Friday of the Second Week of Advent

Lectionary: 185

If you would hearken to my commandments, 
your prosperity would be like a river, 
and your vindication like the waves of the sea; 
Your descendants would be like the sand, 
and those born of your stock like its grains, 
Their name never cut off 
or blotted out from my presence.

Preachers of the "Gospel of Prosperity" love passages like the above, from the Prophet Isaiah. Whether their promises materialize, the preachers prosper and there are always gullible people to make that happen. They are neither innocent as lambs nor as clever as serpents. 
Reading passages like this one more modestly, we can admit that sociopaths, though they seem to prosper for the moment, are soon forgotten. The question inevitably arises, "Whatever happen to...?" and no one is too certain. They moved to another state, died or went to prison. They're gone and that's good. Survivors, remembering such stories, pull together more closely in mutual support
I have seen the wicked triumphant, towering like a cedar of Lebanon. I passed by again; he was gone; he was nowhere to be found. (Psalm 37
The faithful remain in the Lord, as the Jews have remained in the Lord for more than three thousand years. They have suffered greatly; their privileged status in God's sight has made them a pariah among the nations. Under the assaults of hatred, many individuals have renounced their Jewish heritage and roots; but even they are often tracked down and destroyed by God's enemies. The Lord promised Abraham "your descendants would be like the sand and those born of your stock like its grain;" and they have indeed scattered like windblown thistle to the farthest places of Earth. But their name is never cut off or blotted out
Christians share in this heritage with our Jewish ancestors. We are baptized into Christ Jesus and grafted into Abraham's people, provide we are willing to suffer with Jesus and his people. 
The prosperity Isaiah promises is that of Christ, whose tree -- the cross -- is incredibly fruitful. No one could expect such abundance from dead wood. 
"...wisdom is vindicated by her works." Jesus says in today's gospel. The Christian's sights are not set on short-term goals like upper class prosperity or middle class security. Unlike Americans we remember the past with its stories of persecution and prosperity. We remember celebrating Christmas Mass at midnight because the government did not suspect Catholics would convene in the middle of a winter's night to keep the festival. We remember Europe's largest community of priests, brothers and sisters in the Nazi deathcamp at Auschwitz. We remember Saints Peter and John felt honored to be scourged as the Lord had been scourged. 
Christian prosperity cultivates the poverty of Joseph, Mary and the Child Jesus as they found shelter in Bethlehem and refuge in Egypt and obscurity in Nazareth. 

Memorial of Saint John of the Cross, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 184

That all may see and know, 
observe and understand, 
That the hand of the LORD has done this, 
the Holy One of Israel has created 

"Let me help you." "No let me do this!" 
How often does this scripted conversation occur in our interaction with others? 
Here is the opportunity to collaborate, to share a project, address a challenge, and accomplish a deed together but the ego intervenes to sabotage the moment. 
The companionship, friendship or partnership might have been thrilled by the success of collaboration but had to settle for something less. 
"I will help you!" says the Lord who often appears to our strength in his weakness. My friend Father Urban Wagner used to say, "God is so considerate; he will never interrupt you while you're speaking." Nor does he intervene when we're determined to do things our own way. 
But when our best efforts collapse and we lie facedown in the mud of catastrophe he again comes alongside, bearing that too familiar cross on his shoulder, and says, "I will help you." 
Nine times the Lord says in today's first reading "I will" and then concludes with, "That all may see and understand that the hand of the Lord has done this." 
The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain, their tongues are parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the broad valleys; I will turn the desert into a marshland, and the dry ground into springs of water. I will plant in the desert the cedar,acacia, myrtle, and olive; I will set in the wasteland the cypress, together with the plane tree and the pine,
Here is a familiar crisis and an unfamiliar answer. The Lord references water, rivers, bare heights, fountains, valleys, desert, marshland, dry ground, springs of water, cedar, acacia, myrtle and olive trees. The Lord is talking about ECOLOGY! 
Can I offer a hand? Would you accept some help? Have you thought about prayer, discernment or reconsidering this strange notion of "progress"? 
Given that the United States is a major source of contamination; given that we know we're the problem, and we know what must be done; and yet we do not change our ways: our only hope is divine intervention. 
It happens -- and often -- but never over our objections. However, as more Christians, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans and so forth begin to pray from our helplessness, acknowledging that we cannot change our self-destructive ways, our ways will change as God's Spirit moves in us. 
Millions of people prayed throughout the Cold War and it did not erupt in a Third World War. It could have and might have but didn't. Instead, the unexpected and unpredicted happened; the Soviet Union disbanded. Obviously that was not "the end of history" as some thought, but it was a reprieve for which we're grateful. 
Future generations will look back on this era, recalling their great-grandparents and our prayers and give a sigh of relief as they realize how narrowly we escaped massive destruction. Some will read history with the eyes of faith and declare:
By the Lord this has been done; it is wonderful in our eyes.

Memorial of Saint Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

Lectionary: 183

To whom can you liken me as an equal?
says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high
and see who has created these things:
He leads out their army and numbers them,
calling them all by name.

Saint Francis of Assisi was profoundly impressed with the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. He is known as the Seraphic Saint because his spirit soared with the seraphic angels who surrounded the Lord in Isaiah's vision. Toward the end of his life, he saw a vision of a seraphic angel and bore the marks of Christ's stigmata on his body from then on. 
Isaiah's vision and teaching, of course, appear often in the Gospels. As the Evangelists struggled to make sense of what they had seen and heard they found ready answers in Isaiah. For that reason we often hear Isaiah described as the "first gospel." 
Approaching Christmas and Easter the Church often turns to Isaiah; his songs and prophecies seem to blossom during these spring-like seasons. 
Today's first reading begins with an invitation to wonder, "To whom can you liken me as an equal?... Lift up you eyes on high and see who has created these things!" 
Many Christians feel overwhelmed by the revelations of astronomy. The "known universe" is so much larger than anything our ancestors imagined. Our Hebrew and Christian scriptures were written when astronomers supposed the world was a flat disk and the stars were fixed in a sphere that whirled around it. With more study they developed an increasingly complex theory of many layers of transparent spheres at greater and greater distance to the earth; the furthest were whipping around at incomprehensible speeds. In fact, they had to spin faster than the speed of light! 
Copernicus and Galileo finally relieved us of such impossible physics with a "heliocentric" model; the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. But that theory soon collapsed as the spheres were still spinning at shattering speeds around the sun. Before most people could keep up with these astronomical theories with their distances that bordered on the infinite the universe seemed to surpass the imagination of God himself. 
Was it really plausible that the Earth should house the Lord God of such dimension? 
Critics mistakenly accused the medieval church of an earth-centered imagination which was now proven illusionary. In fact the medieval imagination saw God with his minions in the heavens as the center of all creation. The troubled Earth with its wars, famines, disease and death was the hinterland of God's governance; it still waited for his kingdom to be established. 
This updated theory of the universe with its unprovable suggestion of a multiverse, like the very stars our ancestors watched, still invites wonder. Convinced as we are that the universe is not infinitely eternal but "created out of nothing," we are again stunned into silence by God's challenge, "To whom can you liken me as an equal? Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these things: He leads out their army and numbers them, calling them all by name."
Today's Gospel adds another dimension of wonder to Isaiah's universal vision. Jesus' words -- "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest." -- call to mind the old hymn, 
He touched me, Oh He touched me,And oh the joy that floods my soul!Something happened and now I know,He touched me and made me whole.
Ours is a personal God who knows and cares for each one of us. 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches over me. 
Or, as James Weldon Johnson wrote, 
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,        85
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.        90
Amen. Amen.

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Lectionary: 690A

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! 
See, I am coming to dwell among you, says the LORD.
Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day,
and they shall be his people,
and he will dwell among you,
and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you.

The devout reader of the Prophet Zechariah would suppose rightly that "The Lord" is the "I" who speaks to daughter Zion (Jerusalem), assuring her that "I am coming to dwell among you." 
This dwelling of God with his people has been a constant theme for many centuries before Zechariah, who wrote in the sixth century before Christ. The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy record that divine assurance: the Lord will remain with his people. God was with them in the desert for forty years, in the tabernacle tent at the shrine in Shechem, and in the temple of Jerusalem. 
Catholics recognize that Abiding and Real Presence of God in the church and tabernacle to this day. We have only to find the burning vigil light in the sanctuary to be assured of His Presence. 
I am intrigued by the last clause in the 17h verse of Zechariah 2, "and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you." Who is the "me" who has been sent?
Catholics and Christians will readily agree this is a prophetic word about Jesus. Although the Messiah was not born of Mary for more than five hundred years after the Prophet Zechariah, we understand that these words constitute the promise. Jesus knew from the outset, and most certainly from the day of his baptism, that he was sent by God. 
But in the context of today's Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we know that the Lord God has also sent her to North America. We hear her voice in that ancient prophecy, " shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you."
In fact she was recognized and welcomed immediately by the Native Americans, in 1531, less than 40 years after their initial Encounter with the West. Suddenly relieved of the savage Aztec empire by equally ruthless Spanish conquistadores, the blighted poor found solace in the presence of this Mother of the Savior. If they could not relate to a Crowned Christ, they could recognize a pregnant, dark-skinned woman. Her infant will be neither native nor foreign but mestizo, a despised half-breed, a displaced refugee born in an unforgiving, hostile land. 
During the past year North Americans have been caught up in a furious debate about our history. How do we tell the truth of our past with its slaves and slaveholders, its cowards and heroes? Whom should we admire and emulate from the past. Which heroic ancestors will go with us into the future? 
Should we admire the conquistadores who brought the Gospel with them as they ravaged the land in their quest for gold? Or should we admire the poor who, despite their suffering, welcomed the story of a crucified savior and his impoverished mother? 
Should we admire the generals who led armies into a civil war or the slaves who created an Africa-inspired tradition of Gospel music? If there is only one God for slaves and slaveholders what kind of worship does He desire, that of conquerors or the conquered? We must choose carefully; it does make a difference. 
Our Lady of Guadalupe assures us she is with us in this strange, new and hostile world. She is still bearing the child in her arms that we might bow down and worship the one who conquered death by dying. 

Monday of the Second Week of Advent

Lectionary: 181

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not!

The Prophet Isaiah, reflecting the Jewish religion of his time and city, has a holistic view of God's action in the world. Grace enlivens the spirit; it also strengthens hands and knees, reassures hearts, and revitalizes the lifeless desert. God's mercy knows no bounds as it floods a barren world. Levies, city walls and personal anxieties collapse before the rush of God's mercy. Grace washes over a city like good news, like the day when we learn the approaching enemy has turned back or a threatening plague is abating. Anxious leaders and people can greet one another without demanding the latest news, without asking how much food remains in the granary or water in the cistern. People can laugh, flirt, tease and gossip again, knowing they had the same conversation last week, and will again next week. Grace, in Isaiah's vision, comes to all the people all at once. 
In a later time another prophet, Jeremiah, will experience grace as a particular action upon one person. He was given the grace of prophecy despite his initial reluctance to receive it; it would be a terrible burden for him. 
In our time, we think of grace almost exclusively as a blessing on one person: a vocation, calling or identity. The philosophy of individuality finds its Christian roots in that "personal relationship with Jesus." Isaiah would not have understood a spirituality that borders on narcissism. When God blesses one he blesses everyone. 
When people ask me about the shortage of priests I remind them there are more priests today than there was at the time of the Vatican Council. We have seen the Church blossom in Africa, Asia and South America. If Europe and North America have lost faith and the Church appears in decline in those western nations, it's because the flood of grace is not washing these parts as it does other places. 
That should come as no surprize to anyone who believes in the rights of an infant to be born or a child to parents who live with and love each other. Divorce, abortion, racism, consumerism, the cult of death and violence: the sins we take for granted as quintessentially American must have their consequences. The only churches that thrive in such an environment must obsequiously welcome and accept these abominations. 
The Catholic Church in the United States is more cactus-like; it may appear spiny and unapproachable to many but it contains rich graces for those who nestle within its juicy core.  
I love to hear these Advent readings from the prophets. The Word of God promises a new spring, almost unimaginable in its profuse fertility: 
For the vision is a witness for the appointed time, a testimony to the end; it will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. Habakkuk 2:3

Second Sunday of Advent

Lectionary: 5

People of the whole Judean countryside 
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

Much has been said lately in the national discussion about sin. I refer to the revelations of sexual improprieties by powerful men in church, government and the entertainment industry. 
The Christian surely notices how reluctant the media are to use the word. There is much said about power, harassment and exploitation; little mention of sin: venial, mortal or original. And yet the concept has so much to contribute to the conversation. 
During the Second World War, Reinhold Niebuhr, American Protestant theologian of the mid-20th century, in his Gifford Lecture, describes our human condition:
The high estimate of the human stature implied in the concept of "image of God" stands in paradoxical juxtaposition to the low estimate of human virtue in Christian thought. Man is a sinner. His sin is defined as rebellion against God. The Christian estimate of human evil is so serious precisely because it places evil at the very center of human personality: in the will. This evil cannot be regarded complacently as the inevitable consequence of his finiteness or the fruit of his involvement in the contingencies and necessities of nature. Sin is occasioned precisely by the fact that man refuses to admit his "creatureliness" and to acknowledge himself as merely a member of a total unity of life. He pretends to be more than he is. Nor can he, as in both rationalistic and mystic dualism, dismiss his sins as residing in that part of himself which is not his true self; that is, that part of himself which is involved in physical necessity. In Christianity it is not the eternal man who judges the finite man; but the Eternal and Holy God who judges sinful man. Nor is redemption in the power of the eternal man who gradually sloughs off finite man. Man is not divided against himself so that the essential man can be extricated from the non-essential. Man contradicts himself within the terms of his true essence. His essence is free self-determination. His sin is the wrong use of his freedom and his consequent destruction. The Nature and Destiny of Man. Reinhold Niebuhr (1941) ISBN 0-02-387510-0
This is a dense paragraph in a very dense book, but we should realize how this theologian understands sin. Because it comes from the deepest part of our nature, our will, we are responsible for our sin.
For that very reason, there is no technique (spiritual practice, philosophical adjustment or technology, mechanical or chemical) that can deliver us from sin. We cannot suppose that, "My better self will save me from my worst self," if I just try harder, think the right thoughts, or use a certain discipline (yoga, mindfulness, sensitivity training, wellness, etc.)
Of course, secularity rejects the Christian understanding of sin. Along with the recent uproar about sexual harassment some people believe this moment is the long-awaited tipping point when Good Men finally will hear women's complaints, join the movement and effectively uproot the culture of sexual harassment. They insist harassment is not about sex, it's about power; and suppose when men understand that, they'll Get It.
Awareness can help. Hearing the anger of our mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, nieces, and friends can certainly help. But most of the response will be simple denial: "I didn't mean it that way." "I thought you were okay with this behavior." "I'll never do it again." "Now I understand." etc.
The only helpful response must be, "I have sinned. I can neither change nor save myself. I am willing to obey God with my every thought, word and deed."
The will, which is the origin of sin, must become obedient to God, even as Jesus was obedient to his Father.  Under an obedience which is serious and eager, it's not that difficult to change one's desires. If, at one time, I wanted the pleasure of sex or the comfort of alcohol, I can now say "I do not want that!" without hesitation. Like every other decision, it becomes habitual with repetition. 
As we approach Christmas we are assaulted again with the question, "What do you want for Christmas?" as if placating my will, need, preference or desire can make a difference. The question is guaranteed to maintain the status quo.
The infant, obedient to Joseph and Mary, will show us the way.

Saturday of the First Week of Advent

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.

In today's gospel, Jesus exhorts his missionary disciples, "Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give."
Several years ago there was a serious discussion about the cost of clean air. Critics asked, "What is it worth to you? How much are you willing to pay; how much should we be willing to give for air clean enough to breathe? What restraints should we put on our economy, our security, and our way of life for the sake of clean air?" 
There were complaints that the projected costs were too high. It would take more sacrifice and more restraint than many were willing to make. They might travel less, shop less and consume less energy. They might have to set the thermostat down and dress warmer. Some merchants could not sell as much as shoppers want. Some airlines might fly fewer airplanes. People might have to be content with less than they want. 
Since that time the conversation has changed a bit. Engineers have learned to exploit alternate energy sources including wind, tides and sunlight. Though our energy consumption continues to go up, some idealists believe clean energy sources may overtake and supplant fossil fuel energy. They assure us, "There will be no need for sacrifice in your future!" 
Their promises sound vaguely like the promises of the Old and New Testaments, "The Lord will give you the bread you need and the water for which you thirst."
But the Lord never promises anyone a life without sacrifice. Nor does the Lord, as superabundantly resourceful as only God can be, hesitate to make sacrifice for us. 
The Christian, called to live like Jesus, understands a life without sacrifice is not worth living. The Christian, filled with the Spirit of Jesus, looks for opportunities to make sacrifice, and leaps at the chance when they appear.
That skews the whole discussion about taxes, for instance. 
Most people, even non-Christians understand we must give more than we receive in order to survive. That's common sense. The fact is I can never tally all the sacrifices others make for me; they are too many and, due to my callousness, I don't notice most of them. And, besides, when I keep score I lose my peace of mind. It's better not to.  
People are willing to make sacrifice when they believe their fellow citizens, church members, colleagues, or family are also making equal sacrifices. But they pull up short when they suspect someone is shorting them. 
The Christian, imitating Christ, continues to give, knowing that we cannot outdo God's generosity. Our standard is not other people but the Lord. We have seen the Father give his Only Son for our salvation; we have seen Jesus pouring out his blood, water, breath and life in love for us; we have found in ourselves an inexhaustible willingness, which is clearly a gift of the Holy Spirit. 
We can do this without ostentation for we trust in the words of Jesus, "The Father, who sees in secret, will repay you." 

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Lectionary: 689

In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory, we who first hoped in Christ.

I am still ruminating about a podcast conversation I heard on the subject of "God." It seems to me, if you don't want to believe in God, suit yourself; but let the rest of us love and worship and serve our wonderful God -- the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit -- who chose and  destined us in accord with His purpose so that we might exist for the praise of his glory, who first hoped in Christ! 
And if you want to believe in God, Come on in, the (baptismal) water's fine!  

It is such a consummate pleasure to love the Lord, especially the Lord God whom Mary worshiped with all her immaculate heart and beautiful soul. 
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is not an occasion for explaining our love of Mary. Anyone can look that up on the Internet. If you can explain your love for someone, it can't be much of a love affair. 
Rather, this feast day is an occasion of sheer delight. With today's gospel we relive that moment when the Angel Gabriel astonished the young woman with his Gospel, that she would be the mother of the messiah. She had prayed all her life for the coming of the Messiah; she had never dreamed that she might be his mother. Until that moment I doubt she had thought so deeply on the matter; does the Messiah need a mother? But then, where else would he come from? 
Is it any wonder she pondered these things deeply in her heart? Her contemplations began with the Angel's strange, unexpected greeting, "Hail, Full of Grace! The Lord is with you!" 
What could that mean? 
But before she could even begin to think about it, Gabriel went on,
Do not be afraid, Maryfor you have found favor with God.Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,and you shall name him Jesus.He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,and of his Kingdom there will be no end." 
That's six breathless ands, each followed by an astonishing statement about the Son she was not expecting to bear until just now.  Those six are followed by three more with the same earth-shattering news about the Holy Spirit and her relative Elizabeth and nothing is impossible with God! 
It's all so overwhelming and yet she -- this amazing young woman -- stands up before this perfect storm of blessings and says, 
"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.May it be done to me according to your word."
Let the skeptics stand back and be quiet for a moment while we weep for sheer joy. 

Memorial of Saint Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 178

Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.

Do you suppose there is some mysterious connection between our spiritual foundations and our physical infrastructures? Is it possible America's disintegrating bridges, roads, sewers, water mains and buildings tell us something about our spiritual life?
I have been amazed on occasion to see the huge projects that were undertaken by our ancestors as they built this country. I think of the hundreds of locks on all our major rivers that made them navigable. I think of the electrical power grids; I am astonished when I fly at night to see tens of thousands of square miles of urban landscape lit up by electric lights. How do they do that? I think of the interstate highway system that allows trucks and passenger cars to drive from California to Maine without stopping for a traffic light. The system was still under construction when I started driving. (It took an hour to get through downtown Wheeling, WV!) 
I think of the thousands of schools, from elementary to university, that were built to accommodate the Baby Boomers. New gyms and fitness centers appeared when we arrived at adulthood. But new hospitals and nursing homes are not being built today.
Planning infrastructure is time-consuming and contentious; building infrastructure is expensive; maintenance is more challenging than both. Which should we do: build a new cell phone tower to provide faster Internet access, or replace all the underground water pipes? Should we hot patch the potholes again or build a rapid transit rail system? Can we put off another year raising taxes to maintain old systems? 
Elected officials are loathe to raise taxes; it's easier to borrow money from old systems whose maintenance can be forestalled until they're out of office. Can a democracy deal with straitened economics? Or is a totalitarian government more agile for an aging nation?
The Old and New Testaments often remind us of the virtue of wisdom. Jesus has told us we should be as innocent as lambs and as clever as serpents. The devout are not those who pray a lot; they are those who live in the real world and make real world, difficult decisions and hard choices.
Those who listen to the words of Jesus and act on them don't expect life to be easy; they do expect to make sacrifice; they don't suppose they can live off the courage of their ancestors; they do plan a future beyond their life expectancy. Their nations are built on rock.

Wednesday of the First Week of Advent

My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.

There is something very human and natural about Jesus' decision to feed the hungry. His "heart is moved with pity" and he acts. Without hesitation or reluctance, without second-guessing, blaming or making excuses for why it might be better not to act, Jesus takes an inventory of their resources -- seven loaves of bread and a couple of fish, a meager amount -- blesses and distributes them to the crowd. Everyone is satisfied!
There are similar stories in the Old Testament: the Hebrews in the desert subsist for forty years on manna; obedient to Elisha's direction a widow filled several empty jugs with oil out of a single jug.
There are similar stories in our Christian tradition. Corrie ten Boom tells how prisoners in a Nazi prison shared a small bottle of vitamin-rich yeast a spoonful at a time for several weeks. Prisoners at Auschwitz, including Saint Maximilian Kolbe, shared their bread with fellow prisoners although they barely survived on a starvation diet.
Sharing is what we do. I don't believe the hypothetical explanations of this miracle -- that Jesus' example inspired the crowd to bring out hidden supplies of food. That misses the point entirely. Rather, God supplies where our efforts fail.
The fact is, we cannot feed all the hungry. True, we have enough food. But our methods of distribution fail largely because we don't want to feed the hungry. We do not have that intention to begin with. We use our food resources for other purposes; to enrich ourselves, to protect our inventory against a rainy day, or as a bargaining chip at negotiating tables.
We cannot overcome these short-sighted, fearful motives.
But the Sacred Heart of God is moved with pity for the crowd. He saves them from starvation.
Advent and Christmas remind us of our pathetic helplessness in the face of our own sin. Try as we might, we cannot save ourselves. The modern consciousness is outraged at the very mention of sin; they beat their chests and fiercely deny that fatal unwillingness to do the right thing. 
And so the Lord is born in poverty and helplessness to show us the power of weakness and the courage of obedience. Come let us adore him.

Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra's den, and the child lay his hand on the adder's lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.

The Prophet Isaiah never heard of Charles Darwin; he knew nothing of the "law of tooth and fang" or "survival of the fittest." He did not suppose the savagery of the jungle should be mimicked by human society.  
In this famous passage Isaiah looked for the peaceful cohabitation of apparent opposites. Predator and prey partake equally of nature's resources without fear of hunger or deprivation. They might even enjoy one another's company.
It's certainly an unusual vision, and especially challenging to our predatory customs. The American way of life is based upon a balance of opposing factions. Without that balance, we suppose, there is only tyranny. We want a three-way tie between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government. A two party system should not be controlled by one party. Labor is matched by capital, theoretically resulting in an egalitarian society where no one is too rich or too poor.
We assume conflict is natural and inevitable. We celebrate this vision of balanced opposition with an endless cycle of athletic contests: baseball, football, basketball, golf, tennis, hockey, etc. If anyone misses the point we'll add competitive fishing, cooking, dance and beauty (contests). Competition is life! It's vitality! It's reality!
It's exhausting. Many old men sit hour after hour in front of the TV, slavering as they consume ever more competitive visions.
Isaiah certainly knew of savage human beings. The threat of Assyria hovered over Jerusalem like an ominous cloud for centuries. It's soldiers and rulers subdued neighboring nations, maintaining buffer zones against Egypt and Babylon with murderous efficiency.
But in Isaiah's visionary future, "There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea."
Isaiah's vision sets the tone for our Christmas season. We hope for a day without war, without competition, when every child will have a new toy; and every adult, a home with food and drink. It's almost within reach and yet always out of reach.
"Look with favor, on our petition, and in our trials grant us your compassionate help...." (Today's collect)

Monday of the First Week of Advent

The mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: "Come, let us climb the LORD's mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths."

In today's gospel the Roman centurion represents the beginning of that vast parade of gentiles -- "all nations" -- who must fulfill the prophecy of Jesus:
I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven."
Impelled by human restlessness, they are drawn by the Holy Spirit which gives their endless migrating direction. Since prehistoric times human beings have wandered from the equator to the poles and back again. They flee flooding and fires, disease and famine, war and hatred; they search for a safe place to hunt, harvest and raise their young. Often warring over fruitful lands even as they exploit and destroy its fertility, they are driven to move again and again.
Homeless on their own planet, the human race finds refuge only when they arrive in "The New Jerusalem."
"What are you looking for?" Jesus asked two of John's disciples.
"Rabbi, where do you live? they answered.
"Come and see." he said.
The Lord invites us into Advent.

First Sunday of Advent

Lectionary: 2

You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?

Advent and the Christmas Season arrive in our churches today. They seem delayed this year.  Americans observed Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday last week, a long time ago by our standard reckoning. But Americans always rush to get the good things over with and get back to work. We make work of our leisure.
On this special day, Catholics will recognize many familiar signals of Advent's arrival: the four-candled wreath; the wonderful songs, (many still unfamiliar); the collect, "Grant your faithful...."; and the reading from the Prophet Isaiah, "You, Lord, are our father..."
Perhaps the frenetic pace of the world's Christmas has prepared us to enter the church this Sunday morning, sit down, take a deep breath, notice the altered environment, and relax. This will be beautiful.
Even Isaiah's anxious demand sounds familiar, "Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?"
For those who expect the Christian message to be a harangue, this is certainly familiar. But it might be like the habitual reaction of some people upon receiving guests, "What took you so long to get here?" It might not be the nicest, most polite way to greet guests but it's familiar, and there's no harm intended.
Certainly we live in a "Christian" nation that lost its Christian roots a long time ago. I recently listened to a "Christian" podcast that purports to address liturgy in America. In two of its shows there was little mention of Jesus and no reference to the Holy Trinity. They were more interested in the "image of god" as father or mother or genderless benevolence. To the Catholic, these images without reference to the scriptures or the doctrine of the Trinity are just idols. They mean nothing to us.  
Nor did these representatives of different Protestant traditions disagree with one another about anything! They were so agreeable! That seems like intellectual dishonesty; Christians always quarrel about something! But their cool, oh-so-friendly presentation sells their brand of deracinated (rootless) religion to an apparent audience that wants everything nice.
Catholic may be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief upon arriving in the parish church as Advent begins. How refreshing it is to be reminded of our guilt! 
We have wandered from God's ways and hardened our hearts. Because it's true, that's not hard to recognize or admit. Saint Paul stands up on this First Sunday of Advent to remind us,
"you were enriched in every way,
with all discourse and all knowledge,
as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you,
so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift...
The secret of Advent, revealed only in some Christian churches, reminds us that these spiritual gifts are not given to everyone, nor should they be taken for granted. We have been sent to our respective nations to pray for our family, nation and world. 

O Come, O Come Emmanuel!

Saturday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 508

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.

Some philosophers believe anxiety is the natural state of human nature. With a long memory of the past, handed from generation to generation, and aware that every decision is consequential we are caught between acting impulsively and not acting at all. 
We find more anxiety in knowing how little we know. Our best plans often come to naught because we could not see what was coming; although, in retrospect, it was obvious! 
Most Americans in 1860 did not think the Civil War would erupt after the death of a horse in Fort Sumter; few Europeans expected a universal catastrophe when an emperor's son was assassinated. In both cases the sleepwalkers woke up in the middle of a devastating war. 
By this time next year what will we think of what erupted in 2018? Will we wonder how we missed the obvious? The odds are good. It's enough to drive one to "carousing and drunkenness." 
Jesus urges us to, 
Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man."
If we're anxious, exhausted by worry, jaded, besotted, drugged, we'll probably miss the Opportunity of his coming. It comes every morning
But this I will call to mind; therefore I will hope: The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness! The LORD is my portion, I tell myself, therefore I will hope in him. The LORD is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him; It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance. Lamentation 3:21ff

Friday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 507

Consider the fig tree and all the other trees.
When their buds burst open,
you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near;
in the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that the Kingdom of God is near.

With two days till Advent, is it too soon to sing, "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas?" Most of the United States is well south of the snowbelt, so we're already seeing the brown and dull green of the yule season; we'd rather not dream of a white Christmas. A pleasantly warm day when the grandchildren can play outside would do just fine. 
And there are signs that the Kingdom of God is near. I don't refer to any apocalyptic omens in the sky, the usual round of catastrophes in assorted foreign countries, or the general decline of civility among Americans. 
Rather, I see people showing mercy to one another. For every mass shooter there are a thousand men and women who rush in to assist the wounded, comfort the dying, console the grieving, and bury the dead. There names will be inscribed in the Book of the Living when the killers are long forgotten; and their families, too ashamed even to mention their names. 
The Kingdom of God is near in our daily prayers; we act under the impulse of the Holy Spirit. We could not pray otherwise. We especially hear him in the Word of Scripture; and see, touch and feel the Lord in our sacraments and liturgies. 
Many of the Advent scripture readings refer to the natural signs of spring although we're in the depths of winter. We will hear of the seeds that germinate; "buds, burst open;" and crops, ripen as life returns to a dreary world. 
That life appears in us too especially as the familiar, achingly beautiful words of Isaiah and the other prophets invite us to hope again. 

Feast of Saint Andrew, Apostle

Feast of Saint Andrew, Apostle
Lectionary: 684 can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!

In his encyclical, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis insists that a Christian is also an evangelist. The roles are inseparable:
In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients. The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples”. If we are not convinced, let us look at those first disciples, who, immediately after encountering the gaze of Jesus, went forth to proclaim him joyfully: “We have found the Messiah!” (Jn 1:41). The Samaritan woman became a missionary immediately after speaking with Jesus and many Samaritans come to believe in him “because of the woman’s testimony” (Jn 4:39). So too, Saint Paul, after his encounter with Jesus Christ, “immediately proclaimed Jesus” (Acts 9:20; cf. 22:6-21). So what are we waiting for?
I can add nothing to the Pope's remark except to say, Pope Paul VI insisted upon this more than forty years ago (Evangelii Nuntiandi); and every pope since then has repeated the call, especially Benedict XVI who announced the Holy Year of Faith.
Each year Saint Andrew leads us into Advent. After a single meeting with the Lord he told his brother, "We have found the Messiah!" There is no clearer, simpler explanation of what it means to be Catholic. 

Wednesday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 505

Suddenly, opposite the lampstand,
the fingers of a human hand appeared,
writing on the plaster of the wall in the king's palace.
When the king saw the wrist and hand that wrote, his face blanched;
his thoughts terrified him, his hip joints shook,
and his knees knocked.

You've heard the expression, "the handwriting on the wall?" This is where it comes from, the Book of Daniel. People use the expression when they realize their best efforts must fail; there's no point in trying any longer. If they see the sign before anyone else they may be able to salvage their own investments while the rest collapse.
The end of today's scripture passage was lopped off; the thirtieth verse tells us, "That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was slain."
Reading further into the text we learn that the Lord of History revealed the future to the Jewish seer and advisor to the king. Daniel represents the inspired wisdom of God's people; they survived Belshazzar's fall as well as that of his successor, Darius. In fact, the story was written hundreds of years later, and that was thousands of years ago.
We've seen them come; we've seen them go. Kingdoms, empires, nations, cities: they enjoy their moment of glory; they suppose they must last forever; school children tire of hearing about them as they represent only the past.
Shelley's poem Ozymandias mocked the tyrants of the 19th century and the pretensions of 19th century cities.
We have celebrated Christ the King Sunday. With the First Sunday of Advent we are about to begin another annual cycle. Wisdom suggests that we ponder the brevity of our lives and the futility of our pretensions; we should consider our aspirations and ask if they are worthy of us. Do they represent eternity or only the present world? 
Shelley's poem, fixed by rote in the memory of school children, stands a better chance of surviving the ages than much of our failing infrastructure; but it too will be long forgotten as only the Word of the Lord endures forever.

note: Chaldean is pronounced with a hard ch, as in Christmas.

Tuesday of the Thirty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 504

"See that you not be deceived,
for many will come in my name, saying,
'I am he,' and 'The time has come.'
Do not follow them!
When you hear of wars and insurrections,
do not be terrified; for such things must happen first,
but it will not immediately be the end."

"Dog bites man. That's not news. Man bites dog. That's news."

Recently I heard an expert on terrorism remind the radio audience to be afraid when mass killings don't make the news. Fortunately they still do. Traffic accidents, tax evasion, drug busts: they're not news. They're absorbed into the daily comings and goings of a busy city. Exercise ordinary precautions and you'll be reasonably safe.
There are no effective precautions against mass shootings and truck drivers who intentionally run down pedestrians but they don't happen that often so don't worry about it.

The entertainment industry drives a lot of fear, sometimes quite intentionally. "Be afraid!" they say, "Be very afraid." That line first appeared in the film, "The Fly." It's great fun for some people; the rest of us can get on with our fearless lives.

Advent is about to begin. It will be short this year. Christmas is upon us. This is no time to cower in fear. Rather lift up your heads and expect to see the King of Glory enter.