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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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.

The Advent of the Baptist

John the Baptist is at the heart of the Sunday gospels, as the second and third Sunday focus on the Baptizer and his preaching. As we know, John preaches in the desert. It is an interesting choice of location. If he had a message to communicate, why would he preach it from a deserted place? Wouldn’t it be best to communicate in the city, in busy places?

John preaches from the desert because he is protesting. He is telling the people of Israel that there is a need to repossess the Promised Land, that the House of Israel has not fulfilled their side of the Covenant with God. Thus, he invites the people to start again, to leave the land of the Covenant and start again through baptism—the reference to his ministry along the Jordan River, the Eastern border of the Promised Land.

Despite being in the desert, his message resonates with a people in expectation, who were thirsty for a new hope. They hear his message and then they ask, “What should we do?” Isn’t that a question we all have? Sunday after Sunday, year after year of coming to church… we wonder, like the people approaching John, what should we do? What is next? Especially now, in Advent, when we get the very clear message that we are preparing for the coming of the child Jesus… But how?

John has an answer for everybody. The gospel narrates how three different groups of people approach him, and to each group he gives an answer that is ethical, an action: those who have are asked to give what they do not need; to the tax collectors, he tells them not to defraud people; to the (Roman) soldiers, he tells them not to abuse their power.

We wonder as well about what should we do, and we do not need to reinvent the wheel to find an answer. As many of you know, the Holy Father has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy. During this year we will reflect and receive God’s mercy, but we are also reminded that, as with many things in Church, it is not only about receiving mercy but also learning to give mercy, to become merciful as the Father is merciful (Luke 6:36.) On this, in 1980, Saint John Paul II wrote, “Christ taught that we do not only receive and experience the mercy of God, but that we are also called to practice mercy towards others.”

We become merciful like the Father by following a very sound and solid Catholic piece of moral theology: the works of Mercy. We shake the dust off our memory to remember that there were two types, the spiritual works of mercy, and the corporal works of mercy. We can quickly review the list—spiritual works of mercy: to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, to comfort the afflicted, to pray for the living and the dead. And the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned, to bury the dead.

Some may need a bit of a translation, for instance, the one of giving a drink to the thirsty may imply more than going out to find someone actually thirsty. But the list of the works of mercy is a great way to examine our lives, and our faith communities (for instance, does our parish have any prison ministry?) For the time being, perhaps we could choose one work of mercy (or one spiritual and one corporal) and “do” them as a way to prepare for Christmas.

What should we do? Practice mercy. Do we?

John the Baptist, Blog pic

Advent IV: Pondering Angels, Plans, and Invitations

If Advent began in the desert, it will end in a house, with the amazing, world-changing dialogue between a young woman and an angel, a messenger of God. If in the silence of the Advent desert we found a way to listen to God, perhaps we have seen more clearly that God has a plan for each and every one of us. Today we witness the explanation of God’s plan to Mary, her mission.

In the desert we heard the message of John, that he would bring a baptism of water and cleansing, but that Jesus would bring a baptism of Holy Spirit, which is a baptism of mission. One way to get ready for Christmas in these last days of Advent is to reflect about God’s plan for us, our mission—knowing that God has a plan for each and every one of us. Will we say “yes” to God’s plan as profoundly and as thoroughly as Mary did?

We can learn a lot from this Sunday’s gospel on how to reflect about God’s plan. First, we see that God has a plan, and within that plan there are numberless, constant invitations that take us in the direction of that plan. As we see in this Sunday’s gospel, the angel proposes to Mary God’s plan for her, and immediately she invites her to attend to Elizabeth’s needs. Embracing her vocation to be the Mother of Jesus came together with answering to the invitation to service. All during her life, Mary will get many more invitations within the larger plan.

Perhaps Advent also has given us the opportunity to look at our past, and we may have been able to see a sketch of a plan, and some of the invitations. To many we said “no,” but God kept issuing them; to some we said yes, and we became fathers and mothers; we became friends; husbands and wives; sons and daughters; and we embraced our mission on earth.

Second, God’s plan is conveyed to Mary through an angel. The word angel in Greek (angelos) means “messenger.” Without trying to be controversial in terms of Catholic teaching on angels, I believe especially in angels that do not have wings. People, friends and strangers alike, who have become bearers of God’s plan and invitations to me. People who tell me when I go astray, when something gets the best of me, when I am not doing or saying what is best to do or say.

Finally, we can learn from the subtle verb the text uses to describe what Mary does in today’s gospel, a verb that will be used again in the gospel when referring to the Mother of Jesus: Mary ponders. The verb caught my attention and I went to the dictionary to know exactly what it meant: “to think about something carefully, especially before making a decision or reaching a conclusion. To consider something deeply and thoroughly.”

Most of us do not even think. We just let events take place and we do not reflect about them, when they are the way in which God communicates with us. Many of us make decisions or reach conclusions and only afterwards, we think about them. But to discern God’s plans and invitations to us we have ponder, like Mary did: to consider things, events and issues, deeply and thoroughly.

Do we know God’s plan for us? Do we believe in angels? Have we experienced them? Do we ponder, the way Mary did, about life and faith?

Blog Pic, Advent IV

 

Advent I: The Prophetic Wait

We begin the beautiful season of Advent with a gospel which calls us to be watchful (Mark 13:33-37.) How many times have we discussed the connection between the way we live our life and the way we live our faith; but Advent may be the time of the year where these two areas of our lives depart the most from each other. Advent calls for a time of reflection, requiring a certain slowing down… but during these weeks approaching Christmas, we seldom have time to pause and reflect. As much as we may try, this is one of the busiest times of the year for anybody. How do we live the spirit of Advent in the midst of the hectic activities of these weeks?

Sunday’s line, “You do not know the time,” and its many variations often has been interpreted in terms of preparedness for death—and we discussed preparedness for death when we reflected about the celebration of All Souls. However, this holy preparedness should be understood as an attitude of constant attention to recognizing the presence of Jesus in our lives. Now, one of the beauties of the liturgical calendar is our sense of season: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time… each season emphasizes a different attitude, a different dimension of our faith. Each season also identifies with a different dimension of Christ: reflecting about the Risen Christ of Easter may not be the same, spiritually, as searching for Christ in Lent. What is special about the Christ in Advent?

I believe the emphasis in Advent is precisely the absence of Christ. The season helps us reflect on the situations were Christ seems absent. We read the prophets during this season precisely because they denounced the absence of the Holy at the same time that they dreamed and proclaimed the promise of a better future.

Advent is the season of waiting, but not an idle waiting. Advent is an invitation to look at ourselves and at the world around us and to see how much we lack Jesus, how much we and the world around us lack Jesus’ values. To learn to know ourselves and read reality the way the prophets did takes time. Advent is, as we have said about so many things, a process, a pilgrimage, a school in the art of prophetic waiting.

Blog Pic, Advent I