coming, in whatever form that may be – then we can regard the things of this world in the proper way. Let’s use the three weeks and change of this Advent season not just to prepare for Christmas, but as a time to rouse ourselves from drowsiness, reassessing how we view all the aspects of our life and whether the Lord is at the center. Let’s keep our mind’s eye always on the coming of Christ, so that we can regard the things of the here and now with a sobriety and alertness that makes us ready for whatever life may bring.