Monday of the First Week of Advent

Today’s readings

Could you do that?  You have someone close to you at home, and you know Jesus is near and one visit could heal her or him.  Yet, you realize the unworthiness that you have, that we all have, for him to come under your roof.  Would you have faith enough to tell him not to come, but just say the word.  Would you be confident enough that his word would heal your loved one?

Interestingly, these words are so much clearer in the new translation of the Mass.  We pray these very words just before we all receive Holy Communion.  We acknowledge our unworthiness, and we also express our desire that our Lord would say the word so that our souls would be healed.

That’s the faith we are called to have, and I wonder if we have that kind of faith when we pray.  Do we trust God enough to let him “say the word” and then know that we don’t have to set “Plan B” in motion?  Today’s Scriptures call us to greater trust as we begin this Advent journey to the house of the Lord.  In what way do we need to trust God more today?

The First Sunday of Advent [B]

Today’s readings

To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
In you, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame.
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

Those are the very first words in our new Roman Missal’s Proper of Time.  This is today’s proper entrance antiphon, and with these words, the Church begins the new Church year.  We stand here on the precipice of something new: a new translation of our Liturgy, a new Church year, a new season of grace.  We eagerly await God’s new creation, lifting up souls full of hope and expectation.  We come to this place and time of worship to take refuge from the laughing enemies that pursue us into our corner of the world.  And yet we wait for God on this first day of the year, keenly aware that our waiting will not be unrewarded.  This is Advent, the season whose name means “coming” and stands before us as a metaphor of hope for a darkened world, and a people darkened by sin.

I sure think Isaiah had it right in today’s first reading, didn’t he?  “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways,” he cries, “and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”  What a wonderful question for all of us – it’s a question that anyone who has struggled with a pattern of sin has inevitably asked the Lord at one time or another.  He goes on to pray “Would that you might meet us doing right, and that we were mindful of you in our ways!”  We so much want to break free of the chains of sin and sadness, and turn back to our God, but so often, sin gets in the way.

Whether it’s our own personal sin, which is certainly cause enough for sadness, or the sin in which we participate as a society, there’s a lot of darkness out there.  Wars raging all over the world, abortions happening every day of the year, the poor going unfed and dying of starvation here and abroad.  Why does God let all of this happen?

On Thanksgiving, one of the topics of conversation at the dinner table was who was going to get up at what unheard of hour to go shopping on Black Friday.  I decided to forego those particular festivities.  We know, though, that many did go out and shop for the bargains, and it seems like this traditional shopping day gets worse all the time.  This year, the news spoke of skirmishes and violence in at least a couple of different stores.  What kind of people have we become?  Is this the way we should be preparing for Christmas – the celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord?  Why does God let us wander so far from his ways?  Why doesn’t he just rend the heavens and come down and put a stop to all this nonsense?

There is only one answer to this quandary, and that’s what we celebrate in this season of anticipation.  There has only ever been one answer.  And that answer wasn’t just a band-aid God came up with on the fly because things had gone so far wrong.  Salvation never was an afterthought.  Jesus Christ’s coming into the world was always the plan.

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite Advent hymns this week.  One of my favorites is “O Come, Divine Messiah,” a seventeenth-century French carol translated into English in the late nineteenth century.  It sings of a world in silent anticipation for the breaking of the bondage of sin that could only come in one possible way, and that is in the person of Jesus Christ:

O Christ, whom nations sigh for,
Whom priest and prophet long foretold,
Come break the captive fetters;
Redeem the long-lost fold.

Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

As we prepare to remember the first coming of our Savior into our world, we look forward with hope and eagerness for his second coming too.  You’ll be able to hear that expressed in the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer today.  That second coming, for which we live in breathless anticipation, will finally break the captive fetters and put an end to sin and death forever.  That is our only hope, our only salvation, really the only hope and salvation that we could ever possibly need.

We want our God to meet us doing right.  And so our task now is to wait, and to watch.  Waiting requires patience: patience to enjoy the little God-moments that become incarnate to us in the everyday-ness of our lives.  Patience to accept this sinful world as it is and not as we would have it, patience to know that, as Isaiah says, we are clay and God is the potter, and he’s not done creating, or re-creating the world just yet.  And so we watch for signs of God’s goodness, for opportunities to grow in grace, for faith lived by people who are the work of God’s hands.

We wait and we watch knowing – convinced – that God will rend the heavens and come down to us again one day; that Christ will return in all his glory and gather us back to himself, perfecting us and allowing hope to sing its triumph so loud that all the universe can hear it, dispelling the night and putting sadness to flight once and for all.

Friday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Jesus says to us today, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  This includes all of us, past, present and future.  We will all live, in some way, to see the end of days, either here on earth, or from the joy of heaven.

So what will we see; what things will take place?  We will see the signs of a new creation.  Just like the first buds of the fig tree and other trees that Jesus spoke about, all of which signaled the beginning of summer, so the signs of the new creation are evident among us.  Sins are forgiven, people return to God, miracles happen.  Granted, all these are imperfect in some ways now, given that they happen to us fallen creatures, but one day they shall be brought to perfection in the kingdom of God.  Then, we will see “the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

And so, in these closing days of the Church year, we pray for the coming of the kingdom, and hope for the salvation of the world as Jesus promised.

Thanksgiving

Today’s readings: Isaiah 63:7-9 – Psalm 145 – Colossians 3:12-17 – John 16:20-22

I think, over the past year, that God has been teaching me to be grateful.  Not that I wasn’t a grateful person before, but maybe more that I am re-learning how to be grateful.  As a pastor, there are whole new sets of challenges, different from when I was an associate.  But there are whole new sets of graces, too, also different from when I was an associate.

That got me thinking about what Thanksgiving really means as a feast.  Sure, it’s easy for us to be grateful people when things are going along fine, and we’re not challenged, and we can easily see the blessings.  But how grateful are we when things are difficult and our lives are turned inside-out?  Can we be grateful anyway in all of that?

I think that’s what Jesus is telling us in our Gospel today.  “You will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.”  A holiday like Thanksgiving can be hard for those who are weeping and mourning.  And if Father Pat just stands here and says, “count your blessings,” that would not be a homily worth hearing.

So what is the meaning of this Thanksgiving feast?  Well, I think a lot of us know the story.  We learned in school that the pilgrims gathered in autumn of 1621 after a year in the New World.  It was a year of rich harvests, and they were thankful that they had survived.  So their gathering was a feast of giving thanks to God for what he had done for them.  They were thankful because they had survived.

But Peter Fleck, a Unitarian minister, suggested a few years ago that maybe that wasn’t it at all.  Maybe what was really true was that they survived because they were thankful.  Think about it, that year could not have been an easy one for them.  They were in a new land, vastly different from what they had been used to.  They had grown crops they weren’t used to and survived disease.  After all of that harrowing experience, they were still grateful.  Maybe that “attitude of gratitude” was why they survived.

Saint Paul had that notion, I think, in our second reading today.  Writing to the Colossians, he is telling them how to survive as people of faith.  He challenges them to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient and forgiving.  He tells them to love one another and be peaceful people.  And then he shows them were it all begins: “And be thankful.”

Notice how he says it.  He wasn’t asking them to feel thankful.  He told them to be thankful.  Gratitude is a decision, not an emotion.  Grateful people choose to look for the blessing in everyday life, even in hard times, and they thank God for that.  Grateful people choose to look for God’s presence in the midst of darkness, and thank him for walking with them on the journey.  They don’t wait to be grateful for winning the lottery or landing the big account at work or getting that promotion they were hoping for.  Instead, they seize the opportunity to be thankful for being.  They are thankful for having the presence of God on the journey.

As Catholics, we are a people who constantly choose to be grateful.  Our Eucharist is the Thanksgiving feast par excellence.  Every time we gather to celebrate Mass, we remember that God in his infinite mercy sent his only Son to be our Savior.  He came into our world and walked among us, filling the earth with his most merciful presence.  He journeyed among us, a man like us in all things but sin.  His great love led him to bear the cross for our sake, dying the death we so richly deserved for our many sins.  And then he did the greatest thing possible: he burst out of the grave, breaking the chains of death, and rose to new life.  Because of this grace, we have the possibility of everlasting life with God, the life we were created for in the first place.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember this awesome mystery.  Not only that, our Eucharist brings us to the hour of that grace, giving us once again a share in its blessing.  As a Eucharistic people, we Catholics are a people of gratitude.  That’s what defines us.

So how would a people defined by gratitude celebrate this Thanksgiving day?  Certainly we have made the best possible start: gathering for the Eucharist to give thanks for the presence of God and the grace he pours out on us.  Then we take that grace to our families’ own Thanksgiving feasts and beyond.  As we gather around the table today, maybe we can stop to reflect on God’s magnificent presence in our lives – in good times and in bad.  And then use that gratitude to make the world an awesome place – or at least your corner of it!

Gratitude is infectious – in a good way!  When we make it a constant spiritual practice to reflect on how God has blessed us, when we take the time to thank someone for something little they did that made us smile, when we show our gratitude by reaching out in service to others, others can become grateful people too.  A watching world looks at us Catholics to see if we really are who we say we are.  When we live as grateful people, our Eucharist is authentic and our witness is exhilarating.

Like those pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, maybe our gratitude can become the source of our survival through the hard times and the source of our joy in the good times.  May we never cease to sing the praise of God and to cry out in songs of thanks.

The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

This particular Gospel reading is sometimes difficult to hear, because I think it’s out of context enough that we could get the wrong idea about the relationship between Jesus and Mary.  It almost seems as if Jesus doesn’t care about his mother, and his brothers – whoever they were – that’s a can of worms I don’t care to open this morning!  I just know that if I treated my mother and my family like that, well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be too good.

But our gut – or rather our faith – tells us that Jesus and Mary had a relationship that transcended that kind of thing.  It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t care about Mary, it’s just that he knew he really didn’t have to worry about her.  She could take care of things herself, and when she couldn’t, well he’d commission John to take care of her at the foot of the cross.

And that relationship in which Jesus instinctively knew that his mother was okay and he needed to attend more to the people he ministered to is the reason we celebrate Mary’s presentation today.   As with Mary’s birth, we don’t really know anything official about Mary’s presentation in the temple. An unhistorical account tells us that Anna and Joachim offered Mary to God in theTemplewhen she was three years old. This was to carry out a promise made to God when Anna was still childless.

Though it cannot be proven historically, Mary’s presentation has an important theological purpose. It continues the impact of the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the birth of Mary. It emphasizes that the holiness conferred on Mary from the beginning of her life on earth continued through her early childhood and beyond.  We celebrate Mary, full of grace from the moment of her conception and all throughout her life.

We pray the words of Mary in the Responsorial Psalm today: “The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.”  Mary was always aware of the amazing grace that sustained her throughout her own very difficult life-long mission.  We are graced like that too, and we celebrate that grace with Mary today.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God; that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Monday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Right at the end of today’s first reading is one of the most chilling lines in all of Scripture: “and they did die.”  The people’s faith was sorely tested: would they give in and worship the false gods of the people around them so that they could have some kind of peace and security, or would they prefer to stand up for what they believed and more likely than not, give their lives for their faith?  Many gave up and gave in and worshipped the false gods.  But many stood their ground and clung to their belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But, let’s be clear about this: they all died.  In some way.  Those who were martyred literally gave their lives for the faith, we get that.  But those who chose to give up and give in brought about the death of their culture and the death of their souls.  Sure, they may have had some kind of peace and security now, but who would protect them if the people they allied themselves with were overtaken?  And that is to say nothing of their eternal souls.  They did die.

The persecution never ends.  It would be easier in our own day to give in and accept abortion as a necessity, or to accept whatever special interest groups think is best for us, or keep our faith private and never share it or show it in any way.  Our culture would like that; they would appreciate our willingness to blend in and not give offense.  But that would be the death of our way of life and our spirituality.  It will surely cost us to witness to our faith, to challenge co-workers when a business deal blurs the lines of morality, to insist that our children attend Church on Sunday before they go to a weekend-long soccer tournament, or whatever the challenge may be.

But better that we die a little for our faith than that we die without faith at all.

The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time [A]

Today’s readings

The rather obvious and certainly oft-repeated application of today’s Gospel reading lies in the very literal interpretation of the word “talent,” at least as it appears in English.  That interpretation goes like this: we have been given many talents, and it’s up to us to use them wisely for the benefit of the kingdom of God.  Woe to the one who ignores his gifts and buries them out of fear.  And that’s a wonderful message.  I could go there, particularly on the heels of our time, talent and treasure campaign.  But it’s wrong – that’s not what Jesus meant, and I think we have to dig just a little bit deeper.

The word we have translated “talent” here does not mean what we think it means.  When our English ears hear that word, we think gifts, we think of abilities, of things we can do.  But that’s not what it means in the original Greek.  “Talent” here does not mean gifts; a talent was a unit of money.  It was actually rather a large sum of money, equal to something like one thousand days’ wages, or what a poor person could have lived on for fifteen or twenty years.  So think about it, even the servant who only received one talent actually received quite a bit – he received what the average person would earn in a little over three years!  That’s a lot of money for anyone.

The next thing we have to look at is who it was that was receiving such a large sum of cash.  On first glance, seeing what it is they have been given, we might think these are senior advisers to the master, people who would have been in charge of his estate and his business transactions.  But that’s not what it says.  It says he called in his “servants” – so we are talking here about slaves, slaves – not business advisers.  And so these slaves are getting ten talents, five talents, and one talent – all of them are getting a considerable amount of money!

If we think of the master as God, and accept the talents simply as money, I think God comes off sounding rather harsh.  The poor servants differed in their ability; that’s pointed out in the story and certainly the master would have known that.  So why would God be so horribly harsh when a simple slave with limited capabilities does nothing with his gifts?  It makes us bristle, I think, to imagine God treating someone like that so poorly.

So I think this raises a few questions for us.  Who is the master?  What do the talents represent?  Why would the master entrust such a large sum of money to common slaves?  Who are the slaves?  And what on earth was that third slave thinking when he buried such a wonderful gift in the sand?

Well, first off, let’s suppose the master is God here – God the Father.  This isn’t supposed to be a perfect allegory, so let’s just bracket the harshness of the parable. And I think it’s our first reading that gives us a clue as to what’s really going on here.  That first reading speaks of the worthy wife whose value is far beyond that of fine pearls.  What, or rather who, could be that valuable?  Our theology teaches us that the husband in the first reading is Christ, the bridegroom, and the worthy wife is the Church.  So we are the ones called to be worthy, to be industrious, to take care of the poor and to fear the Lord.  Hold on to that thought for a bit.

Now the talents, they’re not abilities or gifts, and they aren’t simply money.  The Gospel parable says the Master called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.  What we have translated “entrusted” here means, in the original Greek, something more like “handed over.”  In just the same way, God the Father “handed over” his only Son to us, for the salvation of the whole world.  What could possibly be worth more than that?

Now the slaves of course are the disciples, they’re you and me, people of every time and place who Christ has come to save.  We are slaves to sin, and we need a redeemer.  Some are more open to redemption and to the work of Christ and the call of the Gospel.  They might get five talents or ten, or however many God chooses to give them.  These go forth into the world, pouring out those riches of Christ into a world that desperately needs salvation, healing and hope.  As that message goes forth, proclaimed and lived by disciples ready to embrace it, they are able to earn five more, or ten more, to double or even triple what they were given for the sake of the kingdom.

But some are not as open to Christ’s life and work and Gospel.  There’s too much at stake.  They worry about what might happen if our world totally embraced Jesus’ teaching.  They can’t get past what discipleship might personally cost them.  And in Matthew’s Gospel, this is the cardinal sin, because in at least a dozen places, Jesus says “do not be afraid” in one form or another.  That was Jesus’ message in Matthew’s Gospel, and so this third servant, who was afraid of what the Master might be like, buried his treasure out of fear.  And the parable points out that that fear wasn’t even reasonable, since he dealt so wonderfully with the other two servants, rewarding their work by calling them to share in his joy.

So today’s Gospel is a summary of the whole Gospel of Matthew that we’ve been reading with the Church this year.  We are told that the greatest gift is Christ, that we are called to live the Gospel, that we must take up the task before us without being afraid, that we are called to go out and invest Christ’s presence into a world that always needs to be renewed.  As we come here on this second-to-last Sunday of the Church year, we are brought to this little summary so that we might look back and see how we’ve done that this year.  Have we treasured Christ as the greatest of all that we have been given?  Have we taken on the mission without being afraid, knowing that the gift we have been given in Christ can make up for anything that we ourselves may lack?  Have we accepted that wonderful gift and invested it in the world, proclaiming the Gospel by the way that we live, challenging the corner of the world in which we live to take it up also, so that we might bring back another five or ten or a million talents?

Or have we been afraid, thinking that the Master is demanding beyond reason, afraid to make a mistake, afraid of what living the Gospel would mean for us, afraid of what it might cost us?  Because if we have lived this way, we have failed the mission.  Everything we have will be taken from us.  There will be wailing and grinding of teeth.

Here at the end of this Church year, we can renew our commitment, make a new year’s resolution, if you will, to live the Gospel and proclaim the kingdom in the year ahead.  It doesn’t have to be huge.  It doesn’t cost us anything, because everything that we need has been given to us.  Maybe proclaiming the Gospel means doing some kind of service for us.  Reaching out at a homeless shelter or at a soup kitchen or our own food pantry.  Maybe we’ll help teach a religious education class, or sing in the choir, or become a lector.  Maybe we’ll make an effort every day to put prayer in the course of our work day, and try to be people of integrity in our business lives.  Maybe we’ll read the Scriptures each day before we go to bed, even just a few verses, so that the Lord can change our lives and our hearts.  Throughout this Church year, we have received the greatest gift we’ll ever get – Jesus Christ the Lord himself.  Soon it will be time for us to bring back the gift with interest, taking a world of watching people with us. The Psalmist sings of our reward today: “For you shall eat the fruit of your handiwork; blessed shall you be, and favored.”  Come, share your Master’s joy!