Third Sunday of Advent

Scripture Readings: Is 35:1-6; James 5:7-10; Mt 11:2-11

Years ago, before computer games and smart phones, kids actually went outside and played with each other.  Remember that?  When I was growing up we played a game of tag called Jailbreak.  Friends from around the block split up into two teams, cops and robbers.   Someone’s porch was the jail.  The cops win by tagging robbers to put them in jail. The robbers win who are still free when time for the game runs out.  And to make it more challenging, a bad guy who sneaks up and tags those in jail without getting caught causes a jailbreak.  The prisoners escape and the good guys have to catch the robbers all over again.  Of course the cops put a guard by the jail to prevent that from happening.  But clever robbers try to lure the guard away so someone can get close enough to cause a jailbreak.  Sitting in jail while all the action is going on out there is a pain, so you hope someone will come and set you free.  

For John the Baptist it wasn’t a game.  Being in Herod’s prison was deadly serious.   And the roles were reversed.  John was a good guy in a dark, dreary dungeon.  Herod and his men were the bad guys.  John was accustomed to the wide open spaces of the wilderness and being able to bathe in the cool flowing waters of the Jordan River.  Now, in this dirty, damp prison he couldn’t be with the people he was called to prepare for the Messiah. John had no way out.  Or, did he?  Couldn’t Jesus set him free?

The prophet Isaiah often foretold that the Messiah would “bring those who sit in darkness out of the dungeon” (42:7).  He wouldsay to prisoners, ‘Come forth,’ and to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear’ (49:8)”   He would“Break every yoke and let the oppressed go free” (58:6).   Even the Psalms, which John prayed so often, proclaim that “the Lord sets prisoners free” (Psalm 145:7f).

When Jesus began his ministry he himself said, “Today this prophesy has been fulfilled: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to preach good news … to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed …” (Is 61:1f; Lk 4:18).  John the Baptist knew that the Messiah could set him free.

So John asks, “Are you the one who is to come?”  Jesus replies by quoting another prophecy from Isaiah, “Tell John, the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.  And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Is 35:5f; Mt. 11:5f).  In this prophecy nothing is said about freeing prisoners.  Hearing this reply did John realized Jesus was not going to set him free?  But how can Jesus not free him, and then expect John to be happy when he who could do it, doesn’t do it?  

Jesus answers this question by giving John a new sign of the Messiah that is not in any of these prophecies.  Jesus said, “Tell John … the dead are raised” (Mt. 11:5).  Jesus will not set John free from an earthly prison, but from death itself.   Herod will kill John, but Jesus will raise him up.  The Good News is heaven, not heaven on earth.

We will all die, some of us tragically, like the two brothers, 9 and 11 years old, who drowned when they fell through the ice on a pond in Prescott, Iowa, a few years ago; or the two Des Moines police officers who were ambushed in their cars and murdered a month ago; or the three people who were killed when a truck crashed into a Walmart store in Pella, Iowa, a week ago.  But Jesus will raise us up to eternal life.  He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more.

Until then, we are all imprisoned in a lifelong Advent waiting to be set free, often living in darkness, sometimes in the deepest anguish of heart after the death of those we love.  But we are waiting with blessed hope and absolute certainty of the complete fulfillment of the Messiah’s greatest promise, the day when we will experience the ultimate jailbreak from all suffering and death itself, when Jesus tags us to raise us up and set us free forever.   

 

 

Third Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Zeph 3:14-18a; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18]

Today's gospel gives us the very important response to last week's call to repentance. The people respond by saying, “What should we do?”

“What should we do?” is one of the three most fundamental questions we ever ask ourselves. It is about one of the three fundamental tasks in a person's life. The three fundamental tasks in life are deciding: what to believe, how to behave, and what to care about. They determine what kind of person we will become.

What is significant here is that the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers ask “What should WE do?” In the past, their culture answered the question and a “following the crowd” mentality gave them the nerve to do it.

So the people, responding to John's demand to “bear worthy fruits of repentance,” ask what they should do. He tells them what to do and where they will get the power, not merely the nerve, to do it. At issue here is our authority for living: is it the culture or is it the way of the people of God? Whatever we are passive before will form us. That is why St. Benedict calls us to separation from the world and to obedience. It is obedience which puts us in a stable state of following Christ In the monastic way.

The question of authority can only be answered by a deliberate decision about whom or what we depend upon. Obedience is based on the fact that humans are contingent and dependent. That which is dependent needs the help and support of that upon which it depends. Do we depend on the changing fashions of culture or the enduring ways of God? Will we be “cool” or holy?

John's people indicate that they are ready to act and that's what it takes to answer a Call. John gives them actions to take for the common good rather than one's own good.

John is calling them and us to self-determination. This can only happen if we are passive before the God Who made us. John knows that our actions have an effect on us. When we take the actions for the common good they will effect a change in the outer world and that will effect an interior change in us. In contrasting the interior effects of our old ways of acting and the new, we will solidify a new disposition, a new sense of efficacy, of the impact we should have on the world. And we will strengthen new habits.

In other words, whatever proceeds from us, returns to us. It becomes part of us; it determines us.

From knowing how to behave, then, we will come to believe and in coming to believe we will come to a new and higher way to care. We will receive a new heart. The actions John is prescribing are a change from self-seeking to self-giving. We could call it love.

The monastery as a school of love is separated from the world by what we believe, how we behave, and what we care about. The mind, the will, and the heart of the monk are determined by his relationship to God, rather than the crowd and the changing winds of fashion. He believes the truth, cares about God and neighbor, and so praises God seven times a day. Praise is the glad context for his obedience.

Determining oneself toward love is how John prepares us for the coming of Jesus Christ. Love is seeking the good of the other. Love is being “for” as Jesus was “for.” Unless we believe that we are called to this love, we will not recognize Jesus Christ when He comes. What He teaches will not shape what we care about. We will not be open to the power to act that He will give at his coming on Christmas Day.

A community and the story it lives out form character. A true self is formed when we personally, interiorly live out the enduring beliefs, conduct, and values of the Christian community. A false self is formed by the ever-changing fashions of the secular culture when we merely “follow the crowd.” John the Baptist is telling us, “You were born an original; don't die a copy.”

Third Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Is 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thes 5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8, 19-28 ]

A Sunday school teacher wanted to know if her students understood their need for a Savior to get to heaven, so she asked her class, “If you clean your room every day, shovel the snow, and wash the dishes, will that get you into heaven?” A few of the kids who earn an allowance for doing their chores said, “Yes.” Turning to the others she asked, “If you are kind to animals, share whatever you have, don't cheat at school or in games, and do good, will that get you into heaven?” Now most of them thought so, but not everyone. So she quizzed the rest once more, “If you sell your iPad and your iPhone, and give all your money to the poor, and endure everything without complaining, will that get you into Heaven?” Now everyone said, “Yes,” except for one young girl. Seeing that at least one person in her class understood that good deeds are not enough to save us, she asked the girl to explain what we need to get into heaven. She replied, “We need to die.” Sadly, none of her young students said we need a Savior. They all believed that they must earn their way into heaven by their good deeds.

St. Paul writes, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). We are not the source of love. Jesus is. We need the Savior to forgive our sins and put love in our hearts. John the Baptist is our model here. He could not save himself or others. He denied that he was the Messiah. He was a voice in the wilderness announcing the coming of the Savior whose sandal he was not worthy to loosen.

Now John held his classes for anyone who would listen. But his lessons were alarming. He cried out, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? … Even now the axe is at the root of the trees … and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Lk 3:9, 17). So his students asked him, “What shall we do?” John replied, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none.” To tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than is appointed to you.” And to soldiers, “Rob no one … and be content with your wages.” But isn't this salvation by good works? Is John saying we don't need a Savior? Heavens no! Instead John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We need Jesus to save us. We are saved by forgiveness and grace, not by good works.

Once a former Archbishop of Milwaukee and Chicago, Cardinal Meyer, was asked the proper way to address a bishop. He replied that in formal settings one might say, “Your Excellency,” or “Your Grace.” But it was also quite okay to simply say, “Bishop,” or, “Father.” Then he told a story about a woman who was ill at ease sitting next to him at a formal dinner to raise funds for the archdiocese. Picking up a bowl of gravy she nervously passed it to the Cardinal saying, “Your Gravy, would you like some grace?”

Now there's a profound truth in her mistake. The Prophet Isaiah compares the unredeemed people of Israel to worms and tiny maggots (Is. 41:14). In a state of sinfulness we are as helpless to save ourselves as a bowl of gravy. In such a state John the Baptist could say to us, “Your Gravies, would you like some grace?”

Blessed be God who has freed us from the captivity of our sins and graciously baptized us with his Holy Spirit. We needed a Savior to get to heaven, and we have one, Jesus Christ, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate. Let us rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances.

Third Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Zeph 3:14-18a; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18]

About sixteen hundred years ago a man paid a visit to a holy old monk living alone, way out in the Egyptian desert, and arriving at his cave was greeted cheerfully; given a seat, and offered lunch, at which point the monk, leaning back with his hands clasped behind his head, inquired of the visitor: “So tell me, who are they calling ‘king’ these days?” I love that “desert-father-saying” which, in ten words, vividly portrays the stance and distinctive ethos of a monk. A monk might ask a visitor to the monastery today: “So, who are they calling ‘superpower’ these days?” or “Who are they calling a “developed country” and and ‘undeveloped country’ these days?” Sometimes, the person replying to this question realizes the answer he gave is very strange, and it may be the first time he noticed.

Another version of the monk’s question today might be: “So – what are people calling ‘the end of the world’ these days?” What do people today call “the end of the world?” In September of 2008, I had just finished my annual week-long retreat at Our Lady of the Mississippi and had returned to work on Monday A.M. where I stopped in to visit my friend Sam Mulgrew who is manager at the Abbey’s casket factory. As I entered his office he says to me: “Are you aware the world ended while you were on retreat?” It seems during my week in total solitude in the woods, Fannie May and Freddie Mack had declared bankruptcy, instigating what has been called “the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.” Now, I’m a cloistered monk, and for all I knew, “Fannie May” and “Freddie Mack” were the couple who farm the property next door to the monastery; I had no idea who they were or why their going bankrupt meant the world had ended. I resolved that, later on, I would look at a newspaper and see if I could figure out what “end of the world” meant. A year later, I’m still trying to figure it out.

The end of the world is a subject monks are interested in. We study it; we talk about it; we get up at three in the morning in joyful expectation of its coming. Monks have an investment in this idea; it is an idea that shapes our life and defines us as persons. I think I speak for most monks when I say the financial crisis, now over a year old, has not exactly been for us the end of the world. We are aware of many agonizing human situations which people request us to pray for: loss of homes’ loss of jobs’ or of savings, growing emotional tensions in families, in marriages, all of which cause immeasurable suffering to people whom we love. We are affected deeply by the pain of these people. Likewise, our own financial standing has been affected by the crisis, (Casket sales are down about a third), but you won’t hear many monks describing all this as “the end of the world.” What is perhaps most striking about the financial crisis from a monk’s perspective, and this was true also of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, is how, in America, the “end of the world” can come and go, and nothing much changes.

From the vantage point of a monk, it seems those events that people today characterize as “the end of the world” are becoming curiously routine, they keep happening one after the other, each event reported in the papers with the same apocalyptic language, each beginning to tire us after a while, failing to sustain our interest, and then succeeded by a new event heralded as the “end of the world“. The advent of the world wide web, the reform of our health care system, the possible development of nuclear weapons by Iran, and the death of Michael Jackson were all events described in the press as somehow bringing the world as we know it to an end. To this monk, these “end of the world” scenarios are beginning to seem as routine as the confessions that take place in the monastery guest house every Saturday afternoon. It looks to me like a very similar pattern. Something bad happens; we feel the negative consequences, and are forced to ask ourselves: “My God, what happened?” We feel frightened and bewildered because we realize, the suffering associated with the event, is something which, in part, we brought on ourselves. We acknowledge this; we confess it in the papers, on the six o’clock news, in barber shops and in the bus on the way to work. The world seems to be ending and it reveals something about ourselves which we reflect upon, for a time. There is a moment of honesty which is followed by a lapse into forgetfulness in which we can rest quietly for a month or for a year or two years, until, one morning, we turn on T.V. and hear it announced, the world is ending again, and we are all back to confession.

What might the Advent Season, John the Baptist, and today’s gospel have to teach us about the end of the world? The world, brothers and sisters, IS coming to an end and has been coming to an end for much longer than the newspapers have been telling you; for much longer than newspapers have even existed. The world is coming to an end because Jesus has ascended into heaven and is returning very soon and when he returns,you and I will find ourselves standing face to face with the Truth, because Jesus is Love and Love is the ultimate, bedrock, and deepest Truth, underlying everything. And when Jesus arrives there will be no place for you and I to look except straight into the face of Truth himself. This is a moment you want to be prepared for. Do you want to know how to prepare? In our gospel this morning, John the Baptist is telling you how to prepare for the end of the world so that when it comes, you can “lift up your head in confidence” and rejoice, “because your salvation is at hand“. “Do you have two coats, give one to the man who has no coat. Do you have more food in your pantry than you really need? Give some of it to the woman who has no food. If you are a soldier, or maybe you’re just built like a soldier, don’t use your physical strength to intimidate other people. Are you earning a paycheck? Be content with your paycheck.

Brothers and sisters, the end of the world, according to the gospel, comes only once and it is coming very soon. God’s will for you and for me is that it be a time of rejoicing; a reunion with the One who has loved you since before time began. Look soberly at your life, your conduct; make a conscientious effort to conform your life to the gospel, and know that on the last day you will be able to lift your head in confidence at the coming of the Lord.

Third Sunday of Advent

[Scripture Readings: Is 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thes 5:16-24; Jn 1:6-8, 19-28 ]

It’s not my fault! Naiveté about innocence and self-sufficiency in a fallen world is all too common. A Sunday school teacher wanted to know if her class understood how badly we need a Savior, so she asked them, “If I clean the church every day, shovel the snow, and keep everything neat and tidy, will that get me into heaven?” Some kids who earn an allowance for doing their chores said, “Yes.” Turning to others she continued, “If I am kind to animals, share my candy, don’t cheat at school or in games, and do good, will that get me into heaven?” Now most of them thought so, but not everyone. So she quizzed the rest once more, “If I sell my house and my car, have a big garage sale and give all my money to the church, and suffer everything without complaining, will that get me into Heaven?” Now everyone said, “Yes,” except for one young girl. Happy that at least someone in her class understood that good deeds are not enough to save us, she asked the girl to explain what we need to get into heaven. She replied, “We need to die.

But St. Paul writes, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing(1 Cor 13:3). Do all your chores, be kind and honest, don’t cheat, try to be good, sell what you have and give it to the poor, even be willing to die, that’s not enough to get into heaven. We can’t earn it by our good deeds; for we are not the source of the love within us. Jesus is. We need a Savior to free us from our sins and put light and love into our hearts.

Somewhere Flannery O’Connor writes that in our naïve sentimentality we skip lightly over the Fall of Original Sin and its consequences to arrive at a mock state of innocence of our own making. We are in grave danger, helpless to save ourselves and yet we make excuses and seek self-justification. So God sent prophets to break through our complacency, to sound a warning, to show us our need for repentance and a Savior. The greatest of these was John the Baptist.

Now John held his classes on the banks of the Jordan river. His first lesson was alarming. He cried out, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? … Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees … and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire(Lk 3:9, 17). So his class asked him, “What shall we do?” And he answered, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none.” And to tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than is appointed to you.” And to soldiers, “Rob no one… and be content with your wages.” But isn’t this salvation by good works? Is John saying we are self-sufficient, that we can merit our way into heaven by good deeds? Heavens no! His second lesson was to proclaim our need for forgiveness by a baptism of repentance. It is not our deeds that wash us clean. It is God’s mercy. John’s third lesson was to point to the Savior: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We need Jesus to save us, to baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Only then does John teach us his fourth lesson on how to behave. Good deeds are not the means to salvation, they are the way we express gratitude for what Jesus has done to save us.

Recently a near tragedy in Iraq brought home to me the danger of naiveté in a fallen world. Al Qaeda terrorists are increasing recruitment of women, mentally challenged persons, and even children for suicide bombing missions. Last August, a young woman named Rania al Ambaki was walking in an apparent daze toward a checkpoint. She was actually a drugged human bomb ready to be detonated by a signal from a cell phone when she reached the crowded marketplace. Iraqi officers were suspicious and ordered her to stop. It happened that all cell phone signals were being jammed in that area as part of another security operation. They searched her and found a hidden suicide vest around her waist. She was only 15 years old. She comes from Baquba, an al Qaeda hot spot just north of Baghdad, a recruiting ground for suicide bombers. Last year there were eight women bombers. This year, there have been 35. She said through a translator, “I’m thankful that I didn’t get blown up. I had no idea the vest was a bomb.” She said that family members put it on her. “They told me it was a kind of medical vest for back pain.” General Abdul Kareem Qasim who interrogated her said, “She has a low IQ and is a vulnerable teenage girl. Al Qaeda is using these people” because it works. In a conservative Muslim society, young women bombers are less likely to be searched because there’s a shortage of female security guards to do it. As for Rania, was she instead actually a willing victim, a would-be martyr? She denies it. She was simply naïve, and it put her in great danger. But she was saved and now she’s so grateful to be alive.1

A fallen world is a dangerous place. Mock innocence and self-justification by good works cannot save us. But we have a Savior whose light exposes our dangerous sinfulness and whose love comes to wash it away. This is the mystery we celebrate with such joy and gratitude in our hearts, now filled with the Holy Spirit, on this Guadete Sunday. And yet, even after hearing the story of salvation so many times, how easily we still act on the impulse to excuse ourselves, and seek to be perfect by our own deeds.

For example, at this time of year, grade schools often put on Christmas pageants. I think it was in sixth grade that I remember being one of the angels announcing the good news of our Savior’s birth to the shepherds. On cue, we angels made our dramatic appearance in stocking feet and craft paper wings. I promptly slipped and fell on stage. Seeing an angel fall is very sad, especially for the angel who was trying to be perfect! In another such pageant, Mary and Joseph asked for a room at the Bethlehem Inn. The innkeeper, a tough boy, said gruffly, “Can’t you see the ‘No vacancy’ sign?” Joseph replied, “Yes, but can’t you see that my wife is expecting a baby any minute?” The innkeeper retorted, “Well, that’s not my fault.” Annoyed, little Joseph reacted impulsively and shot back, “Well, it’s not my fault either!” And this time it really wasn’t.