Where is God’s “House”?

The Holy Family, 12-30-18

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28, Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10, 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24, Luke 2:41-52

Our readings start with 1st Samuel, and the story of the prophet Samuel as a child. His mother had not been able to have a child, so she had gone to the Temple and prayed, telling God she would bring the child back to the Temple for a lifetime of service there. The Hebrew phrases it more like she had borrowed the child, and them returned him to God. In our terms, Samuel became an “adopted” child of God, a child who grew up in God’s “house”. It sets the stage for the Gospel nicely in terms of the importance of the Temple as a place representing God’s “Home” and presence among us, and the way we connect deeply with God for a lifetime.

Many people have translated today’s Psalm into modern English. Leslie Brandt starts it: “O God, the center of your will is truly the place of fulfillment. I long incessantly for the peace and security of walking with you. You are the only purpose and meaning for my life. Those who discover and follow you are forever blessed.”

Nan Merrill finishes the Psalm this way: “Blessed are they who put their strength in you, who choose to share the joy and sorrows of the world. They do not give way to fear or doubt; their lives are quickened by Divine Light and Power; they dwell within the peace of the Most High, They go from strength to strength and live with integrity.”

I know of no one who can live this way solely because of their own intellect or self-determination. Life is too complex to live without love, too full of stumbling blocks to be without God’s strength, too short to be without hope and faith.

Our second reading from 1st letter of St. John also used to prepare us for the Gospel. John writes that we are “children of God”. It does not mention the Temple. The Temple was probably destroyed by the Romans before this was written, but it was definitively written after Pentecost. John writes somewhat differently about what it is to live in God’s “house”.

He says: God’s commandment is that “(1) we should believe in… his Son, Jesus Christ, and (2) love one another as he commanded us.” So John concludes that “Those who keep (God’s) commandments remain in God, and the way we know that God remains in us, is from the (Holy) Spirit God gave us.” So, God’s dwelling is no longer understood as a building where we go to be with God. Instead, God is within us – which is a huge step when you think about it. But it makes sense, since we were created “in God’s image”, and God proclaimed us “good”, as Fr. Peter talked about last week.

If we are the dwelling place of God – “God’s House” – what is an appropriate and sensible way to run our lives? When God’s dwelling was a building, it was easy to understand there were certain ways to act and behave in God’s house. Ever since God had Moses create a Tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant, great care was taken to use the best of building materials, precious metals, and furniture and lamp stands of certain shapes. Desecrating the Temple was to show contempt or be irreverent. Being abusive, profane, sacrilegious, or disrespectful in the Temple was something that only mortal enemies did after every-able bodied person had given their lives to prevent it.

But my question was this: If God dwells in us, if we are God’s house, what are our responsibilities? John’s answer is straightforward: “to believe” and “to love.” We can trust God; there is no nanosecond of time when God does not love us; God never turns away from us. God is never out of town, or asleep or glued to a screen. Too many people have treated God like “Santa, Baby”- a demanding relationship where we stop believing in God if the blue convertible, the ring, the condo and the checks weren’t delivered by Christmas.

For the Gospel, we must return to the 3-level way of reading. Level 1 is the story line – most of us have heard this story before. Level 2 is the deeper meaning and symbolism. Level 3 is how to make use of it in our lives.

Finding deeper meaning may include asking: How did Mary and Joseph look for Jesus? They looked first among friends and family.  They looked to those who they knew well, they trusted, and who shared their faith and values.  That’s why we have God parents, and faith communities – because we need to be surrounded by people of faith.  But Jesus was not there.

They returned to the Temple, which they saw as the House of God, the center of faith and truth, where they went to be devout and faithful people of God, and observe the time-honored customs of worship.  They diligently conducted an intense search for a child they loved, and who was precious to them.  They would not leave until they found him, the child Jesus was all they thought about. They looked for their son in every corner of the Temple, not just in the open courts.  They even went to the special places where the teachers, the wise ones and the scholars met, those who devoted their lives to the study and practice of their faith, and they found him there, to their astonishment.

How do we use the passage we read to find Jesus in our own lives? In the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, he writes that he has closely studied the life of Jesus “from the beginning…from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…so that (we) may know the truth…”  The Bible, then, is a good place to start the search for Jesus.

The community of faith often searches for Jesus together, sharing what their experiences have taught them. But that is not enough. Our search must be diligent and intense, including regular daily prayer and study time, which may mean re-working your daily schedule. We choose to be obedient to God and grow in wisdom.  Becoming an active participant in the worship of the faith community is important. This is the pattern of faithful Christian living that brings us to fullness of life. Continuing the search persistently is absolutely necessary.  It must continue until our last day.

So these readings are not just story lines from long ago, not just poems about a God that lives in a place far away. Rather, they point us toward a way of life – the Christian Life, a life of community of belief, and a pattern of love.  They are about the way we are to live going forward from the manger where the child was born, the God who created everything we know, who came to earth to live with us and live as one of us, and live within us.

Advertisements

Pray for Joy

3rd Sunday of Advent 12-16-2018

Zephaniah 3: 14-18a, Isaiah 12: 2-6, Philippians 4: 4-7, Luke 3: 10-16, year C

Today’s readings work together unusually well to give us reasons to experience Joy. We start with one of the Minor Prophets, Zephaniah.  The book is only 3 chapters long, and most of it is dire warnings of disaster:  “Woe to you”, it says, “who have turned away from God; a day of wrath, of distress, anguish, ruin and darkness is near.”  But we read from the very end of the book, when God forgives the people for their disobedience.  God’s presence returns to them and God rejoices over the people, God sings joyfully because of his people. God saves them from their enemies and makes them famous among the nations for their good fortune. That’s interesting, isn’t it?  Generally it’s the people who sing joyfully about God!

Speaking of unusual, our Psalm today is actually from the very end of the first section of the book of Isaiah.  The Assyrians have destroyed much of Israel, and all of King David’s descendents appear to be dead.  But Isaiah writes of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse”.   Jesse was the father of King David, and one descendent is eventually found alive.  So Isaiah gives us the prophecy of the Messiah.  Our reading today is parts of two songs of praise for the promise of the Messiah and that God has preserved the future of Israel.  “My strength and my courage is the Lord, and (God) has been my savior…Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously.” Coincidentally, these songs of praise echo the song of Moses’ sister Miriam, as the Israelites escape from Egypt, “The Lord is my strength and my song, for he has triumphed gloriously.” (Ex15:1-2) This time the people do sing joyfully about God.

Our 2nd reading likewise is a song of joy from the end of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  He writes from prison, awaiting execution.  But Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  The Lord is near.”  So, all three of these readings tell us that at the end of painful, difficult times, God makes joy out of fear and sorrow.

In our Gospel, the pattern changes slightly. We read from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, signaling something new is happening.  John the Baptist has baptized people in the River Jordan, and God has forgiven their sins.  The people have experienced a real change of heart, and are anxious to change their ways.  They ask “What should we do!?”  John tells them to share their clothing, share their food.  He tells the tax collectors not to over charge people and tells the soldiers not to falsely accuse the innocent or extort money from them.  John the Baptist ties all this up neatly by saying that the Messiah is coming.

So, we have an encouraging message, filled with forgiveness, the good news of a bright future, and lots of singing and joy. But, what do we do with it?  Well, I promised you to look at the nativity story during Advent in some new ways, and I think our readings today lead us to the characters of the Angels and the Shepherds.

The shepherds had little to rejoice about. For the most part, they were uneducated, poor men who had a dangerous job of fighting off large predatory animals who might kill the sheep.  They worked 24/7 shifts, outside, and slept on the ground.  Temperatures near freezing are common in Jerusalem this time of year.  A boy scout might find that fun, but I wouldn’t. Shepherds had all the fun of modern-day garbage collectors, very low social status, and a distinctively bad smell clung to them.  They bring a very humble and “earthy” aroma to the Nativity Scene.

Luke tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to- of all people- them. If you read scripture carefully, you find most angels appear not as winged creatures, but as strangers, which is why Luke tells us the shepherds were “filled with fear”.  Can anyone here tell me how many times we find the expression “Be not afraid” in all its various forms in the Bible?  Well, this is one of the 365 times.  Then we hear those words of joy: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people (even shepherds): to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord” (2:10-11).  Then a “host” or “army” (the idea is so many you can’t count) of angels sing Glory to God.

I wonder how long it took for those shepherds to breath normally again. But it didn’t take them long to decide what to do.  Luke makes it sound like immediately they agreed to go to Bethlehem and see for themselves what had happened.  And they didn’t have to think about who to tell or what to say.  Once they had seen the infant in the manger, they “made know” the saying which had been told them.  That means they told everybody.   They “returned (to the fields), glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…” They, like the people baptized by John, were changed.

So here is the pattern. Life is hard, daily living is difficult.  Then God appears; in some way we see the hand of God in our lives, or we hear God’s words, and something shifts within us, and joy appears.  The joy is real, and stirs us to some action, and things in our lives change.  The change is clear to people around us, for our behaviors change and our thinking is altered.  In a moment of despair, I once cried out loud to God, “I don’t even know what to pray for!” And the response came back to me, “Pray for Joy.”  So today, I say to you all, “Pray for Joy”.  You will find God when you find joy, for God is the source of real rejoicing.

The Greatest Travelogue Ever!!

1st Sunday of Advent

Dec. 4, 2018, Beginning of liturical year C

This year I thought we would take a little different approach to Advent. From the 1st Sunday of Advent, today, thru the Christmas season, we will highlight each week specific characters or events in the Christmas story.  The goals are to make parts of the story come to life a little more, to better see the intent of the Gospel writers, and discover deeper meaning.

This week we start with the trip that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  We start with a reminder that the Roman Empire occupied the Holy Lands at that time.  A call for a census could not be ignored.  This story begins in a time and place of bondage, of fear, and oppression.  It was a time that religion demanded that people make blood offerings to appease God.

Let us follow the journey of Mary and Joseph to see what it tells us. We start in the hill country of Nazareth, about ¾ the way up a map of Biblical Palestine.  They have two choices to get to Bethlehem.  The is to travel east and cross the Jordan River, then follow the heavily traveled caravan road south, cross back at Jericho, and climb the steep grade to Jerusalem, and go south to Bethlehem.  This was the longer of the 2 routes, and the busiest.  The 2nd route is an ancient road called the “Way of the Patriarchs”.  It is less traveled, shorter (20+miles), but you must pass through Samaria. It is about 95 miles, ten days on foot; for us, a drive of 2 ¼ hours.

You remember the prejudice against the Samaritans. They were considered “unclean” and even “dangerous”.  But you also remember the parable of the “Good Samaritan” and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, in Sychar.  It is interesting to consider that Jesus used a Samaritan to teach the command to love our neighbors; he may have first learned that love from Mary and Joseph.

But much of what is called the “West Bank” today was Samaria in the day of Jesus; the Palestinians there now are the “Samaritans” of our day.  Many tours have stopped going there because of the “danger.” We don’t know for fact that Mary and Joseph took this 2nd road, but Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor and author of “The Journey”, and noted archaeologist Avner Goren agree that this road makes sense.

As Mary and Joseph traveled south out of Nazareth, they traveled around beautiful Mount Tabor, mentioned in the Psalms, an ancient site of worship, and said to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Then they moved into the plain of the Jezreel Valley, which is now the most fertile farmland in Israel.  There were hundreds of olives trees there then, and trees still remain that are believed to be from that time.  Our anointing rites are based in the use of sacred oils, olive oils.

The Jezreel Valley was the site many ancient battles, including the battle between King Saul and the Philistines (think David and Goliath) , where evil Queen Jezebel killed a man to get his vineyards, Gideon defeated the Midianites, and prophesized to be the site of the final battle in the end times (Armageddon/ in Megiddo).

So Mary and Joseph have begun a trip of Biblical history covering a period of some 16 centuries. Abraham came from the north, from Haran, thru Shechem, Beth El, and down to Hebron.  The tombs of Abraham and Sarah are in Beer-sheva.  Jacob, their grandson, was given land in Samaria, and Jacob’s well is the Well in Sychar, where the “Woman” met Jesus. No doubt Mary and Joseph made camp near that well.   Jacob’s son Joseph was buried near Shechem also.  As they moved south, they went through Shiloh, where Joshua set up the tent of the Ark of the Covenant after entering the Promised Land.  This is where Samuel, Elijah and Elisha were prophets.

The Assyrian and Babylonian armies entered Israel on this road – and left on it taking the people as exiles and all the gold and silver from the Temple.  It is also how the exiles re-entered their homeland some 40 years later, to rebuild their nation.  It is amazing to think that God walked with those exiles as they returned, and now, almost 550 years later, Mary carries a child who is called the Prince of Peace over this same route.  It feels like a point of closure to thousands of years of history.

Luke begins his Gospel this way: “Inasmuch as many have… set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us… it seemed good to me also, having had a perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account,… that you might know the certainty of those things…” (Luke 1:1;3-4)  

There certainly are those who dismiss Luke’s account of Mary and Joseph’s journey as a fictional story. But we have historical sources concerning the Governor Quirinius, like the Roman historian, Tacitus (Annals 3.48) and the Jewish/Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.1-2). New Testament historian Jack Finegan says, “Many actual census returns have been found, and they use the very same word (ἀπογράφω) which Luke 2:2 uses for the “enrollment.” (From web site: Cross examined. Org.) So, on the factual level, it is entirely possible it did happen.

But all of the Gospels should be read on three levels – the simple reading of the event itself, the meaning intended by the author, and the application to our lives. The simple meaning (the storyline): In extraordinary love, how God came to earth as a fragile and vulnerable baby, in humility, meager circumstances, and with all the normal inconveniences of life.

What about the intent of Luke’s story?  Luke is certainly placing Jesus in the spotlight of salvation history. Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One, and his entry into the world is straight down the main aisle of the Cathedral of what is the “Holy Land”, as if he is on the last, most awaited and most important float in the parade of all parades. All the main characters of the ancient faith line the side of the road, waiting for hundreds of years just to have a glimpse of him, to be able to say, “I was there that day.” Luke has taken the story from the very beginning, so that you might know, even before you read about the teaching, the miracles, the rising from the dead, that Jesus was the Son of God.

And there is where we come in. Have you ever sat down and read Luke? I mean all of it, the 24 chapters.   It would take you 3 weeks if you read a little each day. It is one of the most documented, literary, and polished Gospels. You have just about (coincidentally) that much time before Christmas. Stop! Picture the scenes! Think about the message! You will find the Holy Spirit there, waiting for you, waiting to stir your heart. Warning: it will make 1 hour on Sunday too little for you. It will make you want more. It will take your “comfortable ignorance” as one Catholic put it, and turn it into thirst and hunger. When that happens, I will tell you about the sequel to Luke’s story.

Homily January 7, 2018 Feast of the Epiphany

ep3Today’s feast of the magi is only found in Matthew. It is a tradition coming from the east and is a manifestation or appearance of Christ followed by his appearance with John the Baptist. The readings and the feast are a contrast if innocence and evil of darkness and light. This feast was joined with the season of Christmas when that feast came about. First we see the magi following the light or the star looking for the new king to be born. Once they met Herod, they found a man who in his actions and relating to strangers ep4would seem suspicious in his trying to be overly secretive in finding the king the magi sought. His jealousy and evilness show through his actions and certainly made there dream to go home a different way much easier. Plus, we should add that the meeting of the child must have been an experience rewarding the journey they made and the innocence of their pursuit.

Today, our world has changed in many ways, but some have remained the same or gotten worse. Innocence and evil still coexist, or the darkness of evil still works at extinguishing the light of good things. Christ came to bring his kingdom and light to the world, but it is still up ep2to us to avoid the darkness. Certainly none of us is perfect, but we can work at looking out for each other. We can do this by being conscious that darkness lurks around us always. On the other hand, let us not forget the loving community and family and friends around us. Let us always remember, that when we see something wrong, that like the magi, we can chose to take a different way.

What does Salvation mean, anyway ?

Holy Family, 12-31-17

Genesis 15: 1-6; 21: 1-3; Psalm 105: 1-9, Hebrews 11: 8, 11,12,17-19; Luke 2: 22-40

We read today from the 2nd chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Luke makes Jesus the focal point to explain the loving and generous ways of God. Luke frequently uses the title “Lord” for Jesus. “Lord” is the same name used for God in the Greek Old Testament. Jesus, Luke tells us, is God come to earth. Jesus came to all people. Luke takes great effort to relate how Jesus brought salvation to the poor, women, children, “sinners”, and outcasts (like the Samaritans).

In fact, two of Luke’s favorite expressions are “preach the gospel” and “salvation.” “Preaching the Gospel” includes the entire ministry of Jesus- his teaching, healing, and compassion were all part of the good news that God has come to His people. “Salvation” is defined in Luke 19:10 this way: “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Too often Christians use this word but aren’t so sure what it means. The words salvation and “Savior” both come from the same Latin word (salvare), which means to save. The basic idea of being saved or salvation is that God will “find and free” us from any kind of evil, just as God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God frees us to fully participate in all the goodness of life and in all the blessings of God. It makes sense then that God wishes to save us from sin as well as the evils that are the consequences of sin. Jesus acts as the “middle man” or mediator who suffers and dies to bring us this salvation both now and in eternal life.

So, with that long introduction, we begin with the Jewish ritual purification of Mary, when a sacrifice of turtledoves or pigeons was offered 40 days after the birth of a child, as required by the Law of Moses in Leviticus 12. The mother is welcomed back into the community after the birth.

A second ritual was also completed, that being the “redeeming” of a first born child. All first born children – and animals, for that matter – were presumed to belong to God. Children were “bought back” with a small offering of money. You can find that Law in Exodus 13:13. God-fearing parents of every century feel the need to thank God for the miracle of a child. It’s a tradition that makes great sense. The parents publically proclaim the child is theirs, as a gift from God, and they will support, nurture, teach, and raise the child in the faith. These traditions introduce the infant to the worship of God in the community of believers, not unlike Christian infant baptism.

This scene with the infant Jesus also underlines the larger idea of redemption. For Christians, redemption is closely tied to salvation. Marie Monville wrote this: “To redeem means to exchange one thing for another, to buy back, to recover the value of something by exchanging it for another. God replaces…weakness with his strength, the ugliness of sin with the beauty of forgiveness, the blackest darkness with his brilliant light.”  It is sort of like redeeming something in a pawn shop!  In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, St. Paul wrote, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price”. That is the Catholic view of the crucifixion – that the price Jesus paid for us to be redeemed and freed from sin was his own life.

Two significant messages are then delivered by Simeon and Anna. Simeon, a “righteous and devout man” was looking for the “consolation of Israel” – meaning the salvation which the Messiah was to bring. Messiah is an Aramaic word meaning “liberator”, which means the same as “Savior”. Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah, and now he proclaims that he has seen the Messiah who will bring salvation to all people, not only the Jews. Simeon says, “…my eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.” God has kept his promise to Simeon, to the prophets (Isaiah 49:6), and to King David.

Simeon offers a blessing of thanksgiving to God and a blessing of prophecy to Mary and Joseph. Out of Simeon’s mouth comes a very precise statement of the miracle of Jesus: the child brings peace and the promise of a Messiah has been fulfilled. In addition, Jesus is the entrance of God into the world for all people; he is a revelation and light (new understanding). Jesus will bring salvation and judgment; he will bring lasting changes to the world, and the changes will result in a strong push-back from the darkness in the world.

One of the unique traits of Luke’s Gospel is that he often introduces a strong man counterbalanced by a woman. Luke names this woman, which is highly unusual in writings of the day; we actually have more information about Anna than Simeon. We know her age, her father’s name and her tribe. Luke tells us that Anna, like Simeon, was very devout, “She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” She too said a prayer of thanksgiving for the child Jesus and, like the shepherds, immediately “spoke of (Jesus) to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Anna’s waiting is over, her patience has been rewarded, and then she participates in the preaching of the Gospel.

As always, God chooses us (all) and provides what we need to be in a personal relationship with our Creator. We are offered freedom from slavery to sin and darkness, the price has been paid, and we must act on our choice. That is one reason we have all those Bible characters who are flawed and foolish; we read about them stumble and fall, then ask for forgiveness and return to right relationship (what Christians call righteousness) with God. And people who experience this freedom want to share it with others. Amazing – all this from just a portion of the 2nd chapter of Luke!

Building Houses & Keeping Promises

4th Sunday Advent 12-24-17

2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Ps: 89:2-3, 4-5, 27-29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

 

I raised my children in a small town in upstate New York.  The town promotes itself as “historic”, meaning that history is about all that’s left – no industry, and only a few stores.  When my middle son finished high school, a job as a janitor at the elementary school opened, and he saw that as his only chance for a steady job with benefits.  But God had not made this young man to be a janitor.  Not that I have anything but respect and admiration for school janitors, but it wasn’t the right job for him.  And that Christmas, my cousin gave him a miracle in the form of a Radio Shack TSR-80 home computer.  My son was re-born as a highly respected “IT guy”.

Our first reading today is about King David. One day, King David had a chance to take a breath from the large military campaigns which had made Israel safe from hostile neighbors.  David realized he was living in a “cedar palace” while the Ark of the Covenant and the place where the nation worshiped God was still in a tent, just as it had been since his ancestors fled Egypt.  He began to make plans to build a house for God.  But God had not meant David to be a house builder.  Not that God has anything but respect and admiration for builders, but that wasn’t the right job for David.

So God would take care of the building, by having one of David’s sons- Solomon- build a magnificent Temple.  God had another role for David.  It would be another sort of “house”.  My own father still used the term “house” to describe his lineage, his ancestors. God’s gift to King David was to be the beginning of long line of Kings, what we might call a “dynasty”, a traceable line of names and history, leading to the long-awaited Messiah, the savior of God’s people.  Matthew’s Gospel spells out those 28 generations from David to Jesus to make the point clear.

The other problem with David building a “house” or temple for God was that David had missed an important lesson about his relationship with God. David was thinking like a King who built loyalty with his staff and soldiers was by rewarding them with power and prestige.  God had no use for David’s rewards.  God reminds David that when the prophet Samuel anointed David as King, David was a young man who spent his days guarding sheep.  God had made David a King who guarded God’s people.  God was the reason for David’s military success.  God was the reason that Israel was enjoying peace.   God had been with David in every circumstance, in every location, in the fields and in the palace.  God is greater than any building; God is not defined by space or décor, by canvas or cedar.  Buildings weather and decay, but God’s blessings are eternal.

The Psalms, many of which were traditionally attributed to David, stress one of the other themes which build during Advent: the promises of God, specifically the fulfillment of God’s promises. Thru the centuries, those promises remain alive and, in God’s time, they are fulfilled and renewed.  Today’s Psalm says, “I will sing forever of the promises of the Lord…my mouth will proclaim (God’s) faithfulness.” (God) had made a covenant with…(David)..(God) will …establish David’s throne for all generations.”  The House of David remains with us today as Jesus our Lord and Savior.

The 2nd reading, from the Letter to the Church at Rome, frames this idea differently.   King David most likely thought of God’s promise of his dynasty, his lineage, in terms of an earthly throne.  The full implications were not known to him.  The Gospel of Jesus that Paul had been preaching is referred to here as a “mystery.” Saint Paul lived in a time when people were just beginning to sort out the message and full implications of the birth of Jesus, his life and teaching, his crucifixion and resurrection.  Believers were starting to made sense of how those promises had been fulfilled.  The mystery of God’s promises continues to open to each new generation and each new believer as they consider their own lives and their own relationship to God. We find that we are part of the promise – we live in a particular part of the revelation of the mystery. We have been woven into the very fiber of the building of the Kingdom.

The angel Gabriel brought to Mary a mystery that at first was troubling, even the cause of fear. It was a mystery that the child could be divine, yet born as a human child.  The child she would conceive by the power of God and the Holy Spirit will be given the “throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary’s child fulfilled the promise to King David.

Neither King David, nor St. Paul, nor Mary expected God to fulfill the promise in the way that it actually happened.  They each had their own expectations.  Yet each of them willingly moved forward in faith and trust. They struggled against fear and opposition, against seemingly unconquerable difficulties and, yes, danger…in the full knowledge that God was with them and that God’s plan, however mysterious or obscure, was best.  They were able to do that because they knew God kept his promises.

Christmas is a time of miracles and joy. Now we will once again experience the thrill of the gift of this ancient promise.  Even 2000+ years after the historical event, even before we fully grasp the how and where and why, we feel the thrill of something that changes our lives in that tiny child.  King David and St. Paul and the Blessed Virgin Mary all chose to open their hearts, and their lives, to the mystery – to be personally part of a great miracle of love for every human being who has lived or will live.  As we move from Advent to Christmas, we enter a time when past, present and future come together.

Questions for a New Year

1st Sunday Advent, year B 12-3-17

Isaiah 63:16b-17; 64:1, 3b-8; Ps: 80:1ac, 2b, 14-15, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

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.