Fourth Sunday of Advent
Scripture Readings: Jer 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Cor 12:31-13:13; Lk 4:21-30
Luke tells us that the promise is fulfilled… “Today”! The waiting is over! The messiah is here!
Good news is given to the poor; captives and the oppressed are freed and the blind see. All were amazed at His gracious words. They spoke highly of Him. They admired Him. Yet, as God told Jeremiah, not everyone reacts with admiration. Some react with resentment. That’s a typical reaction to prophets. The resentful diminish the values that prophets propose and instead elevate lower, more easily attainable satisfactions.
Jesus was, though, seeking something more than admiration. Initially the people showed what He sought: their amazement at His gracious words was a reaction to His inner beauty.
People who notice inner beauty are more likely to learn and live the Fathers way of life. Jesus knew they, and we, were made to desire spiritual and moral self-cultivation and would best benefit from an encounter with someone who exemplified an integrated way of thinking, feeling, and acting that leads to the Father. He was sent to be that person. Today they, and we, are being told that a child of God is “like that.” Admiring someone like that carries with it an impetus to imitate. That’s what Jesus wants: “Learn from Me…”
Those in the synagogue could learn directly from Jesus. We learn this moral beauty from stories of Him and from the example of those before us, saints and seniors, who have given their lives to the imitation of Christ. (Actually, “imitate” is the wrong word; they lived Him as St. Paul said, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”) They attract our attention because of their inner beauty. They convey a sense of serenity and emotional tranquility. It is conveyed though their outward manner and demeanor. Guests are moved by this, too. It is an important witness to them as they live out their faith is a highly secularized world. We tend not to see this inner beauty in ourselves. In my pre-monastic career I worked with people with severe psychiatric disorders. They sometimes said that I seemed to “have it all together.” (They were heavily sedated…)
Those in the synagogue began well with admiration, but then deteriorated into resentment. They wanted to see “The Jesus Traveling Medicine Show.” When Jesus responded with comparing them to the reaction of people who witnessed Elijah and Elisha the object of their admiration and emulation suddenly seemed alien to them.
The inner moral beauty given to one who is fully committed to God’s way of life is given for the sake of the admiration of others. It gives them hope. The impetus to imitate gives direction to their striving.
Rejection by the Exemplar has a severe cost. When it happens to a group such as those in the synagogue, they become “furious” and form a mob. When it happens to an individual it results in desolation.
The exemplar of inner moral beauty is showing us what St. Paul calls, “a still more excellent way.” Paul’s famous description in 1 Corinthians 13 is a description of inner moral beauty that attracts. It is a description of love, of what everyone craves. It is craved because it is about the other and gives freedom from the bondage of self. Such freedom is the image of God in a person. One intuitively knows that acts of care for another are bodily expressions of inner moral and spiritual virtues.
The words of Jesus are the point. They shape the hearers reasoning about the Father. The cures at Capernaum were just expressions of the depth and effectiveness of the Fathers love; of His goodness and power. That is the point
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Scripture Readings: 2 Sam 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Rm 16:25-27; Lk 1:26-38.
When we were preparing a brochure at the time of the dedication of this church, we happened to find in our skimpy archives the copy of a newspaper article from 1867. Plans for the new monastery had ben publicized, and the Dubuque Daily Times of December 28th predicted that “it will be a noble pile.” To call the proposed buildings “a noble pile” sounds like they didn’t think much of them, a bit of a put-down. While it seems to have fallen out of use, the dictionary does give the third meaning of “pile” as a large building or structure. Not just one layer placed on top of another in a careless way, but a structure.
I think there is value in preserving the latent double-meaning in this word: something stable and intentional as well as something fragile and unplanned. The same reality can be looked at in more than one way. It all depends on how you look at it. That is, on how you construe it. Our construal of reality emerges from the immediate sense of reality in our experience and the way we shape and imagine that experience. We construct and shape the way we experience reality.
King David had a way of construing reality to the extent that he wanted to construct a house for the Lord. Go and do whatever you have in mind, said Nathan. (You don’t say “no” to a king.) What David had in mind was consolidating his power, centralizing and stabilizing his authority, unifying the political and religious foundations of the people. With a temple, you can locate God, find assurance and insurance in your worship and devotions. A noble pile for all to admire.
If the Lord seems ungrateful for the offer, it is because he doesn’t share David’s construal of reality. David has forgotten that the supremacy and rest he enjoys have been the result of what the Lord has done, not the result of his own prowess, skill, or charm. It was I who took you … I have destroyed all your enemies…I will fix a place for my people … I will raise up your heir …I will make his kingdom firm. The care the Lord has for his people is not dependent on the strength of structures. Those very structures can make the people impervious to his gracious will and keep God at a safe distance. Temple of the Lord, Temple of the Lord.
The Lord seems content with the tent. He even seems to prefer it. It has been the sign of his intimate and active presence with and for his people. The tent is mobile, flexible, ready for strategic adaptation and change. It does not avoid risk or danger. It can collapse in a storm. The ark and tent of the Lord were so vulnerable that they could be captured by the enemy. The Lord’s tent is pitched in the midst of human history, in that pile of the unpredicted, unplanned, contingent, and even catastrophic. Our structures, construals, and imaginings need to remember their fragile roots so that they can remain spaces which welcome and point to the mystery which sustains them. Their walls can be boundaries for growth and learning, not barriers to the flow of life and light.
The scene of the Annunciation explodes with the sense of barriers being overcome. The Word of God takes flesh and dwells in the very fragile tent of human life. Mary receives no promise of security. Her questions remain. How can this be? God’s plan is fraught with fragility and risk. No guarantees, just the obedience of faith which grows in trust, surrender, mobility, and humility. God’s appeal is directly to the core of this woman, dispensing with even the intermediaries of patriarchal protocol. It is striking to become aware of humility as the ground of this conversation. God is humble enough to ask, to ask Mary for her cooperation in his plan to bring salvation to humanity. Humble inquiry creates a space in which help can be offered and received. Mary is humble in consenting to the unknown and unpredictable movements of God, but the movements which are working out a new solidarity in human life. Who she is in the solitariness of her being and virginity is now transformed into being the Handmaid of the Lord. In her humility, she is now given a universal role in God’s vision and construction of a temple for the Spirit in the “noble pile” of humanity.
That same humanity in which we recognize ourselves and ask that it may be done to me according to your word.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Scripture Readings: Micah 5:1-4a; Heb 10:5-10; Lk 1:39-45
Once there was a five year old boy who loved to play Superman. He would take a red cape, swing it over his shoulders, and pack his days with daring escapades. But at the end of summer his mother enrolled him in kindergarten. The teacher asked him, “What is your name?” He answered “Superman.” She smiled and cast an amused glance at his mother, then asked again, “What is your real name?” He replied a bit louder, “Superman!” Then the teacher said in a very kind voice but with insistence, “I need your real name for our records.” Seeing he had to tell her, the boy glanced around the room, and indicated that he wanted to whisper in her ear. She bent down and he said with anxious secrecy, “My real name is Clark Kent.”
Mary of Nazareth never heard of Superman or Star Wars or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But the people of her time longed for the coming of the Messiah to overcome evil, to restore the kingdom, to strike a fatal blow to the serpent’s head with his heel. So, the thoughts of young Jewish girls after puberty were about weddings and the possibility of fulfilling prophecies, of becoming mother of the Messiah. Mary had no pretensions of greatness. She was from Nazareth, a town so poor even tax collectors ignored it. But she also had another kind of poverty, a virginal inner space, an untouched womb that had never experienced intimacy with man. Mary was capax Dei,1 ready to receive the gift of God, and she was amazed and could not contain her joy when she did.
In a poem titled The Quickening of John the Baptist,2 Thomas Merton describes Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth. He writes: “Virgin of God, why are your clothes like sails? … You have trusted no town with the news behind your eyes. You have immersed Gabriel’s word in thoughts like seas. … The day Our Lady, full of Christ, enters the gate of Elizabeth … her salutation rings … like a Charterhouse bell and the unborn Saint John wakes in his mother’s body.”
The subtitle of Merton’s poem is The Contemplative Vocation. The joy bursting from Mary is not spilled over men busy with their fishing boats, or before gossiping women at the well. It is carried by a word from her mouth into the silence of listening contemplatives. Merton addresses St. John in his mother’s womb: “Sing in your cell, small anchorite! … Oh burning joy! … [to] know [Mary’s] cloistered Christ. … Your joy is the vocation of … [those who are hidden] … the speechless Trappist, the granite Carthusian, the quiet Carmelite, the barefoot Clare, waiting in the darkness.” Merton goes on to describe contemplatives, “We are exiles in solitude, … listeners … waiting for the first drums of Christ the Conqueror. … But in the rare days, when [Mary], … appears upon our mountain with her clothes like sails, then, like the wild baby, the unborn John who could not see a thing we wake and we know the Virgin’s Presence [and] receive her Christ into our dark night … In the flame of God’s fire … we burn and bound and bounce with happiness.” But it’s all too short.
Like the uncontained joy of five year old Superman that ended with the questions and amused looks of a kindergarten teacher, Mary’s joyful visitation also came to an end. When she journeyed home there was no mention of haste, or clothes like sails. She returned to the questioning looks of Joseph and the amused glances of her neighbors. The uncontained joy of the Messiah’s Mother began to be pierced by swords of sorrow. Likewise, the small anchorite, John, had to leave the solitude and silence of his mother’s warm womb after nine cloistered months. Always an anchorite, he returned as a young man to the contemplative desert until the day he was torn out of its womb to die under the axe of King Herod. The life of Jesus also came to a premature end with questions, laughter, mockery and cries for his crucifixion.
Like little Superman and John the Baptist, like Mary and Jesus, we are grateful for the joys we experience in life, but let us also be prepared to carry heavy crosses, and even to lose life itself for the sake of following Christ.
- Capax Dei, an expression of St. Irenaeus indicating the capability of being able to receive God.
- Thomas Merton, Tears of the Blind Lions, New Directions, NY, 1949, 8.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Scripture Readings: 2 Sam 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Rom 16:25-27; Lk 1:26-38
During Advent many years ago a South Korean television crew came to New Melleray. They wanted to make a video about our monastic life to show on Christmas Eve in South Korea. Seventy percent of South Koreans are not Christians, but Christmas Eve is a still a special night for everyone. Because for over thirty years after the Korean War no one was ever allowed on the streets after midnight, except on Christmas Eve.
But then the president of South Korea made Christmas a national holiday and he lifted the curfew on Christmas Eve so that Catholics could celebrate Midnight Mass as we will do this evening. For non-Christians, it was the only night in the year when they could be out late and not have to work the next day. So, they celebrated by having noisy parties all night long.
The producers of the television program wanted to present our prayerful way of celebrating Christmas in contrast to their frivolity. But, Christmas Eve really is a time for parties. When Mary set out for the hill country of Judah to share the Good News she wanted to tell it upon the mountains, over the hills, and everywhere. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting she cried out with a great shout of joy. There was leaping, and dancing, and songs of praise: the first Christmas party. From this small beginning between a young girl and her elderly aunt, the Good News began to transform the world.
The people of Korea are a unique example of the transforming power of the Christmas Story. Missionaries could not bring the Good News to Korea because its borders were closed to foreigners. They called it the hermit kingdom. But one day in 1603 Korean wise men, like the Magi, traveled to Peking, China. There they found the Christ Child wrapped in the linen sheets of theological books written by the first Jesuit missionaries. These Korean wise men carried the Word of God back home with them. Over the next two hundred years a small community of Christians slowly grew to 4,000 members without ever seeing a priest.
And then the slaughter of the Innocents began. For the next hundred years Christians in Korea endured wave after wave of persecution. Nothing reveals the seriousness of Christianity in contrast to the frivolity of the world as much as martyrdom. When the child in Elizabeth’s womb grew up, Herod cut off his head. When the child in Mary’s womb grew up, he was crucified. When the Church in Korea grew to 23,000, over 8,000 of them were put to death, one out of every three. Yet, Christianity in South Korea continued to grow. Today there are almost fourteen million Christians. But not in North Korea where they are persecuted and Christmas celebrations are forbidden. However I think that someday North Korea will become one of the most fervent Christian nations.
Mary’s response to the angel changed the world. The way a handful of Korean wise men responded to the story of Christ changed the lives of millions of Koreans. And that is how it will always be. The way each of us responds to the Good News influences the lives of others, maybe even thousands of people. The influence of our personal responses to Christ is a great grace for the whole world. Now that is worth celebrating with a Christmas party! And the best celebration of all is our Eucharist.
Graphic above: An Early Gathering of Korean Catholics at the Residence of Thomas Kim Beom-woo, circa 1785, (in the vicinity of the present day MyungDong Cathedral, Seoul). Reproduction presented to the New Melleray by Shin Seongwook of the Korean Broadcasting System.
On Aug 16, 2014, Pope Francis led a ceremony in Seoul to beatify 124 Korean martyrs. The crowd numbered about 800,000. This was at the site of the torture and execution of many Korean martyrs in the 18th and 19th century.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24
The Child Mary bore and gave birth to is God-With-Us, conceived of the Holy Spirit. According to the flesh, of the seed of David, says Saint Paul, established Son of God according to the Holy Spirit through resurrection from the dead. The Word who was in the beginning and God became flesh and made his home with us: Emmanuel, God-with-us, for us, among us.
Paul talks about the obedience of faith. “Is not this the carpenter, the Son of Mary; where did this man get all this?” (Mk 6:3, 2) What lies between the ordinary and the extraordinary is not a border, still less a wall; rather, a membrane, a porous tissue, through which the obedience of faith easily passes, sees, comprehends, and, like Joseph, rejoices greatly in the hidden things of God. The obedience of faith is nothing less than the total gift of ourselves to God who gives himself to us in Christ: “When he awoke, Joseph did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him”. He took the pregnant Virgin as his wife, who herself was blessed because she had believed that nothing is impossible with God.
Isaiah challenged Ahaz, King of Judah, to ask a sign of God. Assyria, like ISIS, and from the same part of the world, was bearing down upon his tiny kingdom of Judah. “Make the sign as high as heaven or deep as hell.” But in the end the Lord himself gave the sign, a totally ordinary, earth-bound assurance: a pregnant woman will give birth to a boy, God-With-Us, the extraordinary in the ordinary. But Ahaz did not believe, Judah was swallowed up, and so the sign was deferred.
Whatever happened to the young woman Isaiah had in mind, thirty years later the prophet Micah still looks ahead to the time “When she who is to give birth has borne” (5:2), to the days, Matthew tells us, finally, of Mary and Joseph, two nobodies in a nothing town of Galilee whose child, called Jesus, would be both the sign and the signified, God-With-Us, Savior. God is his own place. But God is where his work is seen. But the Child will be salvation for his people through forgiveness of their sins; but that is the work of God. The Child, then, is the place of God: God-With-Us. The historical and bodily existence of Jesus Christ is of the Holy Spirit so that we, with the obedience of faith, can participate in and have communion with his destiny, life and love. Mary’s perpetual virginity is the porous membrane through which the gift of God and the gift of faith go to meet each other.
A pregnant woman, the child she bears, are like God; they are the future, promise, hope of healing the past’s disarray. In Isaiah’s day, in Mary’s, the birth of a child, however ordinary, was nothing assured: pregnancy was difficult, failures, and deaths of mother and infant, ordinary, too, so the future was tenuous, often put on hold a little longer, till “she who is to give birth has borne.” It says something, I think, that in our medically, hygienically sophisticated culture so much goes into preventing pregnancy and aborting births, as if we were afraid of the future, of the extraordinary in our midst, of what God-Amidst-Us might do!
As if frustrated, sad, sorely disappointed, later in the book of Isaiah God himself becomes the pregnant woman. “For a long time I have kept silent, said nothing, held myself back: Now I cry out like a woman in labor, gasping and panting. . . . I will turn darkness into light . . . . These are my promises, I have made them” (Is 42:14, 16).
So even still, the genesis goes on, the begetting and giving birth, in the life and liturgy of the church. “I became your father,” writes Paul, “in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” (1 Cor 4:15) promised through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:2). Through faith, we are begotten of God (Jn 1:13), children of God in this world, even while all creation and we ourselves groan in labor pains till now, waiting for adoption and the revelation of the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:22, 23, 21). Participating in the Eucharist, the Sacramental Body of the Savior born of Mary and raised from the dead, is the apex of our faithful obedience, our obedient faith, when to the announcement, “Body of Christ,” we give our, “Amen,” and, as Saint Augustine says, receive what we are to become what we receive.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
[Scripture Readings: Is 7:10-14; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-24]
There are two classes of people who like to have stories repeated. This first is small children, who want their stories read to them over and over again, with no omissions or changes. It give them a sense of being connected and belonging to a deeper order of reality than the unpredictable and uncontrollable one they are living in. The second class is the elderly, who like to tell the same stories over and over again. But here, too, they are connecting themselves to a more meaningful and life-giving order of reality than the one which now is speeding on and leaving them behind.
Perhaps the Church's liturgy should be considered a third class. In the liturgy, we hear the same stories over and over again. Every Christmas we hear the same “Infancy Narratives,” the same stories. And we have been hearing them all week. The Gospel itself is a story, and it functions the way all stories do. Good stories open us to another world. They take us out of ourselves, if we are willing to let them. A good story is woven out of what is familiar, what we can recognize and identify with, what we can engage in and even commit ourselves to. If we let them, they can lead us through the familiar to something very surprising. We are asked to suspend our disbelief, the wall of common sense and practicality. We are asked to co-create the story with the author, to engage our feelings and emotions, to discover reactions within ourselves that surprise and even overwhelm us. We can experience an inner upheaval or catharsis which deeply affects and transforms us. The story has let us see and know something surprising about ourselves.
We can prevent stories from having their intended effect by settling for a level of response which cuts short any change or transformation. In the first reading from Isaiah, Ahaz didn't want a sign. He didn't want anything that would interfere with the plans he had already made. His mind was made up: to cut a deal with the Assyrians and salvage some power and authority for himself. Our minds are often content with the recitation of creeds and facts. Are our hearts really touched by proclaiming that “the Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Father before all ages, consubstantial with the Father, by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” Our minds are in the right place, but are our hearts there? Have we stepped into another world? In his Apostolic Constitution The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis writes: “The great danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God's voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers, too. Many fall prey to it , and end up resentful, angry, and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God's will for us, nor is it life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.” We can listen to the Christmas narratives as soothing confirmations of our own complacency and interests, or we can let our hearts and lives be invaded by the surprising work of the Holy Spirit.
Joseph is the central figure in today's Gospel. He was called by the Word and Spirit of God to cross the threshold of all that was possible, all that was contained within the history of God's law and covenant with His people, all that was precious to him. He was called to enter another world which was the creation of the Spirit by taking Mary as his wife into his home. The story had been a gathering of all the elements of recognizable history, moving through the deeply personal longings of a man, lived in the compassion and justice formed by fidelity to the will of God. But now, there was a surprising twist in the story that seemed to undercut all that was precious to Joseph and upon which he had built his life. The work of the Spirit can take the form of a scandal in overstepping the boundaries of what seems legitimate, sacrosanct, and possible. The birth of Jesus was a scandal to religious sensibilities, just as his teaching and life was a scandal to authorities, just as his death on the cross was a scandal. The work of the Spirit escapes and offends our categories of what one can “legitimately expect.” Joseph is brought to the threshold of the covenant's justice and faith which surrenders to the invitation of the Spirit. Orthodox icons regularly depict Joseph at a distance from the virgin and child in the cave. He is seen talking to someone—whether Satan or “naked reason.” This seems to underline the distance which can still remain between our surrender in faith and the full appropriation and meaning of that surrender. The invitation of the Spirit was fully and freely accepted, but the full meaning of “taking Mary into his home” could only be worked out in time. Perhaps St. Joseph should be the patron saint of believers in this postmodern age who are only too aware of the need to affirm our choice of belief recurrently in the lack of cultural and social support. We move from faith to faith.
The Christmas narratives have the power to include us in this movement into faith and into an experience of the surprising work of the Spirit reshaping our lives. These narratives are a different world and require the suspension of disbelief to allow ourselves to be led beyond ourselves. The Spirit at work at them is the same Spirit at work in our lives, laying bare an identity which our “cover story” ignores and hides. Christ was born of a virgin because he was born of the Holy Spirit. What human nature and history and justice were unable to realize is fulfilled through the creation of the Spirit. Human nature and history and justice are brought to a wholeness that restores them to their true reality. Through the Christmas liturgy, we are led back to our true reality (surprising though it be) which we find affirmed in the story of Christ. Thomas Merton has described this inner reality as le point vierge. “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccesible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty , our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship … . I have no program for this seeing, It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander). We are led, if we are willing, to this “virgin point” in ourselves where we encounter the surprising and scandalous work of the Spirit
Fourth Sunday of Advent
[Scripture Readings: 2 Sam 7: 1-5, 8b-11, 16; Rom 16: 25-27; Lk 1: 26-38]
It is characteristic of the gospel Infancy Narratives to make it clear that the Word of God entered into our actual history. St. Matthew inserts Jesus into the genealogy of his forebears; many of them with an all too fallible and less than edifying character. Others are unknown except for their inclusion in Jesus’ genealogy. St. Luke is careful to situate Jesus’ birth and the events preparing for it in a particular place at a particular time involving specific individuals. We heard this morning that an angel named Gabriel was sent to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary betrothed to a man named Joseph, a descendent of David. He mentioned earlier in the gospel that this was during the days of Herod king of Judea. The Gospel of John does not have an infancy narrative as such, yet St. John specifically says that the Word became flesh; our flesh. All of the New Testament writers make the point that in the Incarnation the second Person of the Blessed Trinity became one of us and took on our weaknesses, our failures and our sinfulness.
Nevertheless while Jesus accepted the limitations of an historical existence in Palestine during the days of Herod the Great and the Roman occupation, as the Risen Christ he transcends the limitations of time and space that human existence imposed on him. Jesus Christ is the Savior and Redeemer of all peoples, at all times and in all places. In our celebration of Advent and Christmas we are not simply remembering events that took place two thousand years ago. The liturgy brings the past into present. This morning we are with Mary and hear the good news that the angel Gabriel announces. Like Mary we have the choice whether we will accept God’s word and do our part to make Christ present in our situations and in our time, or whether we will reject God’s invitation.
We heard God’s promise that to Christ’s kingdom there will not be a completion. Jesus initiated the kingdom of God in history; the call to contribute to establishing the kingdom of God continues down to our own day and comes to you and me. We might think that in the face of the forces of secularization that confront us in today’s society anything we might do to manifest the presence of God’s kingdom in our situations would be inconsequential. Yet we have the example of Jesus Christ who chose to become incarnate with the cooperation of a peasant girl, in an obscure village on the fringes of the Roman Empire. During his earthly life he carried out his mission of world redemption sowing the seeds of God’s kingdom away from the centers of power and influence. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, God’s weakness is stronger than human power. Again this Advent we have the opportunity to welcome Christ into our difficult, perhaps impossible situations and say with Mary, “Let it be for me according to your word.”
Fourth Sunday of Advent
[Scripture Readings: Sam 7:1-5, 8-11, 16; Rom 16:25-27; Lk 1:26-38]
Today’s gospel is so very appropriate to this occasion. A promise made long ago is to be fulfilled; something new is going to happen.
A promise made long ago to the people of Israel seemed at many times to be a promise God had reneged upon. Yet it had always been in the process of being fulfilled. Everything, however small or tragic, comical or dramatic, everything was part of this great, history-changing event. All along God had been preparing the ground, waiting for an assent of the will.
Something new is going to happen. It will affect Mary in particular and everyone in general. But it will only affect everyone because first Mary agreed; she gave her assent to something she didn’t entirely understand. She just deeply believed it was God’s will. So she said “Yes.” She wasn’t in control; she was a receiver.
When she said “Yes” she made an irrevocable commitment.
Today I recall what I have in common with Israel and with Mary. The promise made long ago began in 6th grade for me. After attending many “seminary weeks” from then to my sophomore year I entered the Passionist Prep Seminary at the beginning of my Junior Year. When they asked me to leave at the end of my Senior Year it was the single most traumatic experience of my life.
I went back to Des Moines, we moved out to Ankeny, and I continued to follow Christ, but now by eating and drinking with sinners! I started to school at the University of Iowa and got into everything that was going on at a Big Ten campus in the 60’s.
I graduated with a major in psychology and eventually took a job at Boys Town, moving to Omaha. The career really took off from there: I became a research therapist at the University Medical Center and then received a faculty appointment to teach at Bellevue University. The second year I became chair of the psychology department. I was dating some very nice women and from all the criteria for secular success I should have been a happy man. I had forgotten all about priesthood and monastic life. I wasn’t even going to Church anymore. Nevertheless, God was working on me.
The beginning of the return to truth is to be dissatisfied with ones falsehood. God always calls a person to a greater future than he or she can imagine, but the future is not about the individual, but about the contribution they are going to make to their community.
A priest is given and accepts public, life-long basic responsibility for the welfare of a Christian community. He says “Yes” to an irrevocable commitment. Most of us here know what it is like to make an irrevocable commitment; most have done it in marriage. When we did that, the commitment becomes the criterion by which we judge all future decisions: any decision that does not contribute to answering that call cannot be a successful decision. Our life is about something. It has a certainty: the certainty of direction. We live toward.
Irrevocable commitments are not fashionable nowadays. Everything from scotch tape to marriage, religious profession, and ordination are known to be revoked. It is social custom and we easily grow used to it. Two things are necessary: one is to consider carefullyand dailywhat is meant by “commitment.” The other is to seek and rely on the grace of God.
I made an irrevocable commitment when I professed vows. Yesterday I deepened that. The archbishop laid his hands on my head and gave me a gift. With the help of your prayers I will share that gift with the members of the New Melleray and Mississippi Abbey communities. And doing that will make me a very happy man.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
[Scripture Readings: 2 Sam 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Rom 16:25-27; Lk 1:26-38]
We observe that those who are more regular in the practice of religion, that means too, in going to church, are mainly the elderly people, more women than men. Some say, it is because in their retirement age, they have more time to spend going to church. Well, others have more time going to other places instead of attending to their faith. Is it just a question of time? Or is it because of a relationship, the relationship with God? No doubt, each of us here present has our own stories to tell. There is something more than simply whiling away time outside the home.
Today’s readings tell us two stories of relationship with God, the one of David and the other of Mary. They are stories of a call and response. David’s story from the second book of Samuel says that “King David was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies on every side,”. He has gone past the active days of his life and is now in semi-retirement. He has been very successful. He started from being a lowly shepherd to becoming a mighty king, a good flutist to an excellent psalmist, a fighter of beasts to a fierce warrior, a simple family member to a revered dynasty founder.
What else does he still need to do? At this point in his life, he was more settled, and the text says, “The Lord has given him rest”. Perhaps it was rest on a Sunday like this! Perhaps rest on a wintry day where it is better to spend the day indoors rather than outside! Perhaps at his living room! Perhaps it was by his study table! Perhaps he was merely strolling in the garden! Whatever it was, his rest gave him time to think — about his life, and about his Lord. Yes, indeed, he has done a lot for himself, for others, his subjects, his family, but wait a minute, has he come to think of his Lord? To Nathan, he mentioned his concern. “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent!”. The prophet then encouraged him, “Go, do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you,” .
The purpose of that rest is for David to relate to his God more than to anyone else. His plan for God is great and noble, but the Lord now tells him that he has greater plans for him. The Lord reviewed him his life—and it was clear that behind his successes and accomplishments, it was the Lord directing him, preparing the way for him to the top. Will it be David’s turn now to build something for God? No, the Lord is still in charge and what he wants of David is to keep himself open to what the Lord tells him and to where He leads him. That was rather disconcerting for a king who has been used to giving orders as he plans. He could have felt himself a failure, despondent or rejected. This time he has to adapt himself to being a subject or a servant once again.
In the stages of growth in a person’s life, this incident triggers what they call a midlife crisis or even an elder year crisis. It is the time when we begin to lose grip of things, including our life. Despite our accomplishments so far, we are still remiss on important matters. And that is, we may have left God out of our life, either aware or unaware, temporarily or at length. This time, the Lord calls our attention. We are being awakened to a new reality: that God remains in charge. It is not David, not me nor you, to establish the Lord’s house, but it is the Lord who will build it for us. To David, the Lord says, “I will establish a house for you. I will raise up your heir after you. I will make his kingdom firm. He shall build a house for my name. I will make his royal throne firm forever,”.
How and when will this be? In the story of God’s plan, the building of a dynasty for David or the fulfillment of the promise took some time, in fact, a millennium even. Then it was realized in a silent and demure fashion. It was an event that followed another, but ordinarily taking place without fanfare. Sixth months after the unexpected announcement that the barren Elizabeth in her old age would bear a son, this time, a young maiden from Nazareth named Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph of the house of David was visited by an angel,. He revealed to her God’s plan of building his house. It will be a house not made of wood or stones, but of human flesh. She will be the very dwelling place to give a fleshly existence for God. Mary will bear a child, the Son of God most High. She who was not be well versed into the ways of life was astounded. She asked, “How can this be since I do not know man?” . It was not to doubt the angel’s word, but it expressed awe at the mystery revealed to her. She was told that the power of the Holy Spirit overshadows her. Then humbly and generously, she replied, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to your word” .
We have then two individuals relating to their God: David and Mary. They are distinct in their personalities but in continuum in their relationship with God. David was king in old age, Mary a young virgin unknown to many. David was successful in his career; Mary has nothing to brag about even in her social circle. But both are in touch with their God. God now touches them in a profound way. He calls them in a unique way. They are assured of the Lord’s presence and accompaniment. Nathan told David, “The Lord is with you.” So did the angel tell Mary. The Lord has always been with them, Now they are called to continue being with the Lord. David is reminded to keep God alive in his heart. Mary is told for the first time that all along, God had her in mind for the great saving plan for all humanity. She is God’s most favored daughter. Now she will become the mother of God’s Son.
We can identify ourselves with either David or Mary in various ways. But what the Lord tells us today in calling us is to identify with them in the manner of their response to God. It is not either David’s or Mary’s way. Rather, it could be in a continuum of relationship with God. David has been called. Now he is called anew. Generously he responded to the Lord in his prayers, . Mary was ever attuned in her dialogue with God. Hence, it was facile for her to affirm God’s vocation to her. Not that everything was clear to her afterwards, but her profound faith always shed light on the subsequent phases of her life in God. If David exemplifies an old call that needs renewal, Mary signifies the enthusiastic response when God calls on us.
Let us be clear about one thing: the calls of God to David and Mary were unique in salvation history. From David’s lineage, the Messiah was to come. Mary will be the mother of this Son of David, the Son of God. We gladly await the coming birth of this Son in our midst in our celebration of Christmas. This Son is God-with-us, Emmanuel.
Where then do we enter into the scene?, we may ask. We should rather ask: When do we let God enter into the scene of our life? Are you planning to build or do something for God? No, he is not after that. What he wants is a dwelling place to shelter in—that is, your heart, your life—so that his Word can be given flesh for the world around you to see and experience Him too. What do we do then? Spend a good rest, like David. Watch and pray. Wait and await. The Lord is coming to you.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
[Scripture Readings: 2 Sam 7:1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; Rom 16:25-27; Lk 1:26-38]
Mary was only a teenager when she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Because of Mary’s “yes” a child was born, Jesus, our Savior. The Son of God became flesh and walked with us. There are times when saying yes will change everything. I want to tell you about another teenage girl who said yes.
Her name is Cassie Bernall. She was 17, and had only a few seconds to make the biggest decision of her life. It was April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. A fellow student was pointing a gun at her. A boy named Josh was hiding behind a desk about twenty-five feet away. He said: “I could hear everything like it was right next to me. They asked if she believed in God. She paused, like she didn’t know what she was going to answer, and then she said ‘Yes.’ She must have been scared, but her voice didn’t sound shaky. It was strong. They said, ‘Why?’ but they didn’t give her a chance to respond. They just blew her away.” An investigator of the shootings found Cassie lying under a table. He said the bullet wound showed that the gun was touching her skin. She must have put a hand up to protect herself, because the tip of one finger was gone.
Cassie said yes, but she could not have witnessed to her faith if she had not already said yes many times before. That very morning she handed a note to her friend, Amanda. She wrote, “Honestly, I want to live completely for God. It’s hard and scary, but totally worth it.” Three years earlier Cassie was totally out of control, dabbling in witchcraft, smoking pot, threatening to run away or commit suicide, and writing letters to a misguided friend about wanting to murder her parents. No one could have said of her what the angel Gabriel said to Mary: “The Lord is with you.” Why did she change? Cassie’s faith depended on her parents. They said yes long before she did. They took her out of a public school and sent her for a year to a private Christian Fellowship school. She was forbidden to mix with her old crowd. At first things got worse. She erupted in fits of anger, raging, seething, yelling. Her mother said, “Sometimes I would sit with her as she screamed, praying aloud until she calmed down, telling her that I loved her.” For many months Cassie raised hell, she rebelled, she said no to everything, no, no, no! She was impossible, but not for God.
Then Cassie found a friend at the new school who invited her to a church sponsored youth retreat. Three hundred kids were there. For some reason it was their singing that broke down Cassie’s walls. She began crying and pouring out her heart, asking God for forgiveness. Her whole face changed, her eyes became hopeful, she smiled like she hadn’t done for years. She started treating her parents and brother with respect and affection. At the age of 15 Cassie began saying yes to God in her life. After her change of heart she didn’t find life easy. She wrote, “God seems so far away. I keep pushing on, but it’s hard right now. When God wants me to do something, even if it means going outside my comfort zone, I feel pushed in the direction I need to go. I try to stand up for my faith at school, it can be discouraging, but it can also be rewarding. … I never wanted to be a negative person or a crybaby. It is important to decide whether I want only a nice church or the way of the cross. Jesus’ way is the way of the cross. I’m trying to stay strong. I don’t want to lose Christ. I will die for my faith.” In a very short time Cassie walked with the Son of God from the wood of the crib to the wood of the cross and into the heavenly kingdom. The Lord is with her, and she is with God.
When Cassie was faced with death she must have felt very alone. But she wasn’t the only one who professed her faith that day. Rachel Scott and Valeen Schnurr were also shot after saying they believed in God. Rachel died but Valeen survived. Some laid down their lives to save others. Dave Sanders, a teacher, blocked the way of the gunmen giving students time to run to safety. He was killed. One boy died holding a door open so others could escape. Another boy covered his sister with his own body so that if the bullets came they would hit him and not her.
Cassie, and these other martyrs, had power to say their final yes, by word or by deed, because they were already saying yes to God in their lives. When Mary said, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word,” she kept on saying yes to God even when it led to her own interior martyrdom at the foot of the Cross. Mary’s yes changed the world. Like Mary, Cassie’s yes is also changing people. A seventeen year old wrote that Cassie’s death cut him to the heart and turned his life around. Inspired by Cassie’s story a doctor decided to say yes to a home for street children in Honduras. People in Sudan, North Africa, put up a memorial to remind them of Cassie’s act of faith. The “yes” of each one of us strengthens all of us. At Baptism and at every Easter Vigil we are asked the same question: “Do you believe in God?” And in today’s Eucharist we once again say yes: “We believe in God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Perhaps we will not be asked to die for our faith, but without the yes of faith we are not really alive. May our lives be a continuous yes to God and neighbor. Then the angels will say, “You are full of grace. The Lord is with you.” May our thoughts, our words, and our deeds proclaim: Christ!