Tuesday of the Third Week of Advent: O Root of Jesse

Today’s readings

In these late days of Advent, we pray the “O Antiphons.” These antiphons are the various titles of Jesus as found in Scripture. Today’s antiphon is “O Root of Jesse” and it is found as the antiphon for the Canticle of Mary in Vespers: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”

Zechariah in today’s Gospel certainly knew what it was like to stand silent in the presence of the Root of Jesse. Having been promised a son by an angel of the Lord – what one might consider a very trustworthy source – his disbelief moved him to silence in God’s presence. Here is a man who, one would think, should know better. But maybe his years of childlessness have led him to accept a life that was not God’s will. Certainly we could not blame him if the angel’s message was a bit unbelievable; we who have the benefit of so much science would probably be a little harder on the angel than Zechariah was.

When you’re accustomed to living without hope, any sign of hope can be met with an awful lot of skepticism. Would Elizabeth and Zechariah ever give birth to a child? How would that even be possible? Would God save the world from the darkness of sin and death? Why would he even want to? Can God be born here among us, giving us rootedness and a solid foundation for our lives? Why would he even care?

Better to be silent than to voice our lack of faith and hope. Then, in the stillness of our hearts and souls, maybe God can give rootedness to our scattered lives, bring hope to a world grown dark in sin and crime and war and too much death. Today’s Gospel has God bringing hope to a elderly, childless couple. God forbid that we would doubt that he could bring hope to us too.

We pray today: Come, Lord Jesus, come root of Jesse, give rootedness to our lives that are sometimes adrift in despair or apathy, give hope to a world grown cold in darkness and disappointment, give life to a people burdened by sin and death. Come, let us stand silent as we await the dawning of your hope in our lives, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay!

The First Sunday of Advent

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 the 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 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 disparaging enemies that pursue us into our corner of the world.  And 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 very name means “coming” and stands before us as a metaphor of hope for a darkened world, and a people darkened by sin.

When we’re praying through Advent, perhaps we feel a sense of longing.  We do long for that newness.  This time of year, we long for warmer days.  In the news, we long for peace in the world and even in cities and communities.  Perhaps we long for peace in our families, and ourselves.  As a community of faith, we long for the One who alone can bring the real, lasting peace that makes a difference in our lives and in our world.  We long for the promised Savior who will bind up what is broken in us and lead us back to the God who made us for himself.

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, we encounter so many obstacles along 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?  A quick look at the news leads us to ask ourselves, what kind of people have we become?  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.

[And so I think it is very appropriate that we welcome catechumens here on this first Sunday of the year.  They too wait and have longing for a deep relationship with God.  They yearn from the day when they will be given the fullness of salvation in the church’s sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation.  As we support them as a community through their time of formation, it is a sign of our hope for salvation, when God brings us all together to everlasting life.]

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 at Christmas, we now look forward with hope and eagerness for his second coming.  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.

All of this requires vigilance; we must be watchful, be alert, as Jesus instructs us in today’s Gospel.  We want our God to meet us doing right.  And so our task now is to wait, and to watch, and to yearn for his coming.  Waiting requires patience: patience to enjoy the little God-moments that become incarnate to us in our everyday 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, alert to opportunities to grow in grace, with faith lived by people who are the work of God’s hands.

We wait and we watch knowing – convinced, really – absolutely positive – 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.  Brothers and sisters, be alert for that day.

Thursday of the Twenty-seventh Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Listen to the voices of hope in today’s Liturgy:

“But for you who fear my name, there will arise

the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

“For everyone who asks, receives;

and the one who seeks, finds;

and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

“Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.”

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

The Divine Liturgist today is inviting us to find our hope in God, and inviting us to turn over our lives to God in hopeful anticipation that God will answer our needs. Sometimes I wonder how willing I am to actually do that. It’s almost like I want to pray to God just in case I can’t fix things on my own or work out my needs by myself. Kind of like a divine insurance policy. Maybe your prayer is like that too.

But that can’t be the way that the Christian disciple prays. We have to trust that God will give us what we really need. He certainly won’t be giving us everything we really want. And he probably won’t be answering our prayers in exactly the way we’d like him to. And we will certainly find out that he will answer the prayers of our heart in his own time. But he will answer. He will give to the one who asks. He will be present to the one who seeks. And he will open the door to the one who knocks.

The Christian disciple must be willing to accept God’s answer in God’s time on God’s terms. When we do that we might even find that when God gives us what we really need, instead of what we really want, our lives are so much more blessed than we could ever have imagined. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

So today I want to address a topic that I think doesn’t get enough attention, and that is the topic of hope.  Saint Peter in today’s second reading urges us to “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…”  And that’s a bigger challenge, I think, than we realize sometimes.

First of all, I think we don’t really understand what hope is.  In common usage, I think hope means something like a wish.  We often say, “I hope that …” or “I hope so,” as if to say, “It probably won’t ever happen, but it would be really nice.”  That’s not what hope means, and that’s not the kind of hope that Saint Peter is asking us to be ready to explain.  Even the definition of hope leaves this discussion wanting.  Merriam Webster defines hope as “to cherish a desire with anticipation; to want something to be happen or be true.”  Anticipation implies more than a mere wish, certainly.  But wanting something to happen or be true entertains the possibility that it will not.  That’s not the kind of hope we’re talking about either.

But Merriam Webster also provides what it calls an “archaic” usage, which defines hope in one word: trust.  And now I think we’re closer to home.  The hope that we have in Jesus is something in which we can certainly trust, because he promises its truth, and God always keeps his promises.  All we have to do is attach ourselves to that hope so that we can be caught up in it in all the right moments.So what is it that we hope for?  In what do we place our hope, our trust?  Maybe it would be better to ask in whom we hope: Jesus is our hope, and through his death and resurrection, he has set us free from the bonds of sin and death, and opened up the way for us to enter eternal life in communion with the Father.

Our world needs this hope.  Just tune in to the news to see that lack of hope: wars, skirmishes and unrest in many parts of the world; bizarre weather and killer tornadoes in many places of our country this spring; cataclysmic natural disasters over the past few years that have left whole countries reeling.  Closer to home, we could cite high unemployment, rising prices on everything from gas to food, violence in our cities, and so much more.  It doesn’t take much looking around to feel like there’s no hope of hope anywhere.

So the problem, I think, is in what or where that we place our hope.  Often we place our hope in ourselves or our own efforts, only to find ourselves at some point over our heads.  Or maybe we place our hope in other people in our lives, only at some point to be disappointed.  We sometimes place our hope in Oprah or Doctor Phil or their ilk, only to find out that their pep-talks at some point ring hollow and their philosophies are shallow.  You can’t find much hope in sources like these, or if you do, you might find that hope to be short-lived.  And so, as I said, if we want real hope something in which we can truly trust, the only place we need to look, the only one we should look to, is God.

Now, I say this, knowing full well that some of you have prayed over and over and over for something to change, only to be disappointed after you say “Amen.”  And there’s no way I’m going to tell you that all you have to do is pray and everything will work out all right.  God doesn’t promise us perfect happiness in this life, and so often we are going to go through periods of sorrow and disappointment.  That’s the unfortunate news of life in this passing world.  The sorrow and disappointment are not God’s will for us, they are by-products of sin – our own sin or the sin of others – and those things grieve God very much.

But even in those times of grief, God still gives us hope, if we turn to him.  The hope that he offers is the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, we don’t go through them alone, that God is there for us, walking with us through the sorrow and pain and never giving up on us.

Today’s readings give us a foundation for this hope.  In the second reading, Peter awakens our hope of forgiveness.  He says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.  Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.”  Even our sinfulness is no match for God’s mercy.  Because of Christ’s death and resurrection we have hope of eternal life in God’s kingdom.  Because God loved us so much, he gave his only Son for our salvation, and now we have hope of forgiveness, hope for God’s presence in our lives.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that we can hope in him because we will always have his presence.  Even though he ascended to the right hand of the Father, as we’ll celebrate next week, he is with us always.  “And I will ask the Father,” he says, “and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…”  We receive that Holy Spirit sacramentally in Baptism and Confirmation, and we live in his Spirit every day.  The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives gives us the hope that we are never alone, even in our darkest hours; that the Spirit intercedes for us and guides us through life.

We disciples have to be convinced of that hope; we have to take comfort in the hope that never passes from us, in the abiding presence of God who wants nothing more than to be with us.  We have to reflect that hope into our sometimes hopeless world.  As Saint Peter said, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.  Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” The reason for our hope is Christ.  We find our hope in the cross and resurrection.  We experience our hope in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.  We spread that hope in our hopeless world by being Christ to others, living as disciples of Jesus when the whole world would rather drag us down.  Even when life is difficult, we can live with a certain sense of joy, because above all, we are disciples of hope.

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent: O Root of Jesse

Today’s readings 

In these late days of Advent, we pray the “O Antiphons.” These antiphons are the various titles of Jesus as found in Scripture. Today’s antiphon is “O Root of Jesse” and it is found as the antiphon for the Canticle of Mary in Vespers: “O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.”

Zechariah in today’s Gospel certainly knew what it was like to stand silent in the presence of the Root of Jesse. Having been promised a son by an angel of the Lord – what one might consider a very trustworthy source – his disbelief moved him to silence in God’s presence. Here is a man who, one would think, should know better. But maybe his years of childlessness have led him to accept a life that was not God’s will. Certainly we could not blame him if the angel’s message was a bit unbelievable; we who have the benefit of so much science would probably be a little harder on the angel than Zechariah was. 

When you’re accustomed to living without hope, any sign of hope can be met with an awful lot of skepticism. Would Elizabeth and Zechariah ever give birth to a child? How would that even be possible? Would God save the world from the darkness of sin and death? Why would he even want to? Can God be born here among us, giving us rootedness and a solid foundation for our lives? Why would he even care?

Better to be silent than to voice our lack of faith and hope. Then, in the stillness of our hearts and souls, maybe God can give rootedness to our scattered lives, bring hope to a world grown dark in sin and crime and war and too much death. Today’s Gospel has God bringing hope to a elderly, childless couple. God forbid that we would doubt that he could bring hope to us too. 

We pray today: Come, Lord Jesus, come root of Jesse, give rootedness to our lives that are sometimes adrift in despair or apathy, give hope to a world grown cold in darkness and disappointment, give life to a people burdened by sin and death. Come, let us stand silent as we await the dawning of your hope in our lives, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly and do not delay! 

The Ascension of the Lord

Today’s readings

For the early Apostles and disciples, today’s feast had to be a kind of “now what?” experience for them. Think about what they’ve been through. Their Lord had been betrayed by one of their friends, he had been through a farce of a trial and put to death in a horrible, ignoble way, they had been hiding in fear thinking they might be next, they had questioned what they were supposed to do without their Lord, and then they witness the Resurrection: Christ walks among them for a time, appearing to them and making himself known. They had seen redemption of a way of life they almost had abandoned, and now, on this feast of the Ascension, their Lord is leaving them again. In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, you can almost feel the amazement and desperation they are experiencing as they stare up into the heavens, incredulous that their Lord is gone, again.

So once again, God sends two messengers, two men in white garments, to set them straight. God had sent two men in dazzling garments to the women at the tomb on the day of the Resurrection as well. That time, the men reassured the women that the Lord had not been moved or stolen, but had risen from the dead. This time, the men appear to the Apostles, assuring them that the Lord would return in the same way as he had just departed from their sight. Both times, it was the same kind of messengers, with the same kind of hopeful message. Go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

One of the great themes of Catholic theology is the idea of “already, and not yet.” Basically, that means that we disciples of Christ already have a share in the life of God and the promise of heaven, but we are not yet there. So we who believe in Jesus and live our faith every day have the hope of heaven before us, even if we are not home yet. And this hope isn’t just some “iffy” kind of thing: it’s not “I hope I’ll go to heaven one day.” No, it’s the promise that because of the salvation we have in Christ, we who are faithful will one day live and reign with him. This gives us hope in the midst of the sorrows that we experience in this world.

Another great theme of Catholic theology is that our God is transcendent, but also immanent. Transcendent means that our God is higher than the heavens, more lofty than our thoughts and dreams, beyond anything we can imagine. Whatever we say about God, like “God is love” or “God is good” – those things only begin to scratch the surface of who God is, because God is transcendent beyond anything our limited words can describe. But our God is also immanent. God is not some far off entity that has brought the world into existence and set the events of our lives in motion and then drops back to observe things from afar. No, our God is one who walks among us and knows our sorrow and our pain and celebrates our joy. Saint Augustine said that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Our God may indeed be mysterious and beyond us, but he is also the one we can reach out and touch. If that weren’t so, the Eucharist would be pretty meaningless.

As you can see, Catholic theology is generally speaking not exclusive. We are not either already sharing in the promise or not yet sharing in it, but we are “already and not yet.” Our God is not either transcendent or immanent, but both transcendent and immanent. These two great theological themes come to a kind of crossroads here on this feast of the Ascension.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, our share in the life of God and the promise of heaven is sealed. We have hope of eternal life because our Lord has gone before us to prepare a place for us. If he had not gone, we could never have shared in this life. So, although Jesus has left the apostles yet again, they can rejoice because they know that the promise is coming to fulfillment. We do not possess it yet, because we are not home yet, but we share in it already, because Christ is our promise.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, he once again, with the Father, is transcendent, because we, along with the Apostles, can no longer see him. But he remains immanent by his promise to be with us always. Again, I will quote St. Augustine who said of Christ that “He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.” St. Augustine teaches that the notion of time is that everything is present to God all at once. This explains how our celebration of the Eucharist in a few minutes brings us to Calvary at the moment when Jesus gave his life for us. And it explains how Jesus can ascend into heaven and yet remain among us. Time is a limitation for us humans, but not for God who created time in the first place.

All of this theology can be heady stuff, but what it boils down to is this: because Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, we now have the hope of heaven and of sharing in the very life of God. Even though we do not possess heaven yet, we know that it belongs to all who have faith in Christ and live that faith every day. And even though we do not see Jesus walking among us, he is still absolutely present among us and promises to be with us forever. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer which I will sing in a few minutes makes this very clear; it says:

Mediator between God and man,
judge of the world and Lord of hosts,
he ascended not to distance himself from our lowly state
but that we, his members, might be confident of following
where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.

Jesus, having explained the Scriptures to his Apostles yet again, tells them “You are witnesses of these things.” And so they don’t have the luxury of just standing there, staring up into the sky for hours, dejected and crushed because the One who had been their hope had disappeared. No, as the Gospel tells us today, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.” They are witnesses, “clothed with power from on high,” and they must be filled with the hope and joy of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

We disciples are witnesses of these things too. We must witness to a world filled with violence and oppression and sadness that our God promises life without end for all those who believe in him. And we have that hope already, even though not yet. We must witness to a world languishing in the vapidity of relativism and individualism and New Age Oprah and Dr. Phil philosophy that it is Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, who is one with us in heaven, and present among us on earth, who fulfills our hopes and longings and will never leave us. We must be witnesses to all these things, living with great joy, continually praising God because Christ’s ascension is our exaltation. We too might hear those men in dazzling white garments speak God’s words of hope to us: go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter: Hope

Today’s readings

Virtues are those habits and dispositions that lead us to what is good (CCC 1804). There are generally a couple of different kinds of virtues: human virtues (like prudence and justice) and theological virtues (like faith, hope and charity). I bring these up because I believe our readings today revolve around the theological virtue of hope. Hope is the virtue that recognizes our desire for happiness in this life and the next, which is an aspiration placed in our hearts by God himself (CCC 1818). This virtue of hope causes us to “desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817).

Hope is that virtue that gets us through the difficulties of this life with a view toward what is to come. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel, and not the light of an oncoming train! Hope is so necessary in every moment of history, in every society and in every person’s life. Hope holds fast to the belief that we are travellers in this world, that we are not home yet, and that the best is yet to come. In these Easter days particularly, the Resurrection is our hope, testifying that we have the invitation to life eternal, and the abiding presence of our God who made us for himself.

Our second reading today is, and has been through the season of Easter, from the book of Revelation. This revelation to John and his community was meant to foster hope among a people who were being persecuted. Because they believed in Christ, they were being expelled from the synagogues, and then, because they had no other religious affiliation, they were being forced by the Romans to worship their pagan gods or face death. They definitely needed hope! To them, John prophesies of the new heavenly Jerusalem, the Holy City, which would need no light from the sun or stars or even lamps, because its light was the light of Christ himself. Indeed, the very City was Christ, and all of the community could hope for the day when they would be caught up in it and all would be made right.

Our Gospel today, even though we are in the season of Easter, finds us before Jesus’ death. John’s Gospel always portrays Jesus as being in charge: he does not have an agony in the garden, but willingly lays down his life for us. So in this reading, fully aware that he is about to give his life, he seeks to give hope to his disciples who will surely grieve his loss and be filled with despair and even fear for their own lives. So in order to prepare them, he offers them peace, and the abiding presence of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will remind them of Jesus’ words and help them to integrate all that he has taught them. In many ways, absent this hope, we would not have Christianity today.

So hope was necessary for the first disciples, hope was necessary for the early Christian community, but it is also necessary for us today. Think of the many ways that our society beats us down. We can point to war, terrorism and unrest in so many parts of the world, and even in our own cities. We can look at traditional values degraded and open hostility to anything remotely Christian. We can also find distress in our own families, at our places of work, and in our schools. We may even be dejected by our own sinfulness, and the many ways that the world seems to take us away from God and family and community. We need that same abiding hope that the early community found in Christ and in John’s vision.

And we have it. Every time we gather here for the celebration of Mass, for the proclamation of the Word and the saving sacrifice of the Eucharist, we can see that this world is not all there is. We can see that God is with us, in good times and in bad. We can see that he is leading us to our true heavenly homeland, where all will be made right, and every sadness put to an end.

Saint Teresa of Avila wrote, “Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your Beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end” (Excl. 15:3 cf. CCC 1821).

And so we Christians press on as an Easter people, confident in God’s promises and filled with his abiding presence. We shed light on a world that can be dark at times, and we beckon all the world to receive the peace that can only come from our Risen Lord.