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Archive for December, 2007

A lot of mental and emotional interference takes place when we hear the readings for this feast. People tend to focus on the line from the Letter to Colossians about wives being subordinate to their husbands, or parents and children exchange looks at the line, “Children, obey your parents in everything.” Most of us don’t want to return to the “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” era’s way of defining family relationships, and it can be hard to see past the superficial interpretation we put on these readings.

We tend to be either cynical and dismissive of this feast or we over-idealize the idea of family. People with unpleasant memories of an abusive or dysfunctional childhood resent the notion that all families should be just like Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Paul tells the Colossians to forgive one another, but we know that some people might not yet be at a point in their healing where forgiveness is possible.
When we hear the phrase Holy Family, too often we think of something that’s “holy card” perfect, instead of the deeply sacred, graced-by-God reality of Mary, Joseph and Jesus—but also of our own families, whether those of blood or those intimate communities that sustain us as adults. The scripture readings for the feast keep us grounded in an awareness that God knows that family life is both essential and complex, but always very real.

The Gospel recounts the story of Jospeh being told in a dream to take his wife and infant child to Egypt to save the boy from Herod’s massacre. What Matthew summarizes in a few terse lines after the fact, and with a good dose of Scripture fulfillment built in must have been terrifying for the young family. It brings to mind scenes from the news media of families of refugees fleeing war, genocide and famine.
When we hear of the messages Joseph receives in his dreams, again we imagine the serene scenes portrayed by artists, with the words of the angel twining into Joseph’s ear as he sleeps. But I suspect it has more in common with the young father tossing and turning during the night, caught in the stressful tension between work responsibilities, the insistent nighttime needs of a growing infant in the next room, and the juggling of too many things.

Family responsibilities ebb and flow at different times of our lives. Young family have the concerns of infants and children and all that entails. Parents of teenagers know all too well the particular challenges that brings. But the responsibility of caring for our elders is also a very real part of many people’s lives. At times the two coincide creating what’s become known as the sandwich generation.

One of the most touching lines in the reading from Sirach is, “My son, take care of your father when he he is old;… Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him.” Several friends are among the countless people caring for parents suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. It’s an almost overwhelming responsibility and through even the most difficult times, it’s obvious that they’re doing it because of the great love they have for their parents.

We need to celebrate this feast not as some seemingly unattainable goal for mere humans, but as a sign of the obstacles that we can overcome if we truly place ourselves in the arms of a loving God who is Father and Mother to us all, and in whose sight we are all part of a holy and sacred family.

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The scriptures for the Fourth Sunday of Advent are filled with great promise but also with risk beyond imagining. They tell stories of crisis and challenge, of calls to conversion and questions that insist on answers. They demand a life lived on the cutting edge of awareness, a life that risks and responds without counting the cost. Life lived to the full, life in God, is filled with promise, with signs and wonders.

This is the way of God’s life within us. When difficult questions have to be answered, when tough choices have to be made, only love can move us in the direction of life-giving choices. At times like these we need people to walk with us, to reassure us, sometimes just to celebrate with us. How differently the stories of Advent would be if Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph had let fear and anxiety triumph over love and trust and faith. Would we tell the stories at all? Advent promises the triumph of love over fear, of light over darkness. This love is difficult but so essential; we need to know that God is with us.

Joseph tossed and turned in the night and the questions crowded out all other concerns during the day. What would he do? How would he arrange this? What were his responsibilities? He tries to find as comfortable a solution as possible for everyone concerned. But the word of God breaks through this chaos and darkness and Joseph sees with startling clarity that the answer lies not along the path of least resistance but in the one solution he never considered. When the spirit breaks into human life we are confronted with an insistent challenge. We are called to choose life or death. Joseph follows the spirit, chooses life and receives the assurance of Emmanuel. We, too, are called to let the word of God break through the confusion in our lives. If we accept its illumination in spite of our fear, our uncertainty, our human weakness, we will know God with us. This is the way the birth of Jesus comes about.

Out of the silence of Advent comes the promise of the incarnation. The word breaks into our lives with the startling and dazzling revelation that through Jesus of Nazareth, God loved us in the visible, tangible ways the angels could never understand. Because we believe this, we’re called to love one another with the same incarnate love. Such love is a challenge to be gentle, to give of one’s self, to enter deeply into reconciliation, to grow and to change, above all to trust. It is a commitment of trust and faith, of promises made, kept, broken, reconciled. No real love can be born without risks, without vulnerability. Perhaps this is at the heart of our reluctance to believe the good news. We know that if it’s genuine, it will always have a price. As Christians we’ve staked our lives on the belief that only through death is there life. Our love is born of a passionate belief in promise, in commitment, in covenant.

To this love we commit all that we are and all that we can become. When despair overwhelms us, when promises suddenly seem empty, when it seems that we’re surrounded by dashed dreams and disappointment, by love betrayed and friendships faltering, prophets break into our lives with the word that God still cares, that love is still possible. To believe this promise demands that we risk once again, that we reach out in love, that we trust the hand reaching out to us.

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A farmer plants seeds deep in the earth. He knows from experience that they will produce plants. Does he ever doubt in the cold winter, looking at the barren fields? Even in the spring, waiting for the first green shoots to poke through the ground? We can’t see the growth taking place beneath the surface of our lives. Patience and trust are so desperately needed.

We wait for so many things. Waiting itself creates tension. Sometimes we think we can’t wait a moment longer, especially when that waiting is so heavy with uncertainty. We like to be active. We like to prepare. But sometimes we need to let ourselves be prepared, as soil is prepared for the seeds as seeds are prepared for the planting. Advent is a time of waiting. A time of preparation, yes, but while we must prepare, we must also be prepared to wait.

The letter from James counsels patience: “See how the farmer awaits the precious yield of the soil.” In this time of activity, of a too often commercialized rush, it is good to remember the natural cycle of the earth, the growth that takes place only in its own time. We can help it along, we can plant and nurture the seed, but in the end we can only be patient while the growth happens. We must take time to reflect, to believe in the promise of new life taking place. We must prepare, but we must also be prepared to wait, to hope, to trust.

We begin Advent with a rush of visions and good intentions. We hear the call to conversion and growth. We begin our preparations for the coming of Christ into our lives. But the reality is that we’re also caught up in preparations for holiday celebrations. We’re beginning to wear a bit thin. Our bodies are tired, our nerves frayed, our emotions stretched beyond their everyday endurance. We’re excited yet apprehensive. We anticipate but we also doubt. Suddenly we wonder if we’ve done everything we should.

The Scriptures for this third Sunday of Advent speak to this feeling of exhaustion and doubt. We hear of John the Baptist, imprisoned for his efforts at preaching conversion and the kingdom. In his disillusionment he begins to doubt whether Jesus was the Messiah at all. Jesus responds by assuring him that the signs of compassion and healing indeed herald the kingdom of the prophets. And he praises John for his role as forerunner. Like the desert of Isaiah’s vision, John’s desolation now blooms with hope. A word from the Lord can refresh tired bodies and weary spirits.

We are each called to do a specific task fully and justly. We are not all called to be saviors. We might follow John’s example: “I am baptizing you in water but there is one to come who is mightier than I. I am not fit to loosen his sandal strap.” John’s role is that of prophet and forerunner. He accepts his role and makes no grandiose claims of messiahship. Had he set himself up in rivalry with the one messiah, he would have been blown away as so much chaff. Instead he was a grain of wheat contributing his part to the Bread of Life.

The Lord is near to us, he is Emmanuel, “God with us,” and this gives us the integrity we need to live the promise according to our means. The spirit of the Lord will lead us in the ways of the kingdom in good time, in God’s time.

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When Isaiah compared the word of God to the rain and snow coming down to water the earth (Isaiah 55:10-11), I’m guessing he didn’t have Cincinnati’s weather in mind. We had snow so thick and heavy this morning that you could hear soft little whooshes as the flakes hit the ground. Perfect for the middle of December. But by noon the snow had changed over to rain and it’s supposed to alternate back and forth, with some sleet and ice in between. A good day to stay inside and have what a friend used to refer to as a reflective, introspective sort of day.

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Christmas Nostalgia

I helped my nephew and his wife set up their Christmas tree yesterday. We’ve done real trees for several years, even cutting our own a few times, but this year they have a new baby and no time for elaborate decorations. I’ve decided to simplify my own decorations as well. But there’s always a tug of decades of memories and traditions. Will it be Christmas without all these things?

It reminds me of a job interview many years ago far from home and the realization that I could be away from family and friends at Christmas for the first time. And suddenly it came to me that God would be with me no matter where I was. That’s always stayed with me as the heart of the Advent message, and it’s encouraged me to settled into my own adult traditions.

One of my co-workers, Father Greg Friedman, offers a nice reflection here on the nostalgia that’s so much a part of this Advent/Christmas season. It’s good to have reminders of the real focus of the season.

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Prophets are gifted with an intense personal awareness of God’s love for his people. Their call both inspires and compels them to preach this word to those who will listen — and to those who close their ears. From the time a prophet hears the word of God, the burning desire is to find the words that will express this eternal message to the people of one time and place.

The Word of God was spoken to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert, and John knew that the old order would have to pass away. Having prepared himself not through temple observances but through desert fasts and prayers, he comes out of the deserts preaching reform and conversion. The kingdom of God was at hand. The great prophets of the Hebrew scriptures may struggle with their call to be prophet, but they never deny the word of the Lord.

John the Baptist, the man Jesus spoke of as the greatest of the prophets, knew the desire of the prophet to tell people of the love of God. But the call to be prophet is makes demands, asking one to risk everything for the word. John became a voice in the wilderness, a man totally focused on his call and God’s message. In his desert fasts and struggles he must have known the experience of being alone with only the whisper of God’s word in his heart. Yet this whisper clamors to be proclaimed and we must come forth from our desert silence. John found his message” “Prepare the way of the Lord. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.”

John was rooted in the message of the Hebrew prophets, but he was being called to proclaim something completely new. Roots aren’t enough. We need to grow and bear fruit. Winter can lull us into a state of resting, of waiting for spring to energize us.

A group of Pharisees and Sadducees come to John the Baptist relying on their status as sons of Abraham. But John tells them that the ax is at the root of trees that aren’t producing fruit. The Gospel gives us a vivid image of dead wood and chaff being burned while the fruit and grain are gathered into barns to nourish and sustain life.

Roots provide valuable nourishment. They make life possible. But if they’re too constrained, they can inhibit the very growth they’re designed to nourish. Isaiah’s well-known vision of nature in harmony calls us to imagine sworn enemies sharing food and shelter, frolicking as companions. And the prophet neither minimizes the distinctions nor emphasizes the nearly unreachable idealism of the vision. Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” He didn’t say, “Your enemies will become your friends and then you will find it easy to love them.” Often our rootedness in one way of life or one set of attitudes keeps us from reaching out to those who are different, those we have avoided out of fear and hatred. To be fruitful, we must be open to this sort of newness.

Paul tells us Jesus fulfilled the covenant of the Jews and brought a vision of God’s mercy to the Gentiles. Paul’s gifts unite the dreams of these two groups into one vision of Christianity. He doesn’t destroy healthy differences, he doesn’t deny individual roots. He sees the possibility for communion. Advent is a time of vision, the vision of a shared future among all people as we grow beyond our rootedness.

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The irony of all the wake-up language in the early Advent readings and my mid-winter tendency toward hibernation is not lost on me. When my body is tired, it’s difficult to keep my soul engaged. But my own words call me to stay on track. Here’s a bit from last mSunday’s reflection on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent:

Once when I was a child, the northern lights were making a particularly dazzling display in the skies over our house. My parents tried to wake me for it, but said I “lijust wouldn’t wake up enough to go outside. I’ve always regretted missing that experience.

Paul tells the Romans, “You know the time; it is the hour for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” And Jesus tells his disciples, “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” They’re not saying this to frighten us, but to make sure we don’t miss the wonder that is Emmanuel.

And here’s a bit more of the reflection that I began here:

Advent calls us into the winter of the year
to see the beauty of waiting:
darkness waiting for light,
silence waiting for a song,
hearts waiting for love.

Advent calls us to a deep inner conversion.
Along the way, the light fades.
We feel our determination wearing thin.
We want to rest, to quit.
We don’t want to hurt anymore.
We wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.

We hope and despair in turn.
We cling to whatever comfort and assurance we can find.

But through it all we grow.
And we catch glimpses of a promise of new life
like sparks darting through the stubble,
like stars glittering in a black night sky.

Growth is never easy,
even when a deep love encourages that growth.
No matter how often we move forward,
no matter how often we grow into new ways of being,
it still hurts to leave the familiar behind,
to face the unknown,
to try something new.

Without growth,
all we have is the paralysis of fear and anxiety,
the despair that overwhelms us,
the stagnant ruts of a road that’s going nowhere.

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