Those Teeny Tiny Christmas Tree Lights and Advent

2nd Sunday of Advent 12-10-17

 Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; ; Psalm: 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14;  2 Peter 3:8-14;  Mark 1:1-8

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.”

Advertisements

Homily October 29, 2017- the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

30 sunI think today’s gospel is one of the most familiar to all of us. Again a Pharisee scholar sets out to trap Jesus with what he thinks is a trick question. Jesus is ready for him and answers that Love is the greatest commandment. To love God with our whole heart, soul and mind and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. It means that within our 30 sun 4self we give all we are to God and what it means to belong to him. It is the means and purpose for which we live. And in living, we must love others as we love ourselves. This or more properly these commands are no small matter. I think that for the most part whether consciously or not all of us look out for ourselves or love ourselves very much beyond just the point of self-preparation. As children we learn to love from our parents and others as we grow older. However, you expand our circle of love is something we must learn and be willing to do as part of our faith and love of God. To reach out and accept others as God has done for us is not always easy in this world in which we find Good and evil present as we go forth. But loving our neighbor also mean being ready to forgive just as God does. Love is not always easy as I am sure married couples will tell you. No one 30 sun 3except God is perfect, and even a loving couple has their moments of disagreements. Yet in any loving relationship, the giving of the whole self makes possible the resolution and coming together after conflicts.

We know that the greatest act of giving of self was Christ’s death on the Cross. In one-act, for all time, he brought God’s mercy and forgiveness to all and made possible for all of humanity to be united to him forever. This is the chief and only reason for giving ourselves body and soul and it will bring us to him forever.

Homily, September 17, 2017- the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

24sun5Forgiveness is something we all encounter at one time or another in both directions, giving and receiving. This was an important part of Jesus ministry and is subject of one of his sacraments. If we know and realize that love is an important part of relationships and of our relationship with God, we can hopefully realize the importance of forgiveness. To quickly understand, let us look at a married couple in love. It is inevitable in living that two people living together are going to have disagreements and arguments as a normal course of living. 24sun4But truly, living out their lives involves give and take and forgiving slights and differences, even large ones. Forgiveness is not a one time thing, but an integral part of life and love and relationships. Forgiveness looks to the future and has its own way of putting behind what was the dispute. To say, “I’ll forgive but never forget,” is not Christian and certainly not what we ourselves ask when we ask forgiveness. I ask 24sun3where would we be if God himself said he would not forget? Yet the words of the sacrament are “I absolve you of all your sins.” His love is unconditional and so should ours be.

Each of us knows the weakness and failure that sometimes only we know and the many times we ask for forgiveness for our actions. This access to forgiveness we seek, is something we should be prepared to give and share to those who in any way need our forgiveness as we live our daily lives.

Forgiveness – What it is and What it isn’t

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 9-17-17                                                                                   Sirach 27:30-28:7, Ps 103:1-12, Romans 14:7-9, Matthew 18: 21-35

We use the word “forgiveness” at every single Mass. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about what forgiveness is, and is not.

Let’s start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting, like Christians are a group of people with voluntary memory loss.  Forgiveness is not reconciliation.  To reconcile means to establish a friendship or shared understanding of something; to come to agreement.  Forgiveness is not condoning.  When we condone an act, we simply overlook it without protest.  Likewise, forgiveness is not dismissing.  When a court case is dismissed, the legal action is withdrawn and nothing else is done.  Forgiveness is not some vague sort of tolerance.  Tolerance is when we allow or respect something as permissible.  Finally, forgiveness is not pardoning.  When the governor pardons someone in jail, he releases them without further punishment, he excuses their crime.

Most of us, including myself, would have used one or more of these words to define “forgiveness.” But we would have been wrong.  Forgiveness is not about excuses or overlooking or tolerating or withdrawing.  One dictionary definition I like is “to renounce anger or resentment against.”  It is a decision to not carry negative emotion against something some one else did.  It is not a judgment but rather a decision about our own behavior.  It is not something we create, but something we learn from the Spirit of God. Our relationship with God shows us that we can be loved even when we are at our worst.  This discovery is so enormous that we want to pass it on to others.

For starters, forgiveness is gift from God; it is an act of faith.  Two very familiar scriptures might help.  First, is Matthew 18:22, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother and, I suspect, tries to appear generous by suggesting 7 times.  Jesus responds, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”  Please understand that the number “7” is the number for complete or finished, or even perfect.  That’s why creation in Genesis is a “7” day event.  Peter thinks if he forgave seven times, it would be perfect.  Jesus tells him that he must multiply his answer by 10, and then add another 7 for even more perfect.  What?  It means infinite, limitless, endless. That must have taken the wind out of Peter’s sail, as it does mine.  Incidentally, that 77 is a direct quote, using the exact same Greek phrase, from Genesis 4: 24, and is referring to limits on revenge against Cain for the murder of his brother.  Jesus is talking about unlimited forgiveness- of a terrible crime. This is what brings peace to our families, our communities, and our world.

The other familiar scripture is the Our Father, Matthew 6: 14-15. “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”   It sends a chill up my spine every time I say it.  It’s very clear.  Can we say, “Of course we are forgiven; Christ’s death on the cross forgave my sins,” and still not forgive others?  There are many Bible verses that respond very clearly to that.  One is Colossians 3: 12-13, “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy & beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,  bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must do also.”

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions a Christian can perform.  The only thing harder than forgiveness – is to not forgive.   To not forgive is like carrying a brick around with you, every day, always, everywhere.   To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then find out that the prisoner is not someone else, but yourself.  And to not forgive tends to grow into something even more ugly.  If we are angry and hold a grudge against one person, we are likely to begin to generalize that anger to other people.  Ethnic hatred and racism, for example, are often based in anger against one individual or event.

We may say we will “try” to forgive people.  Here I need to quote a famous movie character, Yoda, in Star Wars.  Yoda said, “Try not! Do or do not! There is no try!”  When we try, we leave open an expectation of possible failure; better to decide to do.  Forgiveness is not wimpy; instead it tends to be an attribute of strength and confidence.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until we have something to forgive.”   It might be well to look at forgiveness as purposeful commitment or a jouney.  A therapist, when writing about forgiveness, suggested that forgiveness is a long-term plan, and may require a wait 10 or more years before the other party is willing to respond.   He urges people to continue to make regular contract for however long it takes.

The tragedy of the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania will always be with me. When a man entered a schoolhouse and killed 5 little girls, the Amish families not only offered forgiveness but also food, help and friendship to the shooter’s wife and children.  They did it because they knew the Gospel, not to look good.  They had a firm commitment to obey the Word of God, knowing that, despite the pain and trauma in their lives, it was the right thing to do, and it was that choice that would restore love and peace.  It was a powerful witness to the world.  We also have that choice available to us.

So we can boldly say, “I will show Christ’s love by forgiving those who do not even ask for forgiveness. I will leave fairness and justice in God’s hands.  I will forgive others just as the Lord forgave me.  Today I will give myself the gift of forgiveness. ”  Is there someone I need to forgive?