Monday of the Second Week in Advent

Lectionary: 181

...and the power of the Lord was with him for healing. 

Perhaps we take it for granted that the power of the Lord was with Jesus but Saint Luke does not. We might suppose Jesus is God and can do whatever he wants whenever he wants. He has THE POWER and like Samantha in the 1960's TV show Bewitched, he throws it around at will. Or, like Darth Vader, he might strangle his opponents if he were so inclined, without laying a hand on them. 

Our religious imagination has been afflicted with these modern notions of Jesus' authority. It's something like "will power," which many people suppose actually exists. When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you; when you wish upon a star your dreams come true. 


If we're going to practice faith in Jesus we're going to have to discipline our assumptions and pet notions by the traditions and teachings of our religion. Neither Jesus nor any of his contemporaries watched television; nor had they ever heard of will power. That imaginary notion belonged to Enlightenment philosophers who never managed to connect their idea of a soul to something that exists in the real world. It came to be known as the "ghost in the machine." 

Jesus' authority to heal, as Saint Luke tells the story, begins with his willingness to forgive sins. 

And then, like the scribes and Pharisees, we have to ask, "Where does he get the authority to forgive sins?" They cannot imagine it. 

For that matter we never asked where Samantha got her power to create roast turkey dinners out of thin air. She twitched her nose? 

The source of Jesus' authority is as mysterious as, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood...." 

It has to do with his very deliberate trip to Jerusalem, his controversial entrance of the city while riding a colt, his appearances in the temple, before the Sanhedrin, in Pilate's chambers, and on Calvary. 

Jesus has authority to forgive this man because he is willing to pay the price of this man's sins. And then we immediately realize he has superabundant authority to forgive sins because the man rises and walks. 

His opponents could not imagine this. Neither could the producers of Bewitched and Star Wars. They like power. They'd be happy to grab for power, but not at the price of humiliation, suffering and death. 

The word advent means coming; during these weeks leading up to Christmas we contemplate the coming of such authority. It is like nothing the world can imagine or produce. They'd  like to think it's just will power, forgetting that will power doesn't actually exist in the real world. Willing it to be so never made anything happen. 

When Jesus forgives our sins and heals our wounds, he does it by paying the price of our salvation.

Second Sunday of Advent

Lectionary: 4

At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

I am old enough to remember the long lines in the Catholic churches during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. It seemed half the town, like the ancient Judeans, wanted to acknowledge their sins. Just standing in line was acknowledgement enough although it seemed no big deal at the time. Only a fool would not admit he sinned occasionally.
In those days we practiced silence in the church; talking was forbidden so we neither shared our confessions with one another nor speculated about someone else’s confession. The priests said nothing about what they heard but they assured us no one’s sin is very interesting. “There was only one original sin; all the rest are cheap imitations.”
This “confession of sins” is a gift of the Jewish tradition to our Catholic heritage. Impressed by the overwhelming love of God who rescues his people from distress time after time, we can only admit we have failed – again – to comply with God’s command, “You shall be holy as I am holy!”
But silently standing in line on a Saturday afternoon was a holy thing to do, a step back in the right direction.
If we have lost anything since those halcyon days it is not our sense of sin but our sense of grace. It disappeared under a tsunami of entitlement, which requires nothing of us, neither gratitude nor obedience.
I first noticed the plague of entitlement when I visited city and parish jails in Louisiana. The inmates told me how they had violated parole by enjoying simple, innocent pleasures. One fellow wanted to visit his children. Big mistake. 

Another fellow was arrested for shooting at tin cans with a .22 pistol. He was way out in the country, far off the highway, but someone ratted on him. 

These men had lived under the illusion of entitlement, permitted and encouraged to stretch the envelope of freedom. But now felons, they would have to watch every step and think through every opportunity. The least infraction lands them back in the clink. Their new restrictions are as rigorous as their freedom was reckless. 
Unlike entitlements, grace requires prayer and contemplation. Like sickness and death, it is neither deserved nor earned; it is given. But, like your cellphone, wallet or the "right" to bear arms, it's easy to misplace, not noticing its absence until you have a sudden, desperate need of grace. 

Advent invites us to repent of our sins and thank God for our blessings, especially the "freedom of religion." If we fail to use it, we will certainly lose it. 

Memorial of Saint Francis Xavier, Priest

Lectionary: 180

O people of Zion, who dwell in Jerusalem,
no more will you weep;
He will be gracious to you when you cry out, as soon as he hears he will answer you.
The Lord will give you the bread you need
and the water for which you thirst.
No longer will your Teacher hide himself,
but with your own eyes you shall see your Teacher,
While from behind, a voice shall sound in your ears: “This is the way; walk in it,”
when you would turn to the right or to the left.

A half-century ago, as I walked to school in Washington DC I noticed a narrow footpath that meandered up a hill toward Holy Name College, the Franciscan friary. The building housed our classrooms, and the friars' quarters, with ample space for other activities. I could see that the trail was not direct and sometimes I vaguely wondered about that.

Finally, one day, I saw two dogs winding up the trail; they had made it. At dog height they could not see what I saw so clearly, the building over the crest of the hill. Their path straightened out only when they came in sight of its roof.

I have come to suspect we humans are like that. We don't know half of what we need to know to get where we're going. 

This illusive mystery we call "Salvation History;" it describes the Big Picture of what God sees. Saint Paul described it as the mystery that was hidden in times past and now revealed to God's holy ones.

We mortals, even believing mortals, cannot descry its forms very clearly but we can find our place within that "history" as we attend the liturgies of the church. I have recently learned it took nearly four centuries for western Christianity to agree on the broad outline of our liturgical year! 

In it we discover Christmas and Easter, with their seasons of preparation and exultation. Here are the many feast days and memorials of our calendar; they're usually placed on the anniversaries. If we recall the death of a saint or the dedication of a basilica a year later, why would we not keep that anniversary five hundred years later?

Observing the liturgical calendar keeps us firmly placed in time, just as we are firmly placed in our local geography. We have a sense of the bigger picture, of Salvation History. 

Citizens of the secular world around us have little idea where they are going. Secularism offers neither destiny nor destination, and it's pretty vague about the past. (Who really cares what happened before the Internet?) They live from birth to death, from the past to the future, with -- as Chuck Berry sang -- "no particular place to go."

We know where we are and where we're going because we pay attention to Advent and the liturgical year. (Saint Francis Xavier died on this day in 1552.) 

Attentive to time and place we hear the angel's whisper, "This is the way; walk in it."

Friday of the First Week in Advent

Lectionary: 179

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
The LORD is my life’s refuge;
of whom should I be afraid?

Natural religion is genetically conservative; it remembers the days of yore when people were virtuous, when good was rewarded and wickedness was punished, and life was predictable. That there never was such a time does not worry the religious person. The illusion is precious, not the truth. 

However, Christianity, like its Jewish ancestors, remembers the past more clearly, that we have sinned, suffered betrayal and persecution. It teaches us that our salvation lies in the future, not the past. 

In today's first reading, the Prophet Isaiah promises,
"But a very little while, and Lebanon shall be changed into an orchard, and the orchard be regarded as a forest!" 
Hearing God's promises of future blessings shakes us out of reverie for the past. It reminds us to pay attention to this moment and the gift that is staring us in the face. 

I have to notice the "present tense" of Psalm 27, today's responsorial: 
The Lord is my light and my salvation.... The Lord is my life's refuge... Whom should I fear? Of whom should I be afraid? 
Fearful things have happened recently, with the election to the office of president of an entertainer/businessman who campaigned as a demagogue . Whether you voted for him or against him or preferred to sit out the election, you have to admit you don't know what he and his colleagues will do from the most powerful post on Earth. Can a single national election put a broken government back on track, and at what cost? My mind teems with ominous images of sudden, traumatic changes to our customs and laws.
I find myself praying more fervently recently; and staying in the present moment:
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The LORD is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?

Thursday of the First Week in Advent

Lectionary: 178

A strong city have we;
he sets up walls and ramparts to protect us.
Open up the gates
to let in a nation that is just,
one that keeps faith.
A nation of firm purpose you keep in peace;
in peace, for its trust in you.”

Jerusalem is one of the most important symbols of the Advent season, one which is often overlooked. The Holy City will appear frequently in our readings and our songs. It might be recognized as the temple, Bethlehem or the Virgin Daughter. 

In the Gospel of Matthew Jerusalem appears ominously as the kingdom of Herod, his advisers, soldiers and restive population. In Saint Luke, she appears more gracious; she welcomes the Infant in the persons of Simeon and Anna. The same city, in an Advent mood, will welcome the Messiah who comes riding on a donkey. 

Catholics readily recognize Mary as the New Jerusalem. Especially, in Saint Matthew's account, the magi will honor her as the Mother of the Messiah; the starlight reveals her as brilliantly as it was dark over Jerusalem. Mary is the New Jerusalem who abides wherever Christians worship Jesus, especially because, by the time of Matthew's writing, Jerusalem had been destroyed by Roman armies. The city was no more, and would not reappear in history for a long time to come. 
A strong city have we...
Many American Christians have hoped the United States might be that "city on a hill." The one nation under God might even replace the Church as the City of God on earth; it's sacred icon might be the American flag rather than a crucifix; it's pledge of allegiance should replace Sunday worship; the Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful and God Bless America should stand in for Christian hymns. It was supposed to be the strong, just nation that keeps faith, a nation of firm purpose kept in peace for its trust in God. 

Abortion, endemic racism, and genetic violence have laid those illusions to rest. Mortally afflicted with divorce, drug abuse and suicide the United States is only another short-lived empire. Its Christmas ceremonies make a mockery of faith. It must eventually take its place among other historic empires as another world order ascends. 

And so we turn back to our faith and hear the reassuring word of God: a strong city have we.... That nation is our faith, represented not by armies and government officials but by the Holy Season which comes to visit us again. 

Advent greets us with songs, prayers and sacred readings, with candles that are lit one by one. It tells us a dark, mysterious story of an old woman and a virgin girl, both mysteriously pregnant. It tells us of poor shepherds who see what emperors and kings never saw, and of magi coming from afar to worship what the locals ignore. It tells us of a couple who keep a deep secret, protecting it from hostile eyes. 

Advent bids us to be silent, to watch, pray and ponder. 

Feast of Saint Andrew, Apostle

Lectionary: 684

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

What one says with the mouth does make a difference. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous challenge one another to "Walk the walk; don't just talk the talk!" 

But the talk does make a difference. Once a man or woman has said, "My name is ___ and I am an alcoholic." it can never be taken back. Those words are out there in the minds and hearts of other people. They have changed everything; the universe has absorbed those words and been reconfigured by them.  

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 
Of course, words can be used to testify against the speaker. "He declared in the meeting he was alcoholic but he still frequented the tavern." or "She confessed that Jesus is Lord but she continued to swear like a sailor, drive like a maniac, shop like a pagan and lie through her teeth." 

Or they might be recalled in admiration, "She not only talked the talk, she walked the walk." "He professed his faith, renounced his former ways and found a useful place in our church." 

Without the practice the words are not meaningless; they stand like a curse in testimony against us. 

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Andrew, the brother of Saint Peter and one of Jesus' first disciples. Hearing the Lord's invitation, he immediately declared his faith in the Lord. 

In Saint John's Gospel he is one of two disciples who heard the Baptist declare, "Behold the Lamb of God!" He then went and told his brother Peter, "We have found the Messiah!" 

That is why we celebrate him on this last day of November, as we enter the Advent season. Andrew has appeared in the very beginning of Jesus' ministry and models our response. We hear, we follow and we invite others to come with us. 

It's fascinating that Andrew said nothing when he heard Jesus greet his brother Simon, "You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas." If Peter would be Jesus' right hand man and leader of the disciples, Andrew -- despite his seniority in the group -- would not object. He was happy just to be there. 

We too are grateful to have heard the call of Advent, to declare our faith in Jesus, and to take our appointed place in the fellowship of Christmas. 

Tuesday of the First Week in Advent

Lectionary: 176

“I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.

Saint Therese of the Child Jesus taught the world about "the little way." It would be the way she lived, quietly, in an isolated, cloistered monastery, out of sight, and unimaginable to the greater world around her.

When Jesus' disciples returned from their missionary adventure, astonished at their success, he praised God for the hidden things that were being revealed to the childlike.

These were mysteries beyond the imagination of the powerful, influential or elite of this world. His truths did not require sophisticated mind-games or violent efforts to believe the incredible. They did not need admen to promote them, or an army to persuade others to see them. In fact they were comprehended better by those who had little investment -- financial, social or educational -- in this world's thinking.

The mystery we should apprehend at Christmas will seem too subtle to many people. It will be like tea to coffee drinkers or lemonade to alcoholics. When we offer our explanations they just don't cut it.

When we offer our lives, they do. When they see our assurance in difficult times, our generosity in hard times, our courage in perilous times then they might comprehend this perfectly ordinary, little way Jesus has shown to the childlike.