Monday of the Second Week of Advent

Lectionary: 181

Our God will come to save us!
I will hear what God proclaims;
the LORD –for he proclaims peace to his people.
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him,
glory dwelling in our land.

Every year I have to stop at least once and remind myself how happy I am to hear the readings, prayers and songs of Advent. I will hear what God proclaims!
Isaiah was astonished by the miraculous bloom of the desert and parched land. How beautiful it is. 
I attended a simulcast opera a year or two ago. The theater was crowded, every seat taken, and I had to suffer through the quiet muttering of a critic as he talked with his erudite friend. He was not astonished by the soprano's voice or the tenor's skill. The choreography did not enthrall him, nor did the set fascinate him. He had seen the same opera before and, he said, it was better then. 
There are always critics who want to demonstrate their superiority by not being astonished when the desert blooms, the or sun rises, or an infant suckles at her mother's breast. They've seen better displays and don't hesitate to impose their views upon the unwary. 
They will tell us the flourish of spring has happened a billion times before; it's predictable and frankly boring. 
They have eyes but they do not see; ears, but they do not hear. They are like the idols of pixels and bytes they create. 
They cannot be saved because they cannot hear the word of salvation. They cannot be forgiven because they have not sinned. They cannot rejoice because their cup of joy is empty. 
Winter and Advent invite us to see beauty before the spring arrives. See it in the metallic grey sky, the brown grass and dead leaves. See it in the children who slouch under their school bags as they trudge into class, and teachers who dare to instruct them. See it in the Monday morning commute and the midday lunch break. See it in the retirees who begin each day with Mass. 
See it in the ability to see with eyes full of grace. 
Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him, glory dwelling in our land.

Second Sunday of Advent

Lectionary: 6

I am confident of this,
that the one who began a good work in you
will continue to complete it 
until the day of Christ Jesus.

I have known this fellow in the VA hospital for several years. When I met him he was quite athletic despite his periodic crashes with alcohol. He has always insisted he would not let that happen again. Repeatedly. Every few months. He says the same thing. He intends to control his drinking. 
Recently he declared he would not drink again. He cannot walk. He cannot live alone. He is dying. 
He will drink again, of course, because he has resigned his life and will to alcohol. It is a higher power, greater than himself. 
And yet, he says, he believes in God. Who else might have created the universe? But he doesn't believe that God can or should save him. He will do that for himself.
The Gospel of Christmas challenges us with the fundamental problem of our human nature, we cannot save ourselves. We need God. 
At Christmastime Christians celebrate the birth of "our savior."  After twenty centuries, the phrase is laden with history. For many people, it has a quaint, vaguely ridiculous sound, like something out of melodramatic 19th century plays. When our hero Dudley Do Right arrives with his white hat and white horse to save Nell Fenwick, our fair damsel, from the dastardly Snidely Whiplash, she cries. "My savior!"  
It's easy to laugh at these old cartoons. It's not so easy to look squarely at our helplessness. How long ago was it that our scientists, who pioneered new technologies and led us into the Industrial Revolution, warned us that we are destroying our planet? Our industrial and automobile wastes pollute the air; we trash the oceans with plastics and chemicals; we contaminate earth and rivers with toxic poisons. Many species of plants and animals have disappeared before our eyes. We were delighted to practice an ever-improving way of life; we're not so happy to see the consequences.
We know we must stop doing these things. Like my alcoholic patient, we know what we must do. We don't want to and cannot. 
We suffer the supreme irony: we must be saved from ourselves. Who could do that?
...the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it... 
We cannot undue what we have done. As my Veterans tell me, you can't unshoot a gun. But we can go from here with faith and in obedience to the only God who cares about us. "The Economy" doesn't care; Power doesn't care; the Planet might care but we know it did fine for billions of years without us. 
We turn to God who formed and called us from the Earth. With God all things are possible. 

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Collect of the Immaculate Conception

Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done wondrous deeds;
His right hand has won victory for him,
his holy arm.

When Bernadette Soubirous asked the mysterious woman her name, she replied, "I am the Immaculate Conception." The girl's pastor had been insisting she should ask the vision, "Who are you?" But when he heard the response, the priest exclaimed, "That's impossible! No one is the Immaculate Conception!"
For him the doctrine was an ancient teaching, recently declared infallibly by Pope Pius IX in 1854. He would have been familiar with the news out of Rome though the young Bernadette was not. 
The Church taught that Mary was immaculately conceived; that is, free from the guilt of Original Sin since her conception. But that the doctrine might define someone's name and vocation, that it might describe who she is, was too much for the simple pastor. 
Even today, few have thought deeply about the doctrine. To them, it's a lovely brooch, stored away in a dresser, to be worn on special occasions; but of no particular significance, like a bit of paste your grandmother wore. 
Christmas would mean nothing without the Immaculate Conception. The yuletide marks the beginning of our salvation, when the Word of God was enfleshed and lived among us. Having witnessed his birth, death and resurrection, we realize that we cannot be saved except through our flesh which is his. Baptized and sharing the Eucharist, we are his risen body. If he could offer us no more than teachings, with an insistence that we agree with his doctrines, we would still retain the rebellious body that wants what it wants when it wants it. 
But, someone might ask, what if our "souls" were saved and not our bodies? Isn't that salvation?
Without my body I am neither male nor female, neither tall nor short; I have no history, no identity and no kinship with others. 
At the end of Shakespeare's Tempest, Prospero releases his fairy servant. 
My Ariel, chick,
That is thy charge: then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!
It seems an abrupt and rude ending to a delightful friendship but Ariel has demanded release since the first act. However, Ariel is only a spirit, a puff of wind; sometimes played by a female actor; and sometimes, by a male. Without Prospero, Ariel is like a kite without a string, having no anchor, home, or relationship to anything or anyone. Nothing more than an idea. Neither he nor she, Ariel has no pronoun in our English language. 
And, a moment later, the magician also begs for release from the magical island/stage where he has lived a fairy existence. 
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
But you and I are not roles in a play and our loves are not virtual. Our existence is quite real; it is anchored in our bodies; each with its particular history of pleasures, pains, traumas and ecstasies; histories that did not begin the day we were born and will not end with our death. 
Our salvation begins with the birth of Jesus, which could not have happened without Mary's wholehearted willingness. God gives only the graces we're willing to receive; and because Mary was by her Immaculate Conception, ready to receive the infinite totality of God, she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Neither she nor any other child of Adam could be saved by anything less than the infinity of God. 
She received that Blessing and gave it to us with the simple command, "Do whatever he tells you;" namely, "Eat this bread... Drink this cup." 
This feast leads us more deeply into the penitential season of Advent, with its awareness of guilt and its promise of divine vindication. O come let us adore.

Memorial of Saint Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

"Do you believe that I can do this?"
"Yes, Lord," they said to him.

Unfortunately, in our English, the word believe has many meanings. It can mean, "What I suppose is a true fact, a bit of knowledge which I possess and claim." For instance, I believe the Mass starts at 10:30 am.
It can also mean only an opinion, or even, "I hope so."
Many people use the same word to describe their knowledge of God and the island of Formosa. They might say, "I believe there is such things as God and Formosa, though I've never seen either." But if they heard that neither exists they would not be much upset, though they might ask what happened to Formosa.
Believe is strikingly similar to "beloved" and, religiously, can mean the same thing. I hold this truth close to my heart as dear, as a clear guide to my attitudes, thoughts, words and deeds.
When Jesus asked the blind men if they believed he could do this, he was not asking about their opinions. He wanted to know if they would believe in him, even if he should be arrested, indicted, convicted, tortured and brutally executed.
Perhaps they didn't understand all that. They needed a healing and they hoped that he might perform that miracle for them. But he nevertheless asked them what they believed, as the elect are asked what they believe during the Easter Vigil service, just before they're baptized.
If we the elect are to see clearly who Jesus is and what he represents, we have to believe in him; meaning, I am willing to invest my time, energy, money and devotion in Jesus. I realize that my work, career and investments have to conform to this belief. I am willing to be known as a believer although some of my acquaintances may be uncomfortable with that. My family, too, will have to accept me as a believer.
The elect readily come together to encourage one another, to share prayer, to confess their sins, and enjoy their solidarity. They will volunteer their time, treasure and talent to their community, in support of the tradition which must be passed along to the next generation. Adults without children will not hesitate to make sacrifices for the education and formation of other people's children. We're all in this together.

The blind men wanted to see. But were they willing to see the world, their sins and the sacrifices they must make in the light of God's love?

Thursday of the First Week of 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."

Today's readings from Isaiah and Matthew invite us to consider the infrastructure of our faith, the rock on which we build our lives.
When the early Church pondered the mystery of Christ they were astounded that God would enter human history as an infant child, mature into adulthood, and begin his ministry as a man. They were even more amazed that the Lord and Creator of all should die on a cross, in the most horrible, humiliating fashion, to be raised up and revealed as our Savior. 
The whole incredible story, as astonishing as it is, is summed in the word incarnation, the enfleshing of the Word of God. 
The mystery is just as challenging today as it was then. Whereas the ancients were not especially surprised that a deity might have certain human characteristics -- greed, lust, pride, resentments, etc. -- people today think, "If there is a God there shouldn't be, and if he must exist he certainly should not get involved in human affairs." They want a godless world, and a worldless god. 
But God has stepped into our world and, just as he required a human body when he was born of Mary, he requires a human institution to preserve his presence today. 
At one time some overzealous Catholics insisted, "There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church." That has never been even close to official teaching, but it is true that, "There is no salvation without the Church." If we lose faith, the saving death and resurrection of Jesus will be forgotten and lost forever. His passion and death will have been in vain. 
That is a threat looming over the earth in every generation, and the Church always feels the challenge. It's not simply a matter of keeping up appearances; we must be here, a REAL PRESENCE in human affairs. Our fidelity must be integrated with our deepest urges. It must appear in our thoughts and deeds, the fruit of our hopes and prayers. 
And we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit, which is the dedication and energetic zeal of God himself. The Spirit of God continues to draw people into our communion. 
Blessed John dun Scotus explained it as a blessing and grace which God gives to his Church. Even when we seem to be failing catastrophically the Lord might place his finger upon a single word or deed, blessing it and making it superabundantly fruitful. Believers may die in utter frustration, convinced that nothing they said or did made any difference to anyone. "The world," they might say, "is not a better place for our having been here." But the Spirit of God will always have the last word and a resurrection follows every blessed failure. 
So we teach our children our faith; we welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned and continue to build up the invisible "Kingdom of God," never knowing what might come of it. So long as we do these good works in God's name they are built like a house on rock. They do not collapse. 

Wednesday of the First Week of Advent

Lectionary: 177

Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, went up on the mountain, and sat down there. Great crowds came to him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others. They placed them at his feet, and he cured them. The crowds were amazed....

I often use these gospel verses from Saint Matthew when I administer the Sacrament of the Sick. I am intrigued by the first words, "Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee...." 
The older New American Bible says he "passed by...." 
I think that may be a reference to Moses' pleading with the Lord, "I want to see your face!" 
God replied, in so many words, "No one sees my face! But I will pass by in front of you, holding my hand in front of you, and you will see the train of my glory as I pass by." 
(The train is not a freight train; it's the train like that of a bride's gown, which trails on the floor as she walks up the aisle. Kings and emperors were given to wearing long trains to impress their subjects.) 
So here is the Lord Jesus passing by the Sea of Galilee followed by the train of his glory:
Great crowds came to him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others.
The martyred Saint Lawrence, of the griddle fame, was a joker and the Roman church's treasurer. When the Emperor demanded that Lawrence hand over to him all the Church's wealth, the saint asked for a few days to gather it in one place. On the given day, the Emperor arrived to find a pathetic crowd of human beings, suffering disabilities of every sort. Lawrence proudly boasted, "Behold the wealth of the Church!"
The emperor was not amused. 
During Advent, as we are assaulted by a desperate economy eager to exploit our holy day, we realize how helpless we are before this campaign, and take our place in the train that is bound for glory, a most pitiful sight. 

Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

Lectionary: 176

Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, "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.
Today's gospel story describes Jesus' elation as the disciples returned from an experimental missionary tour. Saint Luke has told us,
The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.”
There are moments in our lives when the Kingdom of God seems incredibly close. Like the twenty-foot putt, they seem so natural and easy. They are charmed with simplicity; they keep us coming back to hope and love and the willingness to live by faith. "Why can't every moment be like this?" we wonder. 
There may be an answer to that question, but it's probably not helpful. Rather, we thank God for such moments of grace and tuck them away in our memories. 
Saints tell us, "When times are good, remember the bad times. When times are bad, remember the good times." 
When I suffered a long moment of great personal anguish and deep distress, someone told me, "Someday you'll look back on this and be grateful for it." 
I didn't want that advice and I would not say it to anyone. 
But I will admit I would not change the past if I could. Life is not supposed to be easy; I see no reason why it should be. Nor would I want to make it easier for someone I care about. 
Rather I hope that, like Jesus, I might be there with them during the most terrible moments, and during the most delightful.