Thursday of the First Week of Advent

Today’s readings

There’s an old saying that if you want to hear God laugh, just tell him your plans for the day.  And we know how true that is, don’t we?  How many times have we had a plan for the day, only to have it derailed by whatever circumstances come our way during the day.  But I think the real problem with our plans sometimes is that we don’t always factor God’s will into our plans.  We want God to come to our rescue when things go awry, as they always do when we depend only on ourselves.  But if things are going well, we sometimes feel like we can do without God’s direction, thanks anyway.

This is the meaning of the song they’re singing about Judah in today’s first reading from Isaiah.  The people who are in lofty high places don’t think they need God, or don’t even give God a second, or even a first, thought.  And won’t they be surprised when God allows them to be caught up in their own folly and go tumbling to the ground?

This Advent time is a time for us to examine our lives and see if we might have thought ourselves to be lofty recently.  How much do we depend on God?  Do we rely on his help day after day?  Do we consider his will in our daily plans?  Are we open to the movement of his Spirit?  If not, we might find ourselves tumbling and falling.  But if we choose to be aware of God and our need for him, nothing will ever make us stumble.  As the Psalmist sings today:

It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in princes.

And so we forge onward in Advent, aware of the coming of Christ, building our houses on his rock-solid foundation.

The First Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

I don’t know about you, but I always find this weekend after Thanksgiving to be a little strange.  And I love Thanksgiving: I enjoy joining my mother and sisters in the kitchen to cook a wonderful meal, and spend the day with our family.  But this weekend, as a whole, has become rather conflicted, and it really seems to bother me in some ways.

Here is a weekend when we can barely clear the plates at the Thanksgiving dinner table before we have to make room for Christmas.  And I’m not talking about the religious observance of the Incarnation of our Lord, but you know I mean all the secular trappings of that holy day.  It begins about Halloween, or maybe a little earlier, when you start to see the stores slowly make room for the Christmas stuff.  They sneak in some “holiday” signs here and there, and start to weave the garland in to the end of the aisles, just past the Halloween costumes.  On Thanksgiving day, you hear the great “thud” of the daily newspaper, heavier than it is on most Sundays because of all the “Black Friday” sales.

And then there’s Black Friday itself, which now starts bright and early on Thursday morning – Thursday, you know, Thanksgiving Day.  We then get to be treated to Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  I can hardly wait for what they’ll come up with for Tuesday, Wednesday, and the rest of the week.  What a commercial mess this has all become, what a sad commentary on what makes our society tick.  We barely have time to gather up the pumpkins and corn stalks and autumn leaves before we have to set out the Christmas stockings and brightly-lit trees and candy canes.  None of which has anything to do with the birth of our Lord.

This is a weekend that has always brought a lot of conflicting emotions for me.  As a Liturgist, I want to celebrate Advent, but we don’t get to do that at least in the secular world.  And I’m not a Scrooge or a Grinch – I love Christmas, but I’d like to experience the eager expectation of it, and to be mindful of the real gift of Christmas, before we launch headlong into the real sappy Christmas songs that get played over and over and over in the stores and on the secular radio stations.  I’d like to savor the expectation of Advent before we have to deck the halls and all the rest of it.

And, for a lot of people, these upcoming Christmas holidays are hard.  Maybe they’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job or house, or who knows what calamity.  The synthetic joy of these holidays just heightens their grief, and that makes this season anything but joyful for them.  I remember the year my grandmother on dad’s side passed away.  I went into a store one day in Glen Ellyn about this time of year, and it was decorated with all sorts of subdued lighting and homey Christmas motifs, and I had this feeling of grief that was just overwhelming – it came at me out of nowhere, and I had to leave the store in tears for no apparent reason.  Grief tends to sneak up on us, and sometimes the joy that others are experiencing amplifies the sadness that we feel when we are still mourning.

The emotions we feel at this time of year are palpable and often conflicted.  The Church knows this, and in Her great wisdom, gives us the season of Advent every year.  It’s a season that recognizes that there is this hole in our hearts that needs to be filled up with something.  That something isn’t going to be an item you can pick up on Black Friday, or a trite holiday jingle, or even a gingerbread-flavored libation.  Those things can’t possibly fill up our personal sadness, or the lack of peace in the world, or the cynicism and apathy that plague our world and confront us day after day.

And so in our readings today, rather boldly, the Church is telling us to cut out all of this nonsense and get serious about our eternity.  Because if we’re only living from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, we are going to be left behind with our cheap electronics and gaudy trinkets, and have none of the real riches of the Kingdom of God.

And so our first reading, from the second chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy, has us taking a step back to look at our lives:  “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”  We need to go a little higher and look down on what we’ve become in order to see how we fit into the bigger picture.  Do we see ourselves as concerned about peace and justice in the world, looking out for the needs of the needy and the marginalized, blanketing our world in holiness and calling it to become bright and beautiful as it walks in the light of the Lord?

Or do we take part in those deeds of darkness that Saint Paul writes about in his letter to the Romans today?  Do we perpetuate orgies and drunkenness, promiscuity and lust, rivalries and jealousy?  Do we participate in these dark deeds to the point of giving scandal to those who carefully watch the activities of people of faith?  If we do, then Saint Paul clearly commands us to get our act together:  “Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us conduct ourselves properly…”

So this Advent season is clearly about something more than hanging up pretty decorations for a birthday party.  It’s definitely about something more than perpetuating rampant consumerism and secularism.  The stakes are too high for that.  Because while we are distracted by all of that fake joy, we are in danger of missing the real joy for which we were created.  Just as in the days of Noah, as Jesus points out in our Gospel today, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, so it will be in the coming Day of the Lord.  Just as those oblivious ones were surprised by the flood, we too are in danger of being surprised by the second coming.  God forbid that two men are hanging lights on the house when one is taken and the other is left.  Or that two women are getting some crazy deals at Macy’s and one is taken and the other is left.  We have to be prepared, because at an hour we do not expect, our Lord will certainly return.

Don’t get me wrong: the return of our Lord is not something to be feared.  Indeed, we eagerly await that coming in these Advent days.  I’m just saying that if we aren’t attentive to our spiritual lives, if we aren’t zealous about living the Gospel, if we aren’t intentional about making time for worship and deepening our relationship with the Lord, then we are going to miss out on something pretty wonderful.  We have to stay awake, we have to live in the Lord’s daylight and not prefer the world’s darkness, we have to eagerly expect our Lord’s birth into our hearts and souls, right here and now, and not in some distant day.

Or we’ll miss it.  God forbid, we’ll miss it.

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.

First Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

“To you, my God, I lift my soul,
I trust in you; let me never come to shame.
Do not let my enemies laugh at me.
No one who waits for you is ever put to shame.”

With these words of the proper entrance antiphon today, the Church begins the new Church year.  We stand here on the precipice of something new, a 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!”  Almost as if to say, “Yeah, that’ll happen!”

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 had absolutely no desire to join thousands of my closest friends at the crack of dawn to participate in a frenzy of consumerism.  But many did (and don’t worry; I won’t take a show of hands!).  But it seems like this traditional shopping day gets worse all the time.  This year, the news spoke of a Wal-Mart employee in New York who was trampled to death by people trying to get into the store.  A gunfight broke out at a Toys R Us in southern California and two people were killed.  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?  It’s no wonder the Psalmist sings today, “Lord, make us turn to you; show us your face and we shall be saved.”

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; that Christ will return in all his glory and gather us back to himself, perfecting us and allowing hope to sing its triumph at the top of our lungs, dispelling the night and putting sadness to flight once and for all.

“To you, my God, I lift my soul,
I trust in you; let me never come to shame.
Do not let my enemies laugh at me.
No one who waits for you is ever put to shame.”