Second Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Is 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Pt 3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8 ]

It is the second week of Advent, a time of watching and waiting. This is a typically monastic stance in life. In the middle of the night we rise for Vigils; a time when we watch and wait. “Only love is watchful.” We watch and wait unceasingly on the one we love. We pray during that watch because the loved one we watch for and wait on is that in which we have placed our hope. At Vigils we wait and watch for the light, a light in which we can see and understand our life and our world in a way that will delight us. Delight is the fulfillment of hope and the realization of love. The Evangelist Mark wants it to be our reaction to the announcement of “The good news of Jesus Christ.” And so, when we see the morning light we chant Lauds, the praise of He in whom we delight. Our delight will be in receiving the good from another, the Christ Child, and giving it to still others.

Advent watching and waiting presumes our capacity to be moved by something, to be captivated and expectant. To be moved, of course, is to experience an emotion, usually fired by a desire for something. Desire is a sense that we lack something; a longing for completion. It is not neurosis; it is a true and necessary feeling for the spiritual life. Desire sets the occasion for our hope.

It is the heart that is moved. St. Benedict cites scripture in his Prologue when he calls us to a vigilance that will make us vulnerable to being moved: “Today if you hear his voice, harden not your heart.” The Rule and the Advent season form our heart and our heart forms our character; they foster in us a disposition. A monastic disposition is an inclination of the heart to be moved by the right things and repulsed by what is not right. A change of heart is a change in what moves us.

That is what our gospel today is aimed at: a change in what moves us; a change in what we love; a change in our desire. A monk seeks to be unified within himself despite the many things that can be desired. When he has a central desire, a clear sense of what matters most, all of his other desires gradually align themselves with it. That is called freedom. We want to be free to set our hearts on One Thing that endures.

For this reason, Isaiah and John the Baptist call us first to a conversion of our desire. In a conversion experience one is given an experience of the God who is love. This experience leads to a desire for more, for a more intimate relationship with this Love. Even though vaguely sensed, we begin to re-arrange our ideas about what matters and how much it matters. There is, at the same time, a change in our aversions. Material and sensual things seem to automatically take a drop in the ratings. They were but intimations of this love we are now experiencing. We want to be free of anything that stands in the way of this love. This ultimate desire puts a new order to our search for meaning and purpose.

So, Advent is a time the Church gives us to experience our desires in a true light. Desire is the key way that God leads us to discover who we are and what we are to become. We experience this as a desire to be a certain kind of person. Our attractions and aversions organize themselves around being this kind of person. To recognize one's desire is to recognize God's desire for us.

To recognize God's desire for us each of us must recognize his or her own “Great” desires. Each must ask, “How do I enable my best desires to be translated into choices, actions, and a way of life?” It is from that question that we come to desire the power that Jesus Christ gives.

Finally, as we draw near to Christmas we chant “O Come Desire of Nations and bind in one the heart's of all mankind”. Each man's desire to be the person a Cistercian is called to be unites us as a community. The habit should remind us of that. Each of us tries to translate this desire into action and we do so awkwardly. So we have a Rule to live by, but the Rule is only effective for those with the desire. We must notice that desire in each other and honor it so that “brothers may live in unity … In grateful contemplation of Him Who presides over us all.”

Second Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Is 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Pet 3:8-14; Mk l: 1-8]

After the recent allegation by an Atlanta woman that Herman Cain had had an affair with her, Cain jokingly passed it off by reporting that his wife had said, “Here we go again.” A lot would depend on the tone of her voice for us to know how to interpret that. But that refrain “here we go again” could probably be used by us on many occasions. It can become a lament, expressing fatigue, exasperation and resignation. We are again and again faced with familiar situations which promise familiar and unsatisfying results.

It is easy to enter Advent with the same feeling of “here we go again.” It is another year, but we seem to be simply repeating the cycle. Do we enter Advent with the same quality of hope that we did last year? four years ago? Do we project an ever-receding horizon just to keep motivated? Are we just fooling ourselves? Is this an illusion?

Sigmund Freud wrote a book called The Future of an Illusion to explain why some people need religion as a crutch, as an illusion. From birth, we have an impossible desire, an overwhelming felt need to have our wishes fulfilled. Religion, said Freud, is a creation of our psyche to try to satisfy this unlimited impulse. As we gradually mature and learn to deal with reality in all its limitations, we can dispense with this crutch, with this illusion, and begin to walk on our own. Freud throws cold water on these illusions and wants to wake us up.

Advent itself is also meant to pour cold water on our wishful thinking. It is a season which is sober, stark, cold and harsh. Like John the Baptist with his minimal attire and frugal diet, we are called to strip to the essential. It is a time to stand in that objectivity and distance from whatever is impermanent and secondary to the human endeavor. We need that critical diagnosis to unearth what are our real cares, what in our life is worthy of our attention and care. What we care about reveals both our hope and the way we organize our lives in response to that hope. Confessing our sins is admitting how we have misspent and misplaced our hopes. Advent is a time to demythologize those illusions which seem to have so much driving force, unlimited energy — the impulses and compulsions of our lives which we afraid to let go of. We need the baptism of cold water to wake us up, to break the source of “here we go again” which rises from those insatiable compulsions.

The Advent call to the desert is also a call to interiority. “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” were going out to John. We are to join them in walking away from the total urbanization of our lives, the servility we offer to the demands of political civilization, the investment we offer in plugging in our compulsions to the forces that build and drive society. Black Friday is society’s form of ersatz religion: throngs of worshipers waiting through the night in vigil, streaming toward the altars of bargains once the doors were unlocked. Why be surprised that unrestrained greed would erupt into violence? Why be shocked when we know that we have our personal “black Fridays” when we have let our impulses and compulsions carry us into destructive excess?

The desert allows us to acknowledge the demons and impulses that create our personal world of illusions. The barrenness, monotony, stillness work to lay bare the dependency and servility to external change and distraction that we have allowed to grow in our lives. Interiority does not mean simply shutting off the outside world, severing all connections. It is our unfamiliarity with it that makes us think it can be only isolation at worst and narcissism at best. We may be surprised to find how much a sense of communion with others can manifest itself in interiority. It gives us access to an inner world which can be the discovery of an authentic humanity. The heart may discover that the constricting boundaries around it were its own creation. The heart can say “I” with a living person to ground that pronoun. It can say “I know” with a knowledge that emerges from layers of experience and wisdom. It can afford to make sacrifices which don’t result in pleasure or gratification, but yield a deep sense of gravity and belonging to a reality which exceeds all its hopes.

A sense of interiority knows the sacred in life. One sociologist has defined the sacred as “the excluded possibility.” It is that which is indefinite,elusive, evanescent, undetermined yet potentially immediate, constraining, revelatory, disruptive. The sacred erupts into our life in those times and place where we can hear the words “here is your God.” These tend to be unexpected and unprotected times and places. The sacred is habitually excluded from our lives. It throws cold water on our illusions and securities. The desert and interiority are paths which can give us access to the sacred, to hearing the Gospel as a beginning and not as “here we go again.”

Interiority reveals our innate openness and incompleteness. Freud is right: we are born with an overwhelming and unlimited desire. Our illusions try to smother that desire. There is a pain which tends to that openness and waits for its only satisfying hope. This waiting and hope was expressed in a reading from St. Anselm’s Proslogion which we heard at Lauds this past week and I will conclude with this:

“Lord, my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you. Lord, if you are not here, where shall I look for you in your absence?…. Lord, you are my God and you are my Lord, and I have never seen you. You have made me and remade me, and you have given me all the good things I possess, and still I do not know you. I was made in order to see you, and I have not yet done that for which I was made…..Look upon us, Lord, hear and enlighten us, show us your very self. Restore yourself to us that it may go well with us whose life is so evil without you. Take pity on our efforts and striving toward you, for we have no strength apart from you. Teach me to seek you, and when I seek you show yourself to me, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, nor can I find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you in desiring you and desire you in seeking you, find you in loving you and love you in finding you.”

Second Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Is 11:1-10; Rom 15:4-9; Mt 3:1-12]

The message of today’s gospel is repentance. It is a call to a “change of mind” or “change of outlook.”

Repentance is not remorse nor is it regret. Those refer to specific acts that a person wishes they hadn’t done. No, repentance is something much deeper and thus more pervasive in a person’s life. It is sorrow that one set his heart on something as “ultimate” that has been found through experience to be an illusion. Thus, one cannot truly repent unless one has an experience of what is truly ultimate. John the Baptist, though, is calling people to repent in preparation for just such an experience. He is calling them and us to open-mindedness about what matters most.

John Cassian, in his Third Conference given by Abba Paphnusius, discusses this call to repentance in preparation for an experience of God. The Abba describes three kinds of calls that might bring one to a monastic way of life. The first is a call directly from God such as Abraham experienced. The second is a call through the teaching and example of another human. Many of us came to the monastery as a result of reading Thomas Merton or the example of a monk we knew back when. The example of the seniors is the call that keeps on calling!

Abba Paphnusius elaborates on the third kind, the kind John the Baptist is issuing today. It is a call that arises out of need. The need arises out of the disillusionment we find in prosperity. The prosperity is most commonly that of our lives going as we wish them to go according to the standards of the world. Accompanying it is a disdain for God arising out of the conviction that we can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if only we manage well. This, as John the Baptist tells us, is the desert through which we must clear a way.

So we don’t voluntarily feel this need for God; it comes upon us suddenly in the midst of calamity. The example the Abba gives is the children of Israel who, on account of their sins, were handed over to their enemies. Then, their greatest asset became desperation.

Abba Paphnusius emphasizes this third kind of Call saying that, even though it seems inferior to the first two, it turns out fervent monks for the same reason as the first two calls: fear of God and diligence in living the monastic way of life. These are prompted in every monk by one or both of two experiences: That of our own sins or the feeling that we cannot live up to the greatness of God’s calling. The first asks us to admit what we have set our hearts on; the second asks us to be decisive about what we will set our hearts on.

In facing up to our sins we stop evading and let our past decisions upset us. We let them cause us to doubt ourselves.

It is in the upsetting nature of this preparatory experience that each of us becomes convinced that he needs to be saved. He must know what he—personally—needs to be saved from and who the savior will be. He needs someone to believe in. It is at this point that we must decide whether to persevere or merely endure. To persevere is to live toward a goal; to endure is to put up with what cannot be avoided. It is now that we must know what we are persevering toward. To persevere—to keep living toward—we must live intentionally and nurture that intention with Eucharist and lectio. In other words, we must now know what we were saved for.

The decision to persevere prepares us for the answer to the Advent question: Why did it take the Incarnation to save us? It is because in order to persevere we needed both a reason and a model for this change.

The reason gave us a direction to go; the model shows us how. Jesus is the model. The reason is our happiness or “blessedness.” The direction for obtaining happiness is toward the Father; the Kingdom of Heaven. The imitation of Christ is how, the way. Knowing who saved us, from what and what for, we can now set our hearts safely on what is truly ultimate. We set our hearts on what He set His.

Second Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Bar. 5: 1-9; Phil. 1: 4-11; Lk. 3: 1-6 ]

It is characteristic of St. Luke in the beginning narratives of his gospel to give a good deal of historical and geographical information. When the birth of John was announced to Zechariah it was when Herod was king of Judea. We also learn the priestly order to which Zechariah belonged and Elizabeth’s lineage. We learn that six months later in the city of Nazareth the birth of Jesus was foretold to Mary and that she was betrothed to Joseph of the lineage of David. Jesus’ birth took place in Bethlehem because of a census ordered by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This morning we heard that the word of God came to John in the desert during the reign of Tiberius Caesar; when Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias were in office, their jurisdictions; and that Annas and Caiaphas were exercising the high priesthood.

When I reflect on these narratives a message that stands out for me is that God’s action does not take place in general. God acts at specific times, in specific cultures and societies, and in specific locations. Jesus Christ did not become a human being in general. He became a specific human being, at a specific time, in a specific society, in a specific place; and he accepted the limitations that becoming a specific human being entails. In reflecting on this morning’s gospel it strikes me that after learning who is reigning in the different political centers at the time, that is not where God acts. The word of God came to John the son of a not particularly important priest in the desert. And John did not take God’s word to the important centers of his society. He went into the desert region around the Jordon River. It seems that God has a preference for out of the way places and people who are not considered important in their social settings.

Does that mean anything for you and me here in Peosta, Iowa? Could the word of God come to us as we go about our daily routines? Could that have any significance beyond our personal lives? My answer is yes. Each one of us has been called by God and given a role to fulfill in his plan for the salvation of the world and everyone in it. Our society might not think much of the role God has given us. The people we know might not think much of it. We ourselves might not think much it. That is not what makes our call important. It is the fact that we have been called by God to prepare for Christ to come into our location among the people we live and work with. This is true every day of our lives, but what is true everyday can easily become routine and taken for granted. Advent calls to our attention that the coming of Christ into the world is never routine and should never be taken for granted.

The significance of our part in preparing for Christ’s coming into the world will not be known until God’s plan is fulfilled. God has begun a work in the life of each one of us and it is God who will bring it to completion in his time and in his way. He asks only that we respond generously in faith. We have God’s word to guide us. We have each other for support. We have Christ’s body and blood to nourish us. We have what we need. It is up to us to give an answer to God; today and every day.

Second Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Is. 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2Pt. 3: 8-14; Mk. 1: 1-8]

An Advent reading that most of us who are monks are familiar with is St. Bernard’s sermon on the three comings of Christ. Christ came in history two thousand years ago. He will come in glory sometime in the unknown future. He comes to us now; not only during Advent, but each day of our lives. While I find it helpful to reflect on St. Bernard’s sermon each year, I suggest that there are not three comings of Christ, but only one. St Bernard has presented God’s breaking into human history in a way that we can more easily understand and appreciate; but whenever the transcendent and holy God enters our world of time and space we are confronted with the limitations of our understandings and language. Without eliminating our limitations, the liturgy allows us move beyond them. However contradictory it may sound, liturgical time allows us to transcend time. The Advent liturgy calls us to experience in our time Israel’s expectation and hope for the coming of God to bring salvation.

In this morning’s gospel we heard John the Baptist fulfill his call to prepare a way for the Lord and through John the Baptist we hear God’s call to us to share in John’s vocation. When we look around at our current situation, that call may seem more than a little daunting. We live in a time of uncertainty and insecurity on a number of levels. There are conflicts and divisions in society, in the Church and in our families and communities. There is a mood of rapidly spreading secularism in society. Can we prepare a way for Christ in a world that in many ways seems to be indifferent or even hostile to Christ? Yet, is our situation that much different than John’s? There was hostility between Jews and the occupying Roman army and authorities. There were conflicts within Judaism itself. There was certainly uncertainty and insecurity for the poorer members of Jewish society into which Jesus was born. For the most part neither Jewish nor Roman society was open to receiving Jesus. Yet in God’s incomprehensible wisdom the Word of God chose to enter into history two thousand years ago in Palestine. He continues to enter into history, and he calls each one of us to welcome him and to prepare his way so that he may come to those we meet.

In many ways over the centuries, often unrecognized at the time, God prepared Israel for the coming of their savior. Finally he prepared Mary to be his obedient handmaid and bring Jesus into human history. The Holy Spirit is preparing us for the coming of Christ, probably in many ways that we fail to recognize. He is preparing us to bring his message of comfort and hope to a world that is in increasing need of comfort and hope. Our part is to respond to John’s call to repentance, acknowledge our sins and failings and receive God’s forgiveness, so that we in turn can be messengers of God’s good news.

Christ’s coming will not be complete until God decides that the time has been fulfilled. However, God’s promise is being fulfilled and we are called to contribute to the fulfillment of God’s promise. If, in imitation of Mary, we freely accept God’s call to be his servants and cooperate with the Holy Spirit working in our lives, we can bring our world a step closer to the new heavens and the new earth for which it longs.

Second Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Is. 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2Pt. 3: 8-14; Mk. 1: 1-8]

Fr. NeilThe two figures who stand out in the Advent liturgy are Mary and John the Baptist. In their different ways they personify Advent and the attitude to which Advent calls us. Mary will come to the fore on Thursday with the celebration of the Immaculate Conception and during the final week of Advent when we listen to the beginning of Luke’s gospel. Today and next Sunday the focus is on John the Baptist. John presents a rugged, perhaps even a jarring side to Advent. John is the eschatological prophet preaching the coming of God in judgment and calling us to repentance for our sins. He is the man of the desert, dressed in rough clothing and feeding on what the desert provides. With a little reflection, John’s call to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord is understandable. But why the desert?

In the Old Testament the desert is the privileged place for the revelation of God. God called Abraham out from Mesopotamia into Canaan; but Abraham did not dwell in the cities. He lived on the margins of society and it was in the desert that God appeared to him. It was in the desert of Sinai that God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and it was to the desert of Sinai that Moses led the Hebrews to meet God and to hear that they would be God’s people. It was in the desert of Sinai that God revealed himself to Elijah in the still, small voice. As we just heard, Second Isaiah called the exiles to prepare a way for the Lord in the desert because it was there that the glory of the Lord would be revealed. Finally, Jesus came to John in the desert to begin his public ministry. We go into the desert in the hope of meeting the Lord.

The DesertOn first consideration the desert doesn’t seem a likely place for hope. It is barren and empty; uninhabited because it is largely uninhabitable. Yet, it is precisely this barrenness and emptiness that are the foundation for hope. Hope has to do with the future. When I reflect on what I consider the future, I discover that often what I consider my future is simply a rearranged present. I eliminate what I don’t like, add some things that I want, and call it a future. For all practical purposes there isn’t anything in the desert to rearrange. The desert calls us to look beyond our present resources to a true future; God’s future that doesn’t yet exist to rearrange in my imagination. The desert calls to hope for what is truly new.

True, we do not live in a desert; although there is much about the winter landscape that reminds me of the desert. Each year Advent calls us to enter into our inner deserts. We are called to leave behind what is familiar and comfortable and acknowledge the poverty of our own resources, and wait in hopeful expectation for the coming of God’s future. Jesus Christ brings God’s future. Jesus Christ is God’s future! Too frequently our familiar routines prevent us from recognizing him, or our impatience calls us to more immediate interests. Fortunately God is more patient with us than we are with him. Once again John the Baptist calls us to repentance: to look within ourselves and to prepare a place in our hearts for the coming of Christ. Let us answer his call with gratitude and hope.