2nd Sunday of Advent 12-10-17
Our Gospel reading is the opening 8 verses of Mark’s Gospel. Mark chooses to begin with a quotation from Isaiah, chapter 40. Mark clearly has chosen carefully, and we need to understand why he uses Isaiah and how he uses the images in it.
Chapters 40 to 55 of the book of Isaiah are referred to as the “Book of Consolation of Israel.” Israel was overrun by the Babylonian army some 500 years before Christ. It is a story of great shame and loss. Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple looted and burned to the ground. The people were captured and taken from their homeland into exile. According to Isaiah, the refusal of the Israelites to follow God’s laws, and their unwillingness to obey God was the reason for this great tragedy. But now the Israelites are being forgiven by God, and they will be granted their long-awaited freedom and return to rebuild their homeland.
It is a time of reconciliation. Isaiah is told to speak tenderly to the Israelites, or literally to “speak to their hearts”. The expression is very maternal- suggesting that Jerusalem is the “mother city”, and the people are children returning to a mother’s love. Although their punishment was severe, the Lord is returning to their midst, and the Lord should be welcomed as a great and majestic King. The people will restore the road for God’s arrival, as God will restore his people. Once again the Glory of the Lord will be in the temple, and the people will know God’s presence. It is a level of joy only known to people who have suffered great losses and held against their will.
Purification was historically a big issue for the Jews. Ritual bathing was required after breaking any of a long list of laws before one could worship God again. In a land of deserts and limited access to water, washing took on a significance that is unfamiliar to us. Jewish tradition has it that Adam stood in the Jordan River for 40 days after he ate the fruit which was forbidden. The prophet Elisha had Naaman wash 7 times in the Jordan River to heal his leprosy. Traditionally, any one converting to the Jewish faith must do ritualized bathing in water. This constitutes a rebirth, and brings purity “like that of a child just born”. Sound familiar? The Essenes (the Desert Fathers), of all people, were baptized each morning!
So Mark is using Isaiah, the Prophet of all Prophets, to announce that Jesus, the long awaited Messiah, is coming to restore his people. It is obvious that John is the voice crying out, literally, in the desert. Mark knows that it has been some 300 years since Israel has had a prophet of God in their midst. John the Baptist looks and talks and preaches like an old-time prophet. John presses the people to repent of their sins and be right with God. Instead of preparing the road for the king, John was preparing the people’s hearts for the King. The Psalmist says it with poetic grace: Justice (John) shall walk before (the Lord), and prepare the way of his steps.
What was the attraction to John? It wasn’t the wardrobe. I think that we all are looking for second chances. We all, to some degree, carry around a burden of regrets for some of the choices we have make and the selfish acts we commit. We all have a little part of us that relates to the Israelites who thought they were smarter than God and ended up being homeless captives in Babylon. We find John in a scene stripped of the liturgical niceties; just a man in camel skins, in the barren land, next to a muddy river, providing what the people needed. Their religious leaders at the Temple were too busy with finances and politics. So the people from the countryside and people from the city of Jerusalem were streaming out to John. No vestments, no holy orders, no stained glass windows, nothing but raw confrontation of sinfulness and the urgent desire for forgiveness and inner peace.
But John’s purpose in life was not to only address the people’s thirst for reconciliation. He was to create anticipation, a longing for more. He was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. The road that John was preparing was for One mightier and holier than John, One who would baptize with, not water, but the Holy Spirit. You see, people were confused about the messiah- would he be a fierce warrior who would battle the Romans, or a savior, who would bring salvation and peace? The Messiah had been promised in Genesis; people despaired he would never come. Psalm 90 answers, “A thousand years in (God’s) eyes are merely a yesterday.” Our 2nd reading from the 2nd letter of Peter, echoes that, saying, “Do not ignore this one fact…that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years..” But this letter does not leave the issue there. It goes on with, “…what sort of persons should you be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”
And that is where the road of Advent leads us: to ask the questions of “what sort of persons we ought to be,” and how do we “prepare the road” for the Lord? How do we wash away the old presumptions and excuses, realize our failings, open our hearts for the Lord’s arrival? How do we move toward holiness and hasten the coming of God? I think sometimes those teeny tiny energy-efficient lights we have on our Christmas trees are a symbol of how much light we really want to have shine in the darker places of our lives. But we have already been baptized with the Holy Spirit, so we pray, “O, Come Lord, O, Come Jesus, O, Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.”
This week we jump from the end of Mark’s gospel to the beginning. The idea of “waiting” is still present, but we are introduced to John the Baptist. His message is to repent and prepare. He baptises as a sign of forgiveness. In doing so, he adds a new word to our Advent as we repent and prepare. That word is change. It is a word that most don’t like to hear or do. Mostly, we are all set in our ways and pretty much satisfied with whom we are. In the comfort we feel, sometimes we forget that we can hurt others by what we do or say. It is easy to say repent and get ready for Christ’s coming, but do we really step back and take a close honest look at who we are. Jesus came at a time there was turmoil and disillusionment in the Jewish community. Many had wandered off from the teaching of the prophets, the priest, the temple and yearned for communing with God. John was an intriguing figure and they accepted him as a prophet or even maybe the promised Messiah. He was the attraction of his time drawing people from everywhere. His message was clear, repent, change, and wait for the one to come. I have always wondered why we use John in the desert preparing the people for Jesus’ ministry in preparing for Christmas. Yet, the liturgical year uses his message of repent and change at the beginning every year to prepare ourselves by calling on us in our season of wait to repent and change. Christ is certainly coming, first symbolically at Christmas, but also most assuredly to each of us in the future either near or far.
1st Sunday Advent, year B 12-3-17
It’s easy to come to church in the summer and fall, and listen to one of the old, familiar parables of Jesus each week. In November, we had those 3 weeks of parables about “end times”, which we’ve heard before, but they’re a little different. It’s harder to make sense of them and the idea of “end times” is not so familiar to us. And then we go to the grocery store, and the pumpkin coffee and donuts have all been replaced with peppermint tea and candy canes, and the Salvation Army guy is ringing his bell. Our email is flooded with Black Friday bargains and the mailman brings stacks of ads. We come to church, and find the Advent Wreath out and the Christmas tree up. But in the Gospel, Jesus is still telling us to watch and be alert just like the last 3 weeks. It’s confusing!
Adding to the confusion is that the Church calendar is NOT the same as the School calendar, the governmental fiscal calendar or the yearly calendar we use. The church calendar serves to remind us that if school, finances or schedules are the sole focus of our lives, we took a wrong turn somewhere; we have lost sight of the larger realm of eternity.
A second issue is that few of us can participate in the weekday Masses and Marian Feasts, such as the Immaculate Conception or Assumption or Annunciation, which help us “connect the dots” and fill out the story of the Incarnation of Jesus. Also, our readings through the year do not run chronologically. We follow the church seasons instead of the time line of Jesus’ life on earth. So the church year starts with Advent, moves to Christmas – ok so far, but then jumps to Jesus’ life, and quickly moves on to Lent and Easter, reading about Jesus’ death and resurrection, then reverts to Jesus’ teachings in Ordinary time, and finishes with anticipating the 2nd coming. Add a few Feasts in, like Christ the King, and the order of events becomes blurred.
The other thing that is happening is that the church has drawn a parallel between the birth of Jesus (Historical event) and the 2nd coming of Jesus (future expectation). But we get a little help with this one! The liturgy gives us an overlap this first Sunday of Advent to make the transfer back from end times/ second coming to the birth of Jesus.
Notice in Isaiah we read, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down (that is both the 2nd coming and birth, yet it also reminds us of the sky opening at Christ’s baptism), with the mountains quaking before you (a scene from the crucifixion), while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old (miracles of the historical Jesus, the resurrection, and expectations of the new heaven and new earth).” So all the images of past and future mingle together. Then we read the last sentence of that reading, which says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” It is a prayer to our creator to keep us soft, moldable, open to the nuances of the scriptures, to be able to see God in new ways and new events, always ready to learn new lessons and truths about God how God acts in our lives and in our world.
Just as we go to the closet under the stairs and bring out the lights and tinsel and ornaments that transform that old artificial tree into a Christmas tree that brings us joy and comfort, so our Psalm proverbially goes to the closet and brings out the memories that bring us into a new season. The Psalmist says, Remember that God is the shepherd that searches after the one lost sheep. Remember that God is light, who shines into the darkness, who dispels fears and uncertainty. Remember we believe that God came to save us; that God sees us and is aware of us. God is the gardener who protects the fragile young plants, who protects and makes us strong enough to face the storms of life. Finally, we recall the understanding that living with love, and staying close to God is the way to life at its fullest and best, despite what is happening around us.
St Paul echoes the Psalm, as he so often does, writing, “In Christ Jesus…you were enriched in every way…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation if our Lord Jesus Christ.” In that I hear shades of the Birth of Christ, 2nd coming, before, in between, and after.
One thing I always wonder is this: if I had met the historical Jesus on the road, would I have known him to be the Son of God, the Messiah? Would I have been open to his divinity, willing to look past his humanity and see more? Our Gospel asks this question: “Are we ready to see the Christ child as more than just another infant? How will we learn to discern, and recognize him if he is “not what we expect”? Or will we be asleep in the to-do list for the day, the complications of life, difficulties with relationships, concerns about health or finances? Will we somehow delude ourselves into thinking that Jesus would never return without at least texting us first? How will we live so that the greatest joy possible in life, being at the gate to welcome Jesus with open arms when he returns, becomes a reality? How can we be fully watchful and alert to Jesus, regardless of our surroundings, our mood, and our presumptions?
These are questions that draw us into the time of Advent, make us sit down and re-consider how available we are to God. They make us more aware that we are in the midst of God’s actions; that we make this journey through life together with each other and everyone past and future. It nudges us to sense the greater goals and purposes of life. Welcome to Advent.
Today we start the new Liturgical Year, but we start it by going to the end part of Mark’s gospel to the prophecies of persecution and the times of tribulation and the destruction of the Temple. One thing standing out is the word in our liturgy today is the word and idea of “waiting.” Waiting for the Master who has gone away and will return at any time in the near or far future. Waiting for him to come at any time, any hour and to be prepared to open and let him in.
The first reading from Isaiah is from a time Israel had returned home to devastation and the ruins of their Temple. Very definitely there were gaps in their trust and faithfulness to God , gaps that they had to fill in to once again become his faithful people. The situation and state of the world seemed so hopeless for them, that giving trust and hope was difficult. God, however, responded to them giving them a “YET” in the promise of a coming of a savior. The when and where was unknown, but the “YET” was his only son Jesus who came to the world and to the Jewish people during a later time of occupation and subservience to Rome. The gospel today is from Jesus’ last days and after his account of the coming persecution and destruction of Jerusalem. It follows that as he tells them of the Master leaving and returning at an undetermined time. Ironically or unfortunately, almost every century has experienced the signs persecution and disorder and being cut off from God. Christianity has never been perfect, as mankind has never managed to fully and completely to be faithful. Our saving grace is that same “YET” we are reminded will come again to all who await God’s call. His call to wait, to be awake, to weather the times and persecutions to greet him when he comes, is still there. The season of Advent is here to remind us to watch and wait as we celebrate once again Christ’s coming as an infant in Bethlehem.
Christ the King11-26-17
I remember a Sunday school class, long ago. We were learning that God was omniscient, (all-knowing) omnipresent (everywhere), and omnipotent (all-powerful). The teacher hoped to “wow” us with the words. But we were the new generation – taught to ask questions & expecting answers. So someone asked, “Does that mean God is in the garbage can?” The questioner was not being rude or flippant; the question was honestly one for clarification. The poor teacher stuttered and stammered, and finally, hesitantly agreed that, “Yes”, everywhere was, indeed, everywhere, even undesirable places.
Now, I have some questions about “Christ the King”. “King” is a political title, masculine at that. God is not a gendered being. Jesus was not political. In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingship is not of this world…” Jesus’ authority is not of any geopolitical space. And wasn’t the original purpose of “Christ the King” in 1925 to emphasize that Jesus was entirely different and far superior to those dictators violently grabbing for power across Europe? Wasn’t this the church’s attempt to remind us that military rule is the antithesis of Jesus’ message to love God and neighbor, the only “rule” necessary?
Thomas Friedman, a well- known New York Times columnist, recently published his latest book, “ Thank you for being Late: an optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations.” It’s a good read. The title refers to a friend being late for a lunch date, and Mr. Friedman having unexpected time when he could sit and think about some of the changes in our culture. The changes all seemed to revolve around technology altering the ways we relate to one another, market consumer goods, communicate, travel, view our world, and so on– and the increasingly rapid technological advances coming at us. Some one (who knows, maybe the kid from my Sunday school class) asked him this sincere question, “Is God in cyberspace?” Technology has expanded the universe beyond stars and galaxies. Like my teacher, Friedman didn’t know how to answer. So he asked his Rabbi.
Rabbi Marx responded from two different perspectives. The 1st is the traditional view from the Jewish Scriptures: God had Moses lead his people out of Egypt and he sent prophets to guide them. The Psalms are full of praise of God for saving people from danger and despair; God is passionately engaged and present; God seeks us out. But Marx says, (If you think) “God makes his presence felt through divine intervention, (well) he sure… isn’t in cyberspace, which is full of pornography, gambling, …all manner of hate speech, etc. ,etc.” He makes cyberspace sounds like a garbage can. But Marx, unlike the Psalmists, seems to deny that God would get his hands dirty when things go bad.
So, Rabbi Marx continues with the 2nd perspective, “The Jewish post-biblical view of God is that we make God present by our own choice and our own decisions; whether it’s a real room or a chat room, you have to bring Him there yourself by how you behave, by the moral choices and mouse clicks you make. In that view, we understand that from the first day of the world…(humankind) was responsible for making God’s presence manifest by what we do. And the reason this issue is most acute in cyberspace is that no one else is in charge there. There is no place in today’s world, where you encounter the freedom to choose that God gave us, more than in cyberspace – where we are all connected and no one is in charge. So the answer is “No” – but God wants to be there.”
I like the emphasis on personal responsibility, but I wonder if this sad view of a God who shyly waits for us to invite him in finds its roots in the racist homicidal evil of the Nazis, who killed more than 6 million Jews, as well as the hope & faith of generations. Pollsters say that among today’s American Jews, twice as many people view God as an “impersonal force”, rather than the God who seeks a relationship with us and is always present.
So, as Catholic Christians, what do we do about “Christ the King”? We turn to Tradition and Scripture. Our belief in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a good place to start. Paul (1 Cor 3:16) says it plainly: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” I dare say, wherever I am, God is there, even in that garbage can of a nursing home in Glen Burnie. I shared the Spirit with people there and sometimes I met the Spirit in the rooms and the hallways. People who “did not speak” said “Hail Mary’s” with me and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. We can participate in the light and power of the Divine Spirit – and that Spirit is all spaces, cyber and otherwise. The church celebrates this indwelling in Baptism, Confirmation, and the Mass.
Jesus came to earth and was met with the slaughter of the Innocents by Herod, he spoke boldly when tempted by Satan, he called out to Simon and Andrew when they were fisherman, he engaged the woman at the well, he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday against the advice of the disciples, he approached the men walking to Emmaus, he appeared to the apostles after his resurrection; he did not wait for them to come to him. The people (Mark 1: 27) recognized he spoke with a new kind of “authority”. He told us, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt 28:20) Jesus is not hesitant. Jesus is present.
John 3:16 says,” For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” In Revelations, we find, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come.” It sounds like God has the future technological advances covered already.
So I conclude that not only is God omniscient, omnipresent & omnipotent, and therefore there is no worry about God’s authority in the universe, but we should focus on what we can control. That means we focus on our relationship with God and neighbor, and we share that in word and deed (like in today’s Gospel), keep the “garbage cans” of our lives clean, contribute to our society with integrity, and trust God for the rest.