Monday, November 30, 2015

The Preparing of Advent

Blessed Hope, Nathan Greene (2011)

To truly know something, you have to understand its purpose. For instance, you can memorize the names of all the parts of the human body, but until you understand the purpose each serves and how they interrelate with each other, then you don’t really know anatomy. Or if you want to understand how a car works, it’s not enough to just name the parts under the hood – you have to understand how they work together to make the engine run.

The same is true in our spiritual lives. Today we enter into a new year in the Church, beginning again the season of Advent. But why do we have Advent? What is its purpose? We know that Christmas is coming, both as it is celebrated in the Church and in the world – but is Advent just the preparation for Christmas, and nothing more?

In the Gospel today, Jesus doesn’t reference Christmas at all. Instead he refers to things that sound terrifying – signs in the sun, moon and stars, nations in dismay, the roaring of the sea and the waves, people dying of fright. All of these are preparations for the Son of Man appearing in the clouds, with power and great glory. Jesus is explicitly telling the disciples that he will come back, that he will return to the earth – and when he does so, no one will miss it.

It seems strange that in a season of new beginnings, like Advent, our readings focus first on things coming to an end. But of course, for new things to arrive, the old must be swept away. The season of Advent is a period of preparation – of turning ourselves to the Lord and awaiting his return. Yes, it’s the season before Christmas, but our preparation should be much more than just preparing to celebrate Christmas again – it should be a period of preparing ourselves for Jesus’s final return. Jesus explicitly refers to his Second Coming so that his disciples can be different than everyone else – rather than cower in fear like the rest of the world, they are to stand up and be ready and welcome him with joy.

If you and I are honest with ourselves, we’d probably admit that – at the moment – we’re not ready for Jesus’s return. We each have some area in our lives that needs some healing, some further conversion. That word – “conversion” – simply means to make turn, in this case, making a turn away from whatever is harmful for us spiritually and turning toward the Lord. In just a little over a week, on December 8, we’ll begin the special Jubilee Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis, when we’ll focus for a whole year on the merciful love of God that never abandons us or gives up on us but always welcomes us again with joyful love.

My friends, to truly know something, we have to understand it purpose. And the purpose of living as disciples of Jesus is that we receive – again and again – his mercy and grace so that we are ready for his return when he comes again. So use this Advent not just as a time to prepare for Christmas, but as a chance to ready yourself for Jesus’s final return – to deepen your relationship with him, to turn away from what is holding you back from doing so, and to turn toward the Lord who welcomes you with joy and peace.   

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Kingship of Jesus

Christ in Majesty, apse mosaic of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington D.C.

In a little less than a week, as you well know, families and friends around the country will gather around a shared table and join in one of the most special meals of the year. Any grade schooler can tell you that the origins of our Day of Thanksgiving are traced back to 1621, when English pilgrims and Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe shared a feast after the autumn harvest. The event marks, in a certain sense, the kind of spiritual birthday of what America came to represent – a land of freedom, opportunity, even abundance, and indeed for that and for all of our blessings it is proper each year to give thanks.

The Pilgrims, like so many of the immigrant people that came to the New World, were not only seeking something better – they were also leaving something worse. Many of them were especially seeking freedom from tyranny – from the unjust laws and heavy taxes of kings and queens in the European homeland. In the centuries since, much of the world has come to appreciate and even adopt for themselves the political virtues which have come to define America – representative government, democratic rule – things that I’m sure each of us value as well. While we may tire at times with the downsides of our political process, we nonetheless are grateful that we have one, that we’re not merely the subjects of earthly kings and queens.

What then do we make of today’s feast, when we call Jesus our King? Does the fact that we live in a democratic society – indeed, in a nation founded by those seeking to get away from kings – mean that the kingship of Jesus lacks meaning for us? In the Gospel, Jesus certainly doesn’t appear very kingly – this holy man from Galilee, arrested, in the presence of the Roman governor, about to be sentenced to be crucified on a cross.

The key is to hear again what Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus doesn’t need earthly kingship – or any of its trappings of power – for he has been given, in the words of the Book of Daniel, “an everlasting dominion”. Jesus is a King because he has been made one by his Heavenly Father, who has given him all power, honor, and glory. Obedient to his Father’s will, even to the point of death, in order to redeem us from eternal death, Jesus is, in the words of Revelation, “the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth.” His kingdom now is present only in a hidden form but at the end of time it will be revealed for all to see. In a sense, what we celebrate today – unlike all of the other feasts of our year – is not so much about an event that is in our past but rather one that is to come.

If we recognize that Jesus truly is the King of Kings – the only eternal King – then two things become apparent for us. First, we realize how important it is that we become a part of his kingdom. Just like an earthly king, we have to form ourselves after his example – valuing what he values, loving what he loves, rejecting what he rejected. This can be done in any and every aspect of our life: family, work, school, relationships. In these areas and others, we seek to act as he did – that is, forgiving, serving, praying, loving unconditionally. It’s much more than just asking ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” Rather we should ask, “What does Jesus wish to do through me?”

Second, we realize that in the face of final victory and everlasting glory, the fears and challenges of this world – indeed, this world itself – are ultimately all passing away. Whether it’s anxieties that we face in our personal lives, or the frightening things we see around our nation and our world, nothing can challenge the victory that Jesus has already achieved. I say this not in any way to trivialize the real difficulties that we do face. We know them all too well – we see them all around us – and we must work to overcome them, calling always upon God’s grace to assist us. But even as we strive against very real challenges to make our lives and the world around us better, nothing – nothing – should really disrupt the interior sense of joy that Christ reigns for all eternity. Remember that great line from St. Paul – "What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? ... No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us."

My friends, Jesus is not like an earthly king and we have no need to fear his kingship. His kingdom is not of this world – but that doesn’t mean we can’t begin to experience it even now, even before its final revelation. The more you and I form ourselves in the image of our king, the more we submit ourselves in joy to the knowledge that his Providence guides all things – the closer we come to bringing the full reality of that kingdom to light.

In a few moments, we’ll share a taste of that kingdom – a Thanksgiving feast, if you will, not commemorating an event of the past, but a reality of the now and the forever, a preview of the heavenly banquet. One of my favorite Christian authors, Fr. Romano Guardini, writing on the Mass, puts it well: Everything around us is uncertain, alien, edged with danger. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Now, however, we are here, celebrating the memorial of our Lord. He knows about us, and we know about Him... Now, at the moment of sacred commemoration, He will come to us, will be with us, will fortify us. Whatever tomorrow may bring, it will be of His sending. 

May Christ our King – who feeds us with his very self – strengthen us today and always, that we may know and love and serve him in this life that we may reign with him in the next.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Saints & Yourself

Paradise, dome fresco of Baptistery of Padua, c. 1378, Giusto de' Menabuoi

When you hear the word “saint”, who comes to mind? Hopefully not just someone who plays for the New Orleans Saints. If so, it might be a sign you need to spend more time in church!

Who do we think of as saints? Maybe someone who lived a long time ago, like Augustine or Athanasius. Maybe someone who founded a religious order, like Benedict or Francis. Maybe someone who lived a life of intense prayer, like Catherine of Sienna or Teresa of Avila. Maybe someone who did amazing, even heroic things like Mother Teresa or John Paul II or Maximilian Kolbe. In short, when we hear the word “saint,” we think of all sorts of people – everyone, that is, but ourselves.

Now, to be sure, we are not saints – not as we are currently. To be a saint means to be in heaven, to be experiencing the glorious beatific vision, that is, beholding God face to face. But while you and I are not saints yet – we are called to be saints, indeed, created by God for that singular purpose alone.

Our readings today tell us this very clearly. In the first reading, St. John is alone on the island of Patmos, toward the end of his life, and he is caught up in the visions that make up the book of Revelation. In this vision, he sees around the throne of God “a great multitude from every nation, race, people, and tongue”. This throng of people is from every background imaginable, and yet despite their outward differences, they are united in one thing: “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress, and have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”

If we think that’s intended to describe someone other than you and me, we’re mistaken. Yes, it means the martyrs and the bishops and the nuns, all those holy men and women that we first think of when we hear the word “saint”. But it’s not them alone. You and I, by virtue of our baptism, also have a share in the death of Christ – our souls have been washed in his blood to remove our sinfulness. By that fact, so too are we called to share in his Resurrection, to take, by the grace of God, our place in the Communion of Saints.

But how do we get there? As Catholics, we believe that becoming a saint is a lifelong process – as long as we are alive, we have the opportunity both to lose the grace of God through sin but also then to turn away from sin, repent, confess, and receive that grace of God again. We work out our salvation, as St. Paul says, “with fear and trembling,” recognizing that this work we are engaged in – this identity that we are striving to achieve, of being a saint – is the most important, indeed the only truly important thing that matters. This life on earth must be for us all about getting to heaven.

The beautiful thing is that the saints themselves show us that there’s not one single path to holiness. The Church traditionally identifies three vocations, three ways of life by which God calls us to holiness. The most common is in the exclusive bond of marriage, by which a man and a woman through their love express to each other the love God has for the other, becoming the foundation by which they share the work of God of bringing new life into the world, ultimately loving each other to heaven. Priesthood too is a vocation of love – specifically, the love of Christ, by which the priest seeks to show the love of God to all whom he encounters. Finally, the consecrated or religious life is a vocation by which God seeks to form a particular bond with a man or woman in order to dedicate them to a particular work of making the world a holier place, usually through prayer or service. They live out in a special way that blueprint for sainthood which Jesus gives us in the Gospel today, the Beatitudes.

These vocations are not just nice ideas or lofty but unrealistic goals. They are real callings, real movements within the hearts of people today. This week the Church in the US celebrates National Vocations Week, in which we pray for those who have committed themselves to a particular vocation and for those who are still discerning their vocation. I would especially encourage the young people today, particularly our college students, to take some time this week to reflect upon your vocation. Visit a church, take a walk, say a rosary – spend some time listening to whether what you think you want to do with your life is what God wants you to do. We need holy marriages, holy priests, and holy religious and consecrated because it’s through those vocations that God sanctifies the world and through which we strive for our ultimate, shared goal of being a saint.

Today we celebrate all of our brothers and sisters who have attained that goal. We ask for their spiritual assistance and intercession, and we look to them as models and inspirations to holiness. But we should also see in them a promise of what we ourselves can be, indeed are called to be, if we endure this earthly time of trial, clinging to the grace we have in Christ. The saints were not superheroes – but merely men and women who cooperated fully with the will of God, and now rejoice with him for eternity. As one of the saints said, “Why can we not be so holy?”

So, the next time you think of the saints in heaven, imagine yourself as one of them – and then live here on earth in such a way that you can make that a reality.