Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent Meditation Week 3, 12/14/14

Reading 1: Isaiah 61:1-2A, 10-11

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.
Responsorial Psalm LK 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:

the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
Reading 2: 1 Thessalonians 5:15-24

Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.

May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.
Gospel John 1:6-8, 19-28

A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.

And this is the testimony of John.
When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests
and Levites to him
to ask him, “Who are you?”
He admitted and did not deny it,
but admitted, “I am not the Christ.”
So they asked him,
“What are you then? Are you Elijah?”
And he said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
So they said to him,
“Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?”
He said:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as Isaiah the prophet said.”
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him,
“Why then do you baptize
if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?”
John answered them,
“I baptize with water;
but there is one among you whom you do not recognize,
the one who is coming after me,
whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan,
where John was baptizing.

Welcome to Laetare Sunday.  The messages of today's Liturgy certainly continue the theme of reverent preparation, but there sounds also a strong hope that the new age is dawning.  

We are greeted by Isaiah's insight into the mission of the Anointed One--that this Savior will be fully prepared to complete the history of his God's people, even that all Creation awaits a transformation: As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations. The Theology of this day is a call to repentance, not in the darkness of the season, but in the light of a new springtime for the earth.  Every thing will change.

Theology is complex, but, as the scholarly Medievals often demonstrate, the process of classical theology is often rather linear and straightforward.  Moral principle, on the other hand, has every appearance of simplicity, but is often agonizingly hard-earned. So we are tempted to consider the Gospel for today as the theological entree for this pre-Christmas repast, and the earlier readings as appetizers. They are, in fact, strongly interdependent.

And indeed, the Gospel’s lesson is an important one.  John the Baptizer is challenged to clarify his sense of his mission against the insinuating, sneering suspicions of the “hired” interlocutors. As these actors will do later when they are sent to hector Jesus as he teaches, they are trying to make him appear a pretentious fool and impersonator. Of course the remedy against their behavior is to tell the truth simply and clearly. John told what he knew and what he did not know.

In many ways John the Baptizer remains a mysterious character.  The truth about John resides not simply in himself, but in the whole of the Covenant history.  So does the truth about Jesus--as Father Barron wrote this week, "...when you see Jesus against the backdrop of the great story of Israel, now you see that he's the savior." The same is true of John. John is seen as the last of the prophets. The Gospel, and even his enemies, place him in their line--Isaiah, Elijah and their great company, who by Jesus' day were figures of the past and of the future, interpreting history and preaching the coming of the Day of Yahweh.

By the plan of Salvation and the recognition that sparked between John and Jesus, John becomes a hinge-pin upon which turns the eternal Present of the Messianic age, the age of the Church. It is a tiny community of recognition who share this favor of infinite grace: Mary's cousin Elizabeth and her husband, the aged Simeon and Hannah at the Temple daily, Mary and Joseph, and John. This tiny fellowship begins God's sculpting of the community of the Church, which will not be ready to begin its work until the day of Pentecost.  But make no mistake, this is the Church in its prototypical pattern of brooding upon its transforming intimacy with the Son of God on earth.  They utter words of recognition--that times have changed and all earthly authority is overthrown.  Their greatest manifesto is Mary's prayer--the passage, called "Magnificat" from the Gospel of Luke proposed as today's Responsorial Psalm.

So, what? Well, we are in "this Present Age." We show up at Church because we recognize the now-Risen Christ present in the world through the outpouring of signs (if we will see them) of God's Spirit, through the Scriptures, through the communities that compose the Church and value its signs and traditions, through the Eucharist.  We are then called to do the work of disciples--part prophetic, as in Isaiah's enumeration of prophetic jobs, and part citizens of a Kingdom already established, as Paul's exhortation proclaims.

Here is Isaiah, urging the successors of the prophets to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God. 

Here is St. Paul, reminding the Thessalonians to BE the Church: Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.

Our job, like that of the earliest fellowship, is tho share in the mission of the prophets and to live fully in the assembly of disciples. Does that sound like a job description? It's ours--

Rejoice always; the Lord's approach is near!

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Advent Meditation Week 2, 12/7/14

Second Sunday of Advent

Reading 1: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14

Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.

Reading 2:  2 Peter 3:8-14

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day.
The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,”
but he is patient with you,
not wishing that any should perish
but that all should come to repentance....
But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,
be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.”
John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
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.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

It’s interesting that the Evangelist Mark echoes exactly the voice of Isaiah the Prophet as he begins his telling of the Gospel.  Actually, all the gospel-writers find the point of connection that helps us to understand the acts of Jesus in what goes before him. Matthew and Luke each give us Jesus the descendent of one of the mystical lineages of the Chosen People.  John gives us the philosophical descent of Jesus, the Logos--the Word or Mind of God--from the center of Being itself, the Godhead.  Mark, who always gets right to the point, does this with concrete events, by introducing the hard-to-miss John the Baptizer shouting truth and salvation in the Judean wilderness, and drawing a crowd.  

Who was going out there?  “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to see him.”  Why did they go?  They went “to acknowledge their sins” and “to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.”  Whose idea of a vacation in the country is this?  Think for a minute what moves people to such behavior; occasionally in history, this happens, but not exactly because it’s August in Paris.

People leave their accustomed environment to hear a message about human sinfulness and helplessness because something is very wrong.  In the case of early first-century Palestine, the common classes of the Jews were under the oppression of Roman rule.  One could live peaceably, but at a cost--limitation of basic freedoms, bureaucracy and harsh justice, and stifling taxation exacted by paid enforcers using strong-arm tactics. In addition, Jews felt betrayed by the backers of the local ruling dynasty, the Herodians, who bought Roman toleration of their rule and traditions at a cost to life and spirit the nation.  By the time another century would pass after the cessation of hostilities, the Jewish remnant of Roman ethnic cleansing, largely scattered in numerous diaspora communities, would blame the Herod dynasty for the greatest decimation of their history to that point--worse than the exile in Babylon.  They ultimately would expunge a number of late Greco-Roman era biblical books from their Scripture because these reminded them of a very dark period.

So the times were ugly, and the people sought refuge in God, hearing words of solace and moral clarity for their anger, anxiety and hardship. Isaiah's words in this light seem an incantation calling forth from the fiery desert a figure of truth--like the Baptizer.  Like Isaiah, John promises that judgment is coming in the person of God's Anointed.  This figure stands for a kind of justice that will mark an end to the reign of the power-mad and corrupt tyrants of the day--we can say of any point in history, practically.

But the Anointed also comes in response to another longing, one felt universally felt among all people, this for peace of spirit: "Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven." Worldly justice is but a prelude, a first stage on the way to a moment when everything will change.  Isaiah's power-metaphor of the world's physical renewal gives way to nurturing tenderness that is only the property of God: "the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; ...Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care."

Of course, John the Baptizer is among the tiny remnant of those alive at the time who get it right. Study well the Protagonists in the Gospel stories of the next several weeks. This handful of "nobodies" is the first community of faith, who accept with pious humility that the God of Mighty Acts has roused, hearing the cry of his little ones. This, says John, is the Time when water is no longer just the Jordan River's mere trickle, but a torrent of the Spirit, releasing a new Creation from the waters bound up at the start of time itself. John's "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" is but the visible appearance of what the human heart truly seeks--a complete transformation that addresses our temporal fears, but much more indeed: the deep dread of sin and death inherent in our fallen condition. John seems to know that Yahweh God is paying a visit, and he will submit himself in obedience before the Almighty. In so doing he will die to the powers of this world, as the worldly, venal Herod will have him murdered.

In the child that arrives in Bethlehem, grows up in Nazareth and walks with the people looking for John along the Jordan abides the great mystery of the cosmos: where in this world, parched lifeless and without hope, can we find a source of renewal in truth and justice, and a love beyond all human loves? For us, as for those who with John trusted and treasured the ember of faith in their gentle hearts, it is a hidden mystery, but one no less real for the fact that we are waiting for its fulfillment, knowing that there are witnesses to its incarnation.  Hence, the Church asks us to consider seriously the seemingly incongruous advice of Peter who reminds us of the greater dimension of the mystery of this "expectant Christmas."  In Peter's words, "But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace."

The newness of Creation is at hand. Have a blessed second week of Advent!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Advent Meditation Week 1, 11/30/14


 Comments on the Mass readings for the day.

Reading 1: ISAIAH 63:16B-17, 19B; 64:2-7
...There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us up to our guilt.
Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.

 Responsorial: PSALM 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
...May your help be with the man of your right hand,
with the son of man whom you yourself made strong.
Then we will no more withdraw from you;
give us new life, and we will call upon your name.
...Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.

 Reading 2: 1 CORINTHIANS 1:3-9 him 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
as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He will keep you firm to the end.

 Gospel: MARK 13:33-37
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

Beginning at the end of the meditation: remember that this season of Advent is the season to take the longer view of things. That is to say, beyond the jumble of our daily business we are invited to hope in the coming of Christ in its double sense--the immanent sense of the arrival of the baby Jesus present in our hearts and family hearths at Christmas and the transcendent sense of the Second Coming of the Risen Lord, King of Heaven and Earth, at the end of time. This much is true always and everywhere.

But for many reasons we are not guided by what is true. Our days are full: of distractions that compete for time and attention, and misplaced priorities whose result is often the loss of healthy self-direction and focus. We should never forget that Scripture is true for all. Isaiah is speaking about us  and to us when he complains that "there is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you." We are often looking elsewhere, leading lives that are subject to the morally ambiguous  rules of the world because we have lost the habit of looking beyond the world. God does not have to  work very hard to "hide his face" from us, because we no longer seek his face.

Our motives don't have to be evil; but, failing to trust in the invitation of God, we endanger our will to use fully the strengths given to us at Baptism, through the Sacraments and by our life as the Church. The Apostle Paul makes it a point to remind his hearers to remember the help God extends to us through the Body of Christ: "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." When we are too self-absorbed, we fall short of the goodness of God that can otherwise shine in our charity, our use of our talents, and in our clarity about the mission of our lives. We're drifters.

Of course, Jesus well knows the inner and outer natures of his followers. He knows we are drifters. Hence, “Be watchful! Be alert! What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’" This command transcends whatever work we do as servants of the Master. Clergy or lay, entrepreneur or wage-worker, knowledge-worker or heavy-lifter, it's all the same as long as we exercise vigilant attention for the return of the Lord. That means we are on our best behavior, exercising concern for the preparedness of the whole estate. If a fellow worker is struggling, we don't say "That's your department." And last of all do we ignore or stray from our charge and give in to the world's disorder. We can all see the contrasting approaches in our daily experience.

On "Black Friday" we saw video depicting a discount store melee over who would buy the last big-screen TV. The teenager who filmed the incident understood perfectly well the silliness of the adults losing all sense of focus and composure. Just a couple of miles away a significant line of contemporary Hobbits waited patiently for two hours, socializing or reading, sharing donuts and coffee. Granted--I was at a bookstore. But the demographics of the population in that part of town are  not so different, so we can't blame it on class. How to wait, and how to live while we wait, and what  to wait for, are the questions. "Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name. ...Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Two minutes on Why Theology Matters:

Friday, April 11, 2014

In Between Things...

...trying to read Scott Bakker's The Darkness that Comes Before.  A well-stated thought: 
 Achamian fully understood the geometry of Nautzera's world.  It had once been his own.  For Nautzera, there was no present, only the clamor of a harrowing past and the threat of a corresponding future.  For Nautzera, the present had receded to a point, had become the precarious fulcrum whereby history leveraged destiny.  A mere formality.

I know people like that!

Monday, April 07, 2014


"Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church is often labeled today as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, look like the only attitude acceptable to today's standards."

- Pope Benedict XVI

Summer reading

A new list of fantasy/suspense series, from

Monday, December 23, 2013

Advent Meditation, Week 4, 12/22/13

Isaiah 7:10-11,14--
"The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying: 
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; 
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
...Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: 
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, 
and shall name him Emmanuel."

Matthew 1:18-24--
"Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.  Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of The Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.  She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home."

Romans 1:1-2--
"Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy scriptures."

So, here we are--God-with-us, a time of signs, dreams and promises. The maiden betrothed becomes Virgin Mother becomes God-Bearer, Theotokos.  The Maker of the story writes his place into the story, altering not the story's logic (God always loves us), but the trajectory of events, so that all of Creation will be restored--the vision of Paradise as the place where God might walk with all His creatures in the cool of the afternoon.  This sort of reunion is not a third-party affair.  The Creator becomes the creature.  God chooses to live the drama, so that nothing is abandoned.  As Pope Francis said in his recent Wednesday audience, "Jesus is consubstantial with God, the Father, but also consubstantial with his mother, a woman."  

Has the mystery of the Incarnation become so trite to us that we lose sight of its arrival and too-quick passing?  Why meditate on the mystery of Emmanuel?  Two reasons:  one is personal and experiential and the other is, naturally, theological.  Perhaps it states the obvious to suggest that a hope for a worthwhile answer to the question involves something which must unite the two.  

There are certainly enough things that we can't fail to pay the dues on:  our spouses, children and grand-children; earning our pay and dealing as best we can with our domestic management; work issues and personal advancement as we try to follow our calling; political and social concerns that we follow because they make us fret over the future.  For those of us who teach or manage in schools, as I was reminded when I looked back at what I wrote last year when the violence at Newtown was fresh in our minds, there are other cares that darken the atmosphere and weigh on us, and these seem to recur with unpleasant regularity these days.

Others have felt the busy-ness, weariness and preoccupation that often erode our lives, from the ancient existentialist of Ecclesiastes to the poet Hopkins.  First our friend Qoheleth:  
"Again I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts; for a time of misfortune comes to all alike. Human beings no more know their own time than fish taken in the fatal net or birds trapped in the snare; like these, mortals are caught when an evil time suddenly falls upon them." (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)
Then we have Gerard Manley Hopkins, the quiet scholar-convert and Jesuit, a career Latin   teacher whose notebooks revealed riches of language and insight that place his poetry in the highest esteem.  First from “God’s Grandeur:” 
    "Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod."
And from the difficult “Carrion Comfort:”
"Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee."
That we suffer anxiety and frustration does not make us different; it places us in the long procession of humanity whose company Jesus specifically joined, and meant to.  

There are many ways to be among those whom Jesus called "the poor" and for whom the prophets were advocates, as "the widow, the orphan and the stranger at the gate."  Even those born into privilege are challenged--and it maybe harder for these--to find God-with-us.  Ahaz, king of the Southern Kingdom of the fatally divided Israel, is challenged by Isaiah to dream an outside-the-box kind of dream, a new hope for his reign.  Judah is threatened, and he lacks the imagination to rally his own people because he trusts in conventional alliances with perfidious neighbors.  So Isaiah, inspired, dreams for him, a vision of the true power of God making its silent, graceful entrance into some obscure backwater of the old kingdom--a birth that will make the concerns of Ahaz and all who think that nothing ever changes quite irrelevant.  

But the acts God do not just address the concerns of rulers.  A young couple, Mary and Joseph, also received the Word, announced by the Angel and realized by the Spirit and power of God.  Each in a unique way said yes to something that was truly outside the normal expectation.  How their affirmations must have changed things for them!  Mary’s life might have might have taken some very unfortunate turns, had her family and neighbors seen in her only a possibly promiscuous young woman, now with an unexpected and “marked” child.  Joseph could have been the stern young carpenter resting on his legal and social station, had he made the fateful decision to “expose” Mary to the Law.  But they held their Messianic secret closely, and walked the path of their own covenant to raise this child.  The dreams they dreamt truly reached to the 
netherworld--and beyond.

How is our response to God-with-us to be evaluated in this personal-theological light?  Do we move in the closed circles of our own narrow expectations, limited by today’s weighty concerns?  Do we instead dream Isaiah’s dreams, or Mary’s, or Joseph’s?  Do we fear to jeopardize our quotidian safety-net?  Or, does our path invite the greatness of the Love that came to the Holy Family, with all its risks? Saint Paul, with the persuasion of the deep transformation that began on his “road to Damascus” where he would meet the infant Church, chose to be “all in” with a new mission and a new identity--a “slave of Christ Jesus called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.”  We understand that he could have done otherwise.  

We will, whether we partake in the event or not, ultimately be part of the great events that our doctrine of the dynamic, loving God and God’s entry into our personal and cosmic history affirms.  The glory of Christmas is not only that God is with us--that much is given.  It is what will happen when we meet God-with-us.  We will meet Emmanuel, and we do meet Emmanuel.  As Hopkins says, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”  Will our dreams be great enough so that we can say yes, I will play too?

Prepare well; open your hearts; have a blessed Christmas!

Advent Meditation, Week 3, 12/15/13

James 5:8-10--
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand….
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Isaiah 35: 5--
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened… 

Psalm 146: 7--
The LORD gives sight to the blind.

Matthew 11:2-6--
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Three of the four readings from the Third Sunday of Advent make their centerpiece a powerful metaphor in literature and religion, blindness.  For our purposes, the healing of blindness is one of the amazements of God's promised reformation of the cosmic order.  All manner of healing will take place:  from the restoration of our wounded bodies as we live to the raising to new life of our mortal bodies at the end of time, to the restoring of nature itself, a new heavens and new earth. 

The first basis of faith is to find a way to be open to the literal value of the hope of Salvation working in the world, God-with-us one hundred percent.  Christians do not believe that their story is a metaphor, not even a good one.  The essential mystery of the Incarnation, affirmed in each Sunday’s recitation of the Creed, is that God showed up and walked among us, doing every last little thing that we have to do to get through a human life, however long or short, and transported our human nature to Heaven.  True, Jesus did not sin.  But sin is by definition something that  none of us HAS to do, so Jesus’ not sinning is not a disqualification from his dual nature as True God and True Man.  The story of Salvation is, as Tolkein and Lewis would put it, a fact--the one True Story.

John the Baptist, from his prison cell, expresses a doubt:  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?"  Momentarily, at least, he seems blinded and needing to look for some assurance from Jesus.  This Gospel reading is from a portion of Matthew that is full of quarreling. There is uncertainty, resistance and the beginnings of dissonance as his followers and other parties begin to awaken to the implications of His call. Jesus is about change, metanoia, “motion of mind and heart.”  As much as we might hope to see the truth about our need for renewal, doing so may be uncomfortable. 

The extreme, even exaggerated case of quacking before truth is alluded to in the Gospel passage. John’s plea comes from the prison cell where he has been placed for his humiliating criticism of Herod the Tetrarch, a petty despot of shameless concupiscence who had adopted the worst behaviors of the Greco-Roman aristocracy and recognized no boundaries of filiation in the exercise of his lust.  John had, as we know, called Herod out for his public adultery with his brother’s wife. John was imprisoned--probably in the vain hope that he would recant his accusation.  Ultimately John would be killed when Herod was backed into a corner by his equally impudent paramour who used her daughter to beguile the drooling Herod into handing over John’s head.  In the test of real manly character here, John wins hands down.  No one is more blind to the truth of his own acts than Herod.  His continued blindness when faced with Jesus, who would also be brought to his seat of judgment, is foreshadowed here, also. 

We have to hope that we can avoid being Herod.  The first step out of blindness is to affirm that God works in us and with us. Our job is to form ourselves, our wills, our relationships, and our world according to the messianic vision in its fulness. Jesus reminds John about these messianic signs.  The readings of all the weeks of Advent provide us with images of what God wants for us, and will bring to fruition in us if we allow God’s grace and power to work. 

But we have to know ourselves and we have to know God by knowing God-with-us.  St. Augustine, author of the first self-conscious spiritual autobiography in Christian history, wrote a poem-prayer whose first line is “Domine Iesu, noverim me, noverim te,”  “Lord Jesus, let me know myself, let me know you.”  The only way to get it right is to see ourselves in all honesty as we are, and as we are illuminated by God’s “kindly light.”  This is frightening to many, of course, for we all have a little bit of the stupid, gullible Herod in us.  Truth intimidates us.  At the same time, the Gospel truth is that we are the beings that God reaches for and suffers to save. 

The mission of Jesus is to bring to reality the prophetic vision of our restoration to wholeness within Creation and at the same time to guide us to wholeness of soul.  Our danger is that we will dismiss the literal reality of God’s full self-disclosure through the human Jesus because we hesitate to meet the life of God that exists within our own person.  Perhaps this realization is  part of what led John to ask his question--can this be true?  Isn’t it easier to wait?  Won’t we be let down if we commit with the fullness of our hearts and souls to the Kingdom that is at hand?  Having already made his very complete and dramatic witness, John experiences that sour note.  We don’t hear the rest of John’s story except second-hand, so we don’t know if he hears and accepts Jesus’ answer before his untimely death. It’s up to us to answer for ourselves.

The dramatic element in this story is Jesus’ challenge to John the Baptist:  Open your eyes in order to believe.  The truth has arrived. We must, as the wise elder James offers, “be patient” with ourselves, yet “make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.”  In so doing, we also prepare to greet the Christ-child, who would be with us, grow with us, walk with us and love us with all of God’s being. 

A blessed third week of Advent!

Advent Meditation, Week 2, 12/8/13

Matthew 3: 7-9--
When he [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these STONES.”

Romans 15:5,7--
May the God of endurance and encouragement
grant you to think in harmony with one another…
Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you,
for the glory of God.

Psalm 72:1-2
O God, with your judgment endow the king,
and with your justice, the king’s son;
he shall govern your people with justice
and your afflicted ones with judgment.

Isaiah 11:5-8
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
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.

"Peace be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things."

Next week the Advent readings will begin the True Story of the Savior's birth, thereby introducing the yearly telling of the Drama of Salvation that focuses the cycle of the Sunday readings.  Today belongs to John the Baptist. Urgency and dissonance again turn up in the readings for the week, especially the Gospel.  Matthew ties the Old Regime with the New in the person of the Baptist.  So this part of his Gospel just as easily belongs to the ancient law of piety and justice as to the joyful post-Resurrection awareness that illuminates the Gospel as a whole.

So John the Baptist is the last in the line of the Prophets, and he meets the standard.  He is inspired by God to speak difficult truth to those whom the people fear. The Men of the law and the men of the Temple wield both worldly influence and religious self-righteousness in first-century Palestine.  They feel no compulsion to be nice about it.  Nor do they feel compunction about what was apparently a shameless level of hypocrisy, so for show they come to the Baptizer who proclaims the prophetic message of metanoia:  change your mind and change your heart, for God is near and God's judgment is upon all.  John's swift condemnation of these characters exhibits not only the pure model of the Biblical prophet, but the gift of discerning the truth of human character, that which the rest of us hope and think is not so visible.  John has risked everything for God; he is formed in the fierce and lonely Judean wilderness, has felt the Hand of God clutch his innermost being, and has surrendered to Yahweh.  His recompense is to see his world and its justice as Yahweh does.  He knows with the mind of God where the poor stand and where the Pharisees and Sadducees stand.

John the Baptist proclaims a standard not one of us can meet.  As described by St. Paul, "all of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory."  It is the truth.  We SHOULD fear God's gaze.  All the prophets proclaim judgment.  But the same Mind of God that caused each of them to wince at the ability of the human soul to harbor a thousand faces of genuine ugliness also teaches a truth that is even harder to see:  that God's Covenant Promise stands strong still.  Even in the old regime Isaiah contemplated a vision of a world not only healed but brought to an impossible goodness.  Isaiah's metaphor is powerful, but it is the exact counterpoint to John's "brood of vipers"--"The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair."  God fashions a regime that is safe for those who will risk the return to original innocence and original justice.  This is the true and only metanoia.

Hence, Jesus comes and will come to teach the knowing and the living of the reign of God.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus preach the At-Hand-ness of God's work around us and in us.  It's appropriate for Paul to wish the saints of the ancestral Church, "May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another."  If we don't know and admit human sinfulness, we don't know much by anyone's standard.  At the same time that each of us ACTS the Pharisee, each of us is also called to LIVE the welcoming, harmony, gentleness and transforming charity of Emanuel, God-with-us and God-who-will-be-with-us.

A blessed Second Week!