From Good to Great (i.e., Holy)

The gospel in the third week of Advent finds John the Baptist in prison sending his disciples to check on Jesus. They question him: Are you the one? Are you the Messiah we have been waiting for? Jesus did not answer saying yes, rather he just showed them what he was doing: “The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Interesting way of responding to John, as he had preached—as we read last Sunday—that Jesus’ baptism was going to be one of mission. What we ‘do’ is who we ‘are.’ So, again, it is about mission, and individuals and communities will have to discern whether or not we are preaching good news to the poor and who are the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the dead in their context.

The gospel in the fourth week of Advent takes us to Matthew’s take on what we call the “infancy narratives.” Only Matthew and Luke have anything on Jesus’ infancy. Luke’s stories and imagery have become the more popular ones—shepherds, stars, etc.—but I find Matthew’s take as compelling, and perhaps more theologically compelling. If Mary provides the “human facilitator” in Luke, Joseph plays that role in Matthew. This gospel shows the incredible transformation Joseph goes through.

When Mary is found with child, Joseph had three options—clearly delineated in the gospel. The first option was to do what was expected of him, and he would have been totally justified by the Law: repudiate Mary, divorce her publicly, with public shame (and worse) for this young woman. Joseph had a second option, which he intended to follow. Joseph was righteous, but a good person, so he had already decided to divorce Mary quietly. This second option is better than the first, but certainly not yet enough for God’s plan to take place. But it is because he was a good person that God can intervene to transform Joseph’s goodness into holiness. From righteous, to “good,” to holy—and to be holy, to take the holy choice is Joseph’s call and actually ours, too.

Let me tell you that while I was thinking about this in preparation for the weekend I received Archbishop Listecki’s Christmas gift—which is always a book. I am not special, he sends a book to all the priests of the Archdiocese. If a priest of the Archdiocese publishes a book during the year, that will be the book he will gift to us. He sent a great one this time around. The book is about preaching, written by my preacher teacher at the Seminary, Fr. Joseph Juknialis. In the book, he identifies nine ingredients that should be present in any homily, and each element becomes a chapter. Chapter nine connects with what we were discussing above: The preacher assumes the congregation is made up of good people. I agree, but as we see in this gospel, good does not cut it. As Fr. Juknialis also says, the preacher’s job is to help good people (including self) into becoming (or at least trying to become) holy.

We all can look at the decisions we are presented with in our lives and identify the three options. The one that counts on society’s blessings, the one that keep us afloat but sinks someone else, the “righteous” choice. Then we can identify the “good” option: it is not a bad one, it does some good, it does not hurt anybody, it actually helps someone, but it may not really solve a problem. With prayer, and allowing God’s intervention, we may also identify the “holy” option. For instance, our relationship with the poor. The first option, ignore them or even chastise them and shame them. The second option, some nice gesture, perhaps a donation—you see? Not bad, it is a nice gesture, many of us do that during the year, especially these days. But obviously, the holy option is also there—and it would take much more effort. The same pattern could be applied to choices on raising children, dealing with a spouse, stewardship, etc.

God short-circuited Joseph’s decision-making process through a dream. God wants to do that for us, too. He will help us—through a prayer that listens, through events, through people—to go from good to great, from good to holy. He will come to us, as He did on the first Christmas as a Child.

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A Baptism of Holy Spirit and Fire

The gospel of the second Sunday in Advent takes us to the desert near the Jordan River, where John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing in preparation for the coming of the Christ. John preaches judgment, the need for repentance, but he also says—as recorded in all the synoptic gospels—“I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

It seems to be that often we are disciples of John more than we are disciples of Jesus. We understand the part about repentance and cleansing. In the ritual of baptism, we have preserved both elements: there is the water of cleansing, but there is also the anointing with the Chrism, the oil of the Holy Spirit, that gives the individual a mission.

It is a temptation in any organized religion to focus on the cleansing part. Sinfulness is understood as a private issue, dealing with private concerns, only about moral behavior. It is a temptation to constantly discuss who belongs (who is clean) and who does not. Think about the discussions surrounding communion for the divorced and remarried, for example. We know that one of Jesus’ contentions against the religious system of his time was precisely the obsession with purity and impurity. Following this mentality, we then focus on ritual and rule, and we end up believing that our being in good standing with God is a matter of fulfilling a few measurable precepts. Many operate within this framework because it is black and white, binary, simple. Or because we have been raised this way. But ask any pastor how church attendance goes down when a feast happens not to fall on a holy day of obligation—just to give another example of a byproduct of this mentality.

Embracing mission is much more difficult, because it is not simple, not easy, not binary. Reality is not binary, it does not understand the language of purity and impurity.

As we were preaching this in church this past weekend, we were taking our faith community into a process to discuss mission that has begun with three gatherings we called “brainstorming-mission” sessions. Approximately 20% of the people who come to Mass attended either of the sessions. Many ideas surfaced, and the discussion was very good. At the same time, you could also easily see the difficulty of moving away from understanding church as a place where I am to be served—instead of becoming places of service to others. Again, a very positive first step in our process, but one that showed the difficulty of engaging Catholics in discussing mission.

After the homily, we say the Creed. I did not realize until the third Mass of the weekend that when we say the Creed, we profess that we “confess one Baptism, for the forgiveness of sins.” I smiled. And I wondered if we could also profess that we believe in the baptism of mission, of Holy Spirit and fire, that John told us this weekend that Jesus preached about.

Ending a year, Adventing a new one.

We are still playing catch-up with this blog. The following reflection covers the last three Sundays—two pertaining to the end of the past liturgical year and the last one marking the beginning of a new Advent.

Because it was the second to last Sunday of the year, the Lectionary offered a gospel about the end of times. Jesus predicts the fall of the Temple and announces future persecution against his disciples (a footnote: this text was written after the fall of the Temple and when the persecutions of Christians had already started, but I believe Jesus foresaw these two events to happen.) The Temple, with its grandiosity, was a symbol of stability for the Jewish world and its destruction is comparable to the 9/11 attack on all the symbols of the American way of life.

Jesus tells his disciples that times of struggle are opportunities to stick even firmer to his teachings, to the values he espoused and not the other way around. Times of struggle question our values, our faith, our generosity, our openness to the stranger, our trust in God and others. Jesus tells us that when we feel our world is coming to an end—we lose our job, or somebody quits on us, or we experience the death of a loved one, or we receive a serious medical diagnosis—is precisely when we have to stick harder to our values. Jesus calls them “opportunities to give testimony” to what we believe in “normal” circumstances.

On the last Sunday of the year we celebrated the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Calling Jesus “king” may sound strange to our modern, democratic, American ears—as well as being in contradiction with the teaching of the same Jesus on earthly power. While the establishment of the solemnity has a historical explanation—Pius XI established the solemnity in 1925, in response to growing secularity and social unrest in Europe—the gospel that we read this Sunday reminds us that Jesus is King, but his throne is the Cross. From the Cross, Jesus continues dispensing forgiveness and the promise of paradise.

Then we began a new Advent. I do not know about you, but I look at the month ahead with a lot of trepidation. I love Advent and I love the liturgical seasons. While we try to live our lives according to the rhythm of the seasons, Advent is the time of the year where the liturgical time is set in clear contrast with what ends up happening in our lives. While the Church tells us of a time of prayerful preparation, we find ourselves immersed in all kinds of—may we say—stressful situations: Christmas gatherings—with the temptation to over-eat and over-drink—gift shopping, decorations, Christmas concerts, writing Christmas cards, etc. As much as we may enjoy some or all of these activities, they are simply not very conducive for the kind of slowing down that Christmas preparation requires, and they can bring a lot of stress to our lives.

Maybe you are satisfied with your past Advents, but even if that is the case, I suppose we all can do better. If we just do what we have always done, our Christmas preparation will be the same. As we begin a new Advent, I propose to you that we are more intentional about “adventing.” Namely, that we spend some time during this first week of Advent to take a look at what we are going to do, or not do, instead of just letting ourselves “go-with-the-flow,” follow the drift of anticipated Christmas. As individuals or as families, we should pause and decide what our Advent strategy is going to be. Mine? I want to find a regular time for silent prayer every day, and I plan to cut down on the number of social activities in which I am going to engage—making sure I am totally present at those I decide to go.