Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

Today’s readings

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you,
many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

How willing are we to see everything and every situation as a gift from God?  Granted, sometimes that kind of attitude can be quite a challenge.  When everything is hectic at work, or when your work goes unappreciated, it’s hard to see that work as a gift.  When your kids are making you nuts or your spouse seems distant, it can be hard to see your family as a gift.  When aging parents are suffering from illness or children suffer from disease, it can be hard to see life as a gift.  There are many obstacles to seeing the beauty of every person and situation.

Yet that’s just what Jesus tells us we should do.  We are blessed to see what we see.  When I was in seminary, working as a hospital chaplain, I saw what seemed to be more than my share of death and disease.  My fellow student-chaplains were going through the same thing.  Then, one day, one of them brought in this very Gospel reading for discussion in the morning.  When we reflected on the truth of the reading, we found that we were able to see grace in the middle of all the suffering, pain and sadness.

Sometimes even when things are hard, God can accomplish great things by helping us to carry those crosses.  Even more important, God can help us to see great grace happening that would not otherwise happen.  It’s difficult to get there, but today we can pray that we would consider ourselves blessed to see the things we see, and to hear the things we hear.  Let us pray that God can help us to see the grace in every person and situation.

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.

The First Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

Sometimes I think when it was time to pass out patience, I was in some other line. Waiting can be a real challenge for me, and I usually fill up the waiting time with worrying or something equally pointless. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that. None of us likes to wait: that may be the hallmark of our current society. We want to get rich quick, have what we want when we want it, and if someone in traffic gets in front of us going slow, we go nuts. Well, maybe that last thing is just me, after all!

That’s too bad, really, because it means we miss a lot of stuff. When we can’t be in the moment, hanging in there and waiting to see what’s about to happen, then we distract ourselves with all sorts of things and really miss the grace that we’re meant to have. And to all of that, the Church gives us an antidote today. That antidote is Advent, the New Year of the Church.

And so we’ve gathered here today on the precipice of something new.  Do you feel it?  Do you come here with a sense of hope and expectation?  Are you on the edge of your seat?  Well, if not, I certainly hope you will be by the end of Advent.  That’s what it’s all about.  The readings for these four weeks will focus on hope and expectation and will give us a view of the salvation God is unfolding for his own people.  It’s a message that I think we need now, more than ever.

Just look around us. Yesterday, I was writing the Universal Prayers that we’re going to pray in a few minutes, after the Creed. I knew I wanted to have a prayer in there about all that is happening in Chicago, and I looked back at last year’s Universal Prayers for this First Sunday of Advent, and you know what? We were praying for Ferguson, Missouri. That gave me a little chill. Then there is the growing unrest with Isis, and so many terrorist events around the world. If ever there was a time for hope and expectation, I think it’s now.

We might need a little hope and expectation in our own lives as well. As we come to the end of the year, maybe this was a year filled with blessing or maybe it’s one we won’t miss. Most likely, it was a little bit of both. Perhaps this last year might have seen the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, or some other significant event.  As we end another year, some of us might be doing that with some regret, looking back on patterns of sin or the plague of addiction.  And so, for many of us, maybe even most of us, it doesn’t take too much imagination to know that there is a lot of room for renewed hope in our lives.

But it’s hard to wait for the fulfillment of that hope, isn’t it? If we can’t wait for Thanksgiving to be open before we go Christmas shopping, it’s hard to wait to see what God is doing in our lives. There’s a scene in the movie “Christmas Vacation” that I thought of when I was getting this homily ready. Clark Griswold is in his boss’s office, bringing him a Christmas gift. There’s an awkward silence and then he tells Clark that he’s very busy. He picks up the phone and says, presumably to his secretary, “Get me somebody. And get me somebody while I’m waiting!” None of us likes to wait.

So we have to find the grace in the waiting. Maybe that’s why I love Advent so much. I’m so generally impatient, that Advent has me slow down and re-create that space so that it can be filled with our Lord’s most merciful presence. So what do we do while we are waiting?  How do we live among the chaos?  How do we keep on keepin’ on when every fiber of our being wants to pack it in and hope for it all to be over real soon?  Today’s Gospel warns us that people will die in fright when they see what is going to happen, but it cannot be so for people of faith.  Even in the midst of life’s darkest moments, even when it seems like we can’t withstand one more bout of hopeless worry, we are still called to be a hopeful people.  “Stand erect,” Jesus tells us, “and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”  God is unfolding his promise among us and even though we still must suffer the sadness that life can sometimes bring us, we have hope for something greater from the one whose promises never go unfulfilled.

Then what does a hopeful people do while we are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises?  How is it that we anticipate and look for the coming of our Savior in glory?  Our consumerist society would have us get up at midnight on Black Friday (which I contend is at least a mildly evil name) and battle it out with a few thousand of our closest friends for the latest gadget or bauble or toy.  And to that kind of thinking, Jesus says, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.”  Getting caught up in the things of this world does us no good.  It does not bring us closer to salvation or to our God, and all it does is increase our anxiety.  Who needs that?

Instead, we people of faith are called to wait by being “vigilant at all times.”  We are called to forgive those who have wronged us, to reach out to the poor and the vulnerable, to advocate for just laws, laws that protect religious freedom and the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, to challenge world powers to pursue true justice and real peace, to give of ourselves so that those in need might have Christmas too, and even to love those who drive us nuts sometimes.  When we do that, we might just be surprised how often we see Jesus among us in our lives, in our families and schools and workplaces and communities.  It might just seem like Jesus isn’t that far from returning after all, that God’s promises are absolutely unfolding before our eyes.

We are a people who like instant gratification and hate to wait for something good to come along.  Maybe that’s why the Christmas shopping season starts about two weeks before Halloween.  But if we would wait with faith and vigilance, if we would truly pursue the reign of God instead of just assuming it will be served up to us on a silver platter, we might not be so weary of waiting after all.  That’s the call God gives us people of faith on this New Year’s day.

We’re gathered here on the precipice of something new, on the edge of our seats to see God’s hope unfold before us and among us.  Do you feel it?  Are you ready for it?

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 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.

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 lately, we long for peace in the world and even in cities and communities. Perhaps we long for peace in our families. 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.

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.

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.  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, 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 – 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. Be alert for that day.

The Ascension of the Lord

Today’s readings

For some reason, whenever I’m in the car with my mother, taking her wherever it is we need to go, we seem to get all the red lights. After we stop for a dozen of them or so, it becomes kind of a joke, and she just laughs and says, “well, it’s because I’m in the car with you!” What makes it so funny is that neither of us is really that good at waiting. But hey, are any of us good at waiting? We are a people who want to get on with it, we don’t like to stand around doing nothing. We want to come to a decision, to make things happen, to get it over with already.

So today’s feast is a little bit of a challenge for us, I think. The Ascension in some ways is the feast of waiting. The disciples in our first reading from Acts want to know if this is it, is Jesus finally going to restore the kingdom to Israel. And this betrays the fact that they’ve gotten it wrong once again. “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority,” Jesus tells them. They want to know the big picture, to see what’s coming next, and Jesus isn’t going to do that for them. They are just going to have to wait.

Waiting is hard for the Apostles to do. They have fervor having been with Jesus, but they were always getting it wrong. They are looking for the coming of the Messiah. They want Jesus to be the one to restore the kingdom to Israel. They want everything wrapped up, all of their hopes and dreams fulfilled, and they’d like all that to happen now, please. And who can blame them? Don’t we too have these same expectations of Jesus from time to time? Don’t we too want the wars in the world to come to an end and peace to break out all over the globe? Don’t we want to stop experiencing illness, and death and sin? Don’t we want the kingdom to come now, not later, in our lifetime, so we can see it? Who can blame the Apostles for not wanting to wait? We ourselves cannot wait for the fullness of the kingdom to be accomplished.

But they, and we, are told to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Because by themselves, Jesus told them, they can do nothing. It is only with the grace of God, poured out by the Holy Spirit, that anything worthwhile can ever be accomplished. Without the Spirit, those first disciples were always misinterpreting Jesus’ words and actions. Without the Spirit, they scattered at the first sign of trouble. This too, is something we experience. Whenever we attempt to do anything, worthwhile as it may be, without God’s help, we are destined to fail. We might want to better ourselves in some way, by giving up a vice or learning something new, but without God’s grace, it falls flat soon after we resolve to do it. We may want, as our Gospel says, to drive out demons, to speak new languages, to heal the sick. But how do we do that on our own? The answer is, we don’t. We too have to wait for the Holy Spirit.

Waiting is a spiritual discipline that we must all learn. The reasons to develop the habit of waiting are good ones. In waiting, we have that time out that keeps us from doing something wrong. In waiting, we gather better information and think things through before we launch into something the wrong way. In waiting, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit who leads us in the everlasting way. And that gift of the Spirit is absolutely worth the wait!

So today we stand here with the disciples. There are so many questions to ask. What’s going to happen when? How do we be a Church? What do we need to do to spread the Gospel to every creature on earth? But this isn’t the time to get all the answers. We will have to wait. Because now, our Lord ascends from our sight. In his glorified, resurrected body, he rises to heaven, returning to the Father from whom he came. Will we do the same, returning in our resurrected bodies to the Father? Yes. When will that happen? That’s not for us to know right now. Again, we will have to wait.

And so, with those first disciples, we stand here, peering up into the heavens, waiting for our Jesus to answer all our questions, to bind up all our woundedness, and to bring us all to glory. But we can’t go there just yet. And so, what are we doing standing here looking up into the sky. Jesus will return. We don’t know when; we will just have to wait. But while we are waiting there is much to do.

“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” This is important work that has been entrusted to us. Because the consequences are dire: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned.” And this task is given to us disciples. We have to proclaim the gospel in everything that we do. In the words we speak, in our actions and habits, in the love we bring to others – this is how people will hear the gospel. If they don’t hear it in your actions and love, they may never hear it in a homily or sermon. “Preach the gospel at all times,” St. Francis once said, “and when necessary, use words.”

So that’s what we are to do while we are waiting. We have to make sure everyone knows that God loves them enough to send his only Son to be our salvation. Jesus came to earth, taking on our human body, becoming one like us in all things but sin, walked among us and died the same death we all do, paying the price for our sins and obliterating the obstacles of sin and death that kept us from God. People need to know that and if they’re ever going to hear it, they need to hear it in you – in your families, in your workplaces, in your schools, your communities, wherever God puts you. And it is that gift of the Holy Spirit, that gift for which we wait on this Ascension day, that will give you the power to do that convincingly.

These last months have been a difficult time of waiting for me. I had asked the bishop and the personnel board of our diocese for permission to stay at St. Raphael’s another year. Because there is much that still needs to be done. But, this week, I was reminded that I’m not supposed to do it all. I learned that in the week after Father’s Day, I will be transferred to St. Petronille in Glen Ellyn, and that a new priest, a newly ordained priest, would be coming here to St. Raphael. So now the waiting is over, and the moving and the leaving and the saying goodbye has to start. Quite frankly, if there is anything I dislike more than waiting, it’s moving and leaving and saying goodbye. But that’s where life takes us from time to time.

You absolutely have to know that my heart is breaking as I leave here. You have been my family, and you have been the family that has formed me in my first years of priesthood and has made me always want to be a better priest every day. You have loved me into my vocation, and have been shining examples of faith and discipleship for me. You have prayed with me, and worshipped with me, and served with me. You were the ones who helped me through the illness and death of my father in my very first year as a priest. You will always have a special place in my heart, and I will always be grateful for the gift of having been your priest.

I hope that you give those same gifts to the new priest. He will need your love and support. He will need you to challenge and teach him. He will need your prayers. Fr. Ted and I will need your prayers too as we go through this transition. I’ll still be here for a few weeks, so this isn’t goodbye just yet. Instead it is a thank-you. And God bless you for being the people you have been for me.