All I Want for Christmas

Zeph 3: 14-18; Phil 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 10-18

So, nine days left until Christmas.  I don’t feel ready, but that’s nothing new.  There have really been two words that sum up this Advent season.  The first is obviously “expectation”.  That’s what the season is all about.  We speak of the coming of Christ at the end times, in our lives, and of course at Christmas, so that word really is synonymous with Advent.  The other word that we’ve heard these weeks is from Saint Paul who again stresses the word anxiety.  That theme will carry through Christmas when we will hear about fear.  Whether we know it or not the two can be very much entangled with one another.

Expectation, or this sense of longing, has been hijacked by the cultural Christmas and even society in general.  The entire structure is built on an expectation that I’m going to find the right gift to make someone happy.  We all have seen with our own eyes the excitement of kids on Christmas but also how quickly the gift gets tossed aside, dashing our own expectation.  I’m no different.  I spent yesterday on my computer, even telling myself that this is crazy, but it’s so embedded in who we are that we start to feel guilty about not doing it or letting people down and all this stuff, none of which is going to ever satisfy that longing and expectation in our hearts.  More often than not we’re not even aware how we’re being manipulated by it because it’s the only thing we know.  That’s where anxiety then feeds into the unrealistic expectation.  This season, though, is not about happiness, which is fleeting.  Rather, as we hear today, is about joy.  It’s about being satisfied with what we have and even grateful for it, not needing something else “out there” to do the trick.  This false sense of expectation and its accompaniment with anxiety has brought down civilizations all for looking for a “quick fix” to the deepest longing of our hearts as individuals and as a human race.

That’s where Israel finds itself in the first reading today.  It’s the only time we hear from the Prophet Zephaniah.  As a matter of fact, we hear the only positive message that occurs in the book.  Jerusalem finds itself in a rather usual position, about to once again be destroyed.  It is a city that has fallen into disarray and extreme corruption and now stands on the brink of being destroyed by the Babylonians.  As is history of our people, they too look elsewhere to bring some sense of peace to the longing of the people.  It’s a pain that runs deep.  They, like us, convince ourselves that somehow if things were just this way or I had that thing, all would be right in the world.  Israel always wants to look beyond itself rather than journey inward.  It’s how they become corrupt and separated from their purpose as people.  The more they become separated the greater the fear and anxiety get fed and the more the longing deepens.  It’s a perpetual cycle that we all fall prey to as human beings.  It should be no surprise to any of us that there are so many people that suffer from anxiety disorders in one way or another because that’s all we know.  It’s ingrained in our culture but it’s ingrained in the pain that runs through that longing that we anticipate.  In the end, we find ourselves even with expectations of the expectations we hold and the Christmas culture loves it.  It feeds on our weakness as humans knowing we’re going to go looking.

It is expectation that the people have in seeking out John the Baptist as well.  They think maybe finally he’s the one that is going to satisfy that longing.  Yet, he will forever be misunderstood by them because of the expectation of that expectation that they had, that somehow he was the one that was going to undo the systems of his day in the way he preached and spoke.  Again, more often than not we do the same thing.  Who knows if these religious and political systems will ever be undone, knowing that the power associated with that longing is so appealing.  John knew he wasn’t that person and never could be.  All he could do is point the way.  He pointed the way in actions they could take, but it will only be in Christ where they will find that fulfillment.  They won’t find it simply by doing the right thing.  They do it by entering into relationship with the Christ, becoming aware of when they are falling prey otherwise, and once again accept that the longing and expectation lies only with God, with Christ. That’s a decision that John can’t make for them but one they have to make for themselves.  It me and you that have to decide whether we’re going to keep blaming rather than seeking that change of heart within ourselves. More often than not we’d prefer Santa Claus to God and when neither seem to give us what we want, we bail, only leaving us longing for more and seeking it elsewhere. 

We already have what we need and what will give us the peace we desire.  It’s easy for us to say that but much more to allow ourselves to trust it in those moments of longing and expectation.  We allow ourselves to be fed by the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by the unrealistic expectations of a culture.  The gift has already been given to each of us, yet it’s not going to stop us from looking, thinking that we need to or the guilt overtakes us.  If we want to pass on to future generations it should be a seeking of joy.  It may not be easy but it’s not so fleeting as happiness.  The whole season is moving us to the same place as Mary, a place of yes to the gift.  A yes to the longing and expectations of our heart, to a God that deeply desires us to be people of life and joy.  It’s right there and so close and yet at times seems so far away.  God has already wrapped it in the most beautiful of paper, awaiting us to say yes to pulling the ribbon and to be opened to the true meaning of the season and a recognition of what will truly fulfill our longings and expectations, all while freeing us of our fear and anxiety, our relationship with Christ and our falling into mystery.

Grounded in Love

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; I Thess 3: 12–4: 2; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36

Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska, has a new book out entitled, Them:  Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal.  For the record I have not read the book, just articles about the book as well as the free sample on my Kindle.  The basic premise, though, for Sasse, is that the problems that divide go much deeper than the political rhetoric that we have become accustomed to hearing.  Rather, he says, that the deeper problem facing American society is loneliness.  Now it may not necessarily be in the way we use that word, but he goes onto say that there has been so much upheaval and uprooted-ness in our society that we no longer have a grounding.  When it comes to technology, our work place, and even our home life, there is so much change that the natural inclination is to turn in on ourselves and the deep pain that often inflicts us.  He says that it leaves us wandering as a people, leading to greater suicide and drug addiction because of this deep loneliness that is leaving us uprooted.  If we understand that, then we can begin to see different situation and the way many react to them, like globalization or even people crossing into this country, we pull back in fear and anxiety because some are left wondering just how much we can change and be uprooted, losing our grounding as people and losing that sense of community that once defined us.

We don’t have to look far, not even into history books, to find this same reality lived out.  The story of wandering and being uprooted is Israel’s story and so ours as well.  As a matter of fact, it’s probably more their story than not.  We often think we’re the first to go through such an upheaval and it’s just not true.  All the prophets we’ll now hear from in Advent and Christmas are going to deliver one message to Israel and that’s of hope.  Wandering became a way of life for them, never at home, always feeling uprooted, and more often than not believing that God has left them to wander.  Jeremiah gives them that same message today.  Here they are, once again in exile and wandering, and it’s gone on longer than they even could have imagined.  They are beginning to despair.  For hundreds of years they were promised of the new King that would sit on the line of David and that would somehow make everything right after war and exile became the name of the game.  Nation stood against nation.  Despair and darkness seemed to rule their hearts.  You could only imagine that even as Jeremiah proclaims this message of hope, that God would root up a new sprout to bring them hope that it would go on deaf ears.  However, exile and wandering is often a necessary part of the journey towards trusting this God that leads them through the darkest moments of their lives.  They may not always know where they are going or what this new way of life looks like, but all they can do is learn to let go of all the rest and trust in this God of mystery.  We mustn’t give into despair otherwise fear too reigns in our hearts.  As Jesus reminds us, tribulations will arise, and they certainly did for Israel, and all one must do is continue to push through in hope and the promise of life will be fulfilled.

It’s also true of the Thessalonians whom Paul writes today.  It’s the earliest of his writings to this community, a community as well that finds itself struggling and trying to find its way.  Paul’s message is quite simple to them today, and to us for that matter.  This is a community that is beginning to see itself fracture, and thinking as insiders and outsiders, us and them, as even Sasse warns us about.  They want to cling to a tradition that no longer serves but rather needs to be recreated.  Paul reminds them today that the deepest roots you have as community is none of that which passes away in this life; rather, it’s love.  Paul reminds them that if they are a community that is rooted in love they will never lose hope in the trial and tribulations that will arise.  The problem is they want to be rooted in their politics or even as Church in dogma and doctrine, but if that’s the case we quickly become uprooted.  None of that can ground us as people and so we’re left wandering when all else begins to fail us.  It begins to feel just as Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, as if everything is in flux and all is being turned upside down and inside out.  It’s a painful process of new life.  Any parent here can tell us just how painful it is to give birth to a child.  It’s no different when God is trying to give birth to a new people, a new nation, a new community that is grounded in something much more, grounded in love.

Advent provides us the time, albeit quick, to pause and recognize our own pain at this time, how it is we may be experiencing that loneliness as well in our lives as God tries to free us to give birth.  Fear and anxiety have a way of taking hold of all of our hearts, but more often than not, our way of thinking is what needs to die.  It not only has to die; it needs to die quite often, in order for new life to take root.  In the process, as Jesus tells us, our heart begin to become drowsy and the darkness of the day begins to set in.  How quickly we want to give into despair when we see all the reactions, but more often than not, it’s because we refuse to deal with the real issues, the underlying pain that exists as a human race and that becomes what we cling to the most.  It’s often the last gasp we have.  In the midst of all of it, just as it is for Israel, we mustn’t lose hope.  It is hope that will give us the grace to continue to push through the new life promised.  It’s a life not only anticipated at Christmas, but a life that God promises us at this point in our life and at this very moment.  We can’t rush it; all we can do is trust.  Israel returns from exile and finds its grounding once again, but now in a deeper way.  My friends, we are invited to the same.  Where are we rooted and even being uprooted in our lives?  Sure it may feel fearful and painful, but the promise of life and the hope of the season will see us to the light of a new day.

A Liberated Critic

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8

The Advent Season raises up this rather peculiar character this week and next, John the Baptist.  He really is one of the more complex characters we encounter.  There is this rather hipster vibe that he portrays by what he wears and eats and just wandering out in the wild, the desert.  Yet, at the same time, he comes off as this rather fire and brimstone kind of guy, together just making him complex and very much a paradox to himself.  He is one of the great prophets, along with Isaiah, whom we hear from this season, pointing us, often, right into the desert.

The one thing about the Baptist, though, is that there is a sense of freedom and liberation about him.  In these very brief encounters, despite his strong words, it comes from a place within.  He even mentions today that one mightier than I is to come and he shows that in his words and actions.  He remains grounded as a prophet in the eternal Christ, giving him the freedom and integrity to be who he is, despite the hesitation of the leaders towards him at that time.  In John’s Gospel he’ll go onto say that I must decrease and he must increase, in reference to the Christ. 

We all have that prophetic voice within but all too often it becomes separated from the Christ leading more to a rather self-critical voice instead.  We all know what that’s like and have seen it in ourselves and others when it’s more about criticizing but not coming from a deeper place.  It is part of Israel’s storied history as it is ours.  If they are consistent with anything it’s separating themselves from the Eternal and they end up becoming their own worst enemy.  Here they are, again, moving out of Exile, a second exodus for Israel, and they quickly begin to return to their old ways.  They resort to their own critical voice and despite being led from exile remain far from free nor liberated from what it had done to them.  They become the source of discrimination, war, and oppression, clinging to an institutionalized god who no longer serves.  As a matter of fact, when we cling to the critical thoughts that aren’t grounded in the Christ, they begin to strangle the divine and squelch the voice of the Spirit working within.  Israel remains symbolic of our own story as individuals and nation.

Then there is the Baptist.  As I said, a rather peculiar fellow that we encounter and yet often feared by the religious and political leaders because of this liberating element to him.  More often than not they don’t like what he has to say.  They become his greatest critics, and as we know, eventually leads to his beheading.  Even that becomes symbolic of cutting off that place where so many of the self-critical thoughts come from.  That wasn’t the case with the Baptist though.  It’s what they never understood about him.  His prophetic voice wasn’t coming simply from some heady place.  It was coming from deep within his very foundation.  What appeared to them as fearful thoughts was actually the eternal working through the Baptist from deep within his heart and soul.  That’s the freedom and liberation that this complex character exemplified.  For John, this message of repentance, of totally turning around and looking at life differently, being grounded in the eternal is what it’s all about.  John never forgot his own place and it wasn’t the Christ.  One mightier than I is to come.  I must decrease and he must increase.  It’s the mantra of the season.

And so we have these two great prophets pointing the way to freedom and a deeper way of life, an about-face to be liberated for the eternal.  The avenue to that freedom, though, is through the desert.  Isaiah tells us “In the desert prepare the way”.  Other than when he’s jailed all we know of the Baptist is through this desert experience.  Many throughout our history have physically gone to the desert to experience the wildness of their own hearts and souls, to see what they were already feeling within.  Maybe that’s why so many are drawn to the Baptist at that time.  It becomes symbolic of the soul’s journey for so many in Scripture, the vast, wide, emptiness that we often fear becomes the place of transformation, freedom, awareness of our own critical voice and liberation from within.  Our lives and the about face is from being led from the external world to the interior world which holds the eternal.  This is what makes Isaiah and the Baptist who they are.  It’s what separates them, so often, from activists even of our own day.  It comes from the depths of their souls and they know it as truth, as the eternal.

Peter reminds us in the second reading today, thankfully, that God remains patient with us through this process of transformation.  The more the eternal is freed up from the strangle of the critical and we become aware that the critical is not God, the more we begin to experience not the institutionalized god we have come to know but rather the God of mystery and freedom, and true freedom at that.  Like Israel we can say we’re free all we want but if we’re still holding on from within we haven’t experienced the divine in that way.  Peter reminds us that what is not of God will all be dissolved anyway so why not open ourselves up to mystery and to the unknown God.  Be eager for peace.

As we continue this Advent journey and encounter these redeemed prophetic voices of Isaiah and the Baptist, we pray for the awareness in our own lives of that critical voice that is still in need of being liberated.  God desires so much more for each of us and yet we tend to settle for much less.  When we move from being led by that critical voice to being led by and with love, our lives are changed forever.  We, like the Baptist, are complex creatures often in need of love and redemption more than anything.  This season we’re invited into the desert of our own souls, with a very patient God, where a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, to experience our lives and how we see ourselves and the world in a very different way.  No longer grounded in criticism, control, and fear, the institutionalized gods we create in our lives, but rather the God of love, freedom, and liberation, pointed to us by the Baptist himself.

Meaningful Wandering

Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64: 2-7; Mark 13: 33-37

Although no expert other than what I’ve studied in Christian classics, I do know that one of the main themes in the writing of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that of wandering. Tolkien saw wandering as a journey in and of itself and necessary, even if we don’t particularly care for it or if it feels lost. He is the one that coined the phrase, “Not all those who wander are lost.” If you’ve read or watched any of the stories you know the characters are often on the move from one place to another, often facing obstacles, at times wanting to give up and questioning the purpose of it all. Yet, they remain persistent in the pursuit of what he’d consider the idyllic or archetypal king, just as we do during this season as we seek that idyllic king in the birth of the Christ at Christmas. Wandering, even as the Magi will do, is necessary in order to create the space necessary for something new to begin to take shape.
The same is true for people Israel. As a matter of fact, they have made an art out of it as part of their history and the same is true when we hear from Isaiah today and will through these weeks of Advent. They find themselves on the backend of the Babylonian Exile, a life of bondage and enslavement, and as they return home they return thinking they can pick up where they left off, that home would be the home they had always known, despite history telling them otherwise. More often than not they believe it is God that wanders from them, abandoning them in their hour of need, but Isaiah in his lament towards God, speaks of how they find themselves in this position that they have been all but familiar with of wandering from what they have known and still creating space for what is new.
However, they hold onto the expectations of returning to normalcy and they return with the expectation that the way they’ve experienced God before would once again be the same. They wanted to return to what was, but after years of exile and now wandering themselves they begin to see that that’s not true and they can’t return home in the way they left. Home was no longer home for Israel. They feel lost and alone. Isaiah, though, at the very end of his lament reminds them of who this God is, the one who has seen them through the Red Sea and the one that has once again brought them out of exile to return a changed people. He uses the image of a God who is like a potter and the people his clay. And like the potter and his clay, it’s always being reformed into something new, softening the edges, molding it into a new masterpiece. It is a finished product that is never finished but refined as they turn their faith and trust to the one that has remained steadfast and faithful, this God of mystery that leads them from what had been known into the great unknown. Like Tolkien, Israel searches for that idyllic king and not always recognizing that it is them that are being called to change and to become.
The same is true of Mark’s community as we now switch gears from Matthew’s Gospel. Mark is very bare bones compared to Matthew and very much focuses on his community in Rome and learning how to hope even in the midst of suffering, just as it often was with Israel. Mark’s community was in constant tension with Nero who was a tyrant and bully towards them. They were often to blame as a minority for all wrong-doing and so they consistently felt the wrath of him and his people. It was a city that lived in fear of what he was capable of at that time and Mark’s community was an easy target. Today we hear near the end of the Gospel as Jesus’ death is soon imminent. Much of this chapter is filled with this ominous language that seems more like doomsday. But that was the reality in which they lived. It wasn’t so much God that they feared coming in the dark of night or early morning, it was the political leaders of the time under Nero and so they had to be at watch and aware while resisting the fear that was imposed upon them. Needless to say, this often led the community to feel like they had no home, wandering aimlessly and suffering at the hands of others. The language we hear was a message of hope for Mark’s community, as Isaiah was today, for faithful followers of the way who had no home and needed to continue to trust this faithful God who has seen them through and is constantly molding them into something new. They find themselves wandering from what had been to a new life being formed even through their suffering.
As we begin this rather brief Advent season, we come mindful of our own wandering. In many ways, in the world we live, we seem to always find ourselves in transition from what has been known and yet wait with anticipation for what the newness is that God is inviting us into and to trust entering into the unknown. We too seek that idyllic king who is always molding and forming us, more often than not when we find ourselves wandering and waiting; not necessarily lost but often feeling that way. We pray for the grace to wander as a people, in our very hearts and souls that are being called to be cleansed of our old way of thinking in order for that space to be created for the embodiment of love at Christmas. It’s hard. It’s painful. And at times we want to go back to what was, clinging to our old gods. In moments of grace, though, we are invited to let go and surrender as we wander while opening ourselves to the gift of new life and the embodiment of God’s word in our lives, changing us forever and yet still being molded and formed into something new and unknown.

Kingdom Dwellers

Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17; I Cor 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25: 31-46

All year we’ve heard from Matthew’s gospel and today we come to what many consider to be the culmination of what he was all about in his writing, the Judgment of Nations.  Keep in mind it’s not about individual judgment as we’ve often associated.  For Matthew, the other gospel writers, and Paul in today’s second reading, salvation was not an individual sport.  It was about the collective salvation and their own seeking of the common good in this life.  It, of course, has been overly politicized over the years and many times rightly so when we neglect people in need for one reason or another, but that’s not necessarily the context in which Matthew writes nor the lens we need to read it.

If we had to sum up Matthew’s approach to his community, as one he often struggled with, fearing division and its demise following the destruction of the Temple, it would be a journey of interior change and how we handle change in our lives and how our experience of God changes.  If you know anything about Israel’s history you know the destruction of the Temple seems to almost be a regular occurrence for them.  It wasn’t just the center of their faith life but was also the center of politics and economics so everything was intertwined.  With that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is destroyed over time.  However, just like it is today, when they all become intertwined in that way it’s without a doubt that God is going to come third in line, and so, in some sense, Matthew tries to lead the community to a much harder change, an interior change, to recognize that there’s something bigger than the Temple and that an encounter with God can happen, often times even more, beyond the temple dwellers.

From the beginning of the gospel, if we recall from Advent and Christmas last year, Mary and Joseph were on the run, refugees.  The Magi come on their own journey and return differently because of the encounter with the Christ, something is changed interiorly in their lives.  Throughout the gospel the disciples are being led outside of Jerusalem to experience the Christ in the acts of healing and forgiving, rather than something you go to they are being led to be an embodiment of that love that takes on flesh and they find their true strength from within.  It’s what makes Jesus so dangerous to the Pharisees and other temple dwellers.  As disciples, the Temple has it’s place but they aren’t meant to dwell there.  Rather, they’re kingdom dwellers with the Spirit of God going with them into these encounters.  This God that Matthew portrays to us and that we’re called to embrace can no longer be confined to a particular time and space.  At that point it’s not God anyway.  Rather this God cannot be contained and is going to lead them to the places of discomfort and uncertainty to learn to put their trust not in the Temple as has been their history, but the temple of the Holy Spirit acting within the community and each other.

It is new, of course, for the people in first century but even new for us at times.  However, the message has been a part of Israel’s history, even at the burning bush when God is revealed in name and that they mustn’t get hung up on the location of these events.  When they do that it begins the gradual confinement of God to a time and space and we find ourselves living in the past.  It’s where the prophets have tried to lead the people, over and over again, but with great resistance even costing them their lives at times.  They too get hung up on the temple dwellers and thinking that God can somehow be confined to that space.  Yet, with this enmeshment of faith, politics, and economics, the question really should be, as it was in the parable of the talents as well as the wise and foolish virgins as to who is the master they’re serving.

Ezekiel, in today’s first reading was one such prophet.  If you read it in its larger context you know that he’s going after them for this very thing, their own corruption.  Israel once again finds itself in exile during the time of the Babylonian Exile and they’re not being cared for.  The people responsible, the shepherds of the time, were not taking care of the needs of the lost, the strayed, the injured and sick.  They had become their own gods in some sense, temple dwellers themselves rather than seeing beyond and being moved to the place of discomfort in their lives.  When you have it all and you’re on top, even in our own time, it seems as if there really is no need for this God.  I’m quite fine with the gods I can hold onto, that bring me comfort, that keep me safe, rather than leading me outward while being inwardly changed. It’s the opportunity to not only encounter God in a different way but to learn of myself in a new way and light.  It’s not about changing others.  It’s about allowing ourselves to be changed, our hearts to be changed by going to the very place we fear.  It’s the story of Mary and Joseph.  It was the Magi.  It’s the embodiment of love.  It’s the journey Matthew has invited us into this past year.

So it brings us to the culmination of his gospel and the judgment of nations.  Needless to say we have often failed at embodying love.  We have allowed ourselves to be temple dwellers while often enmeshing faith, politics, and economics, while neglecting sometime our very own rather than surrendering it all to the true God.  Like Israel in all its history, when the three become enmeshed, God, without a doubt, will become confined and the other two will take their place as the gods of our time.  We all fall prey to it and all find ourselves as sheep and goats.  But for Matthew, it meant something more.  It meant an embodiment of that love and not just loving neighbor.  Rather, being one with neighbor in the sick, the poor, the refugee, the imprisoned, the stranger. 

Every one of us is good at making ourselves comfortable.  For Matthew, our faith is quite the opposite.  We’re not called to be temple dwellers where we grow comfortable and safe, confining God to our particular time and space.  There’s a place for it but it resides in something bigger than time and space.  Rather, kingdom dwellers where we seek the eternal, the Christ, with prayer always on our lips for a change of heart.  It’s what it’s all about.  It’s messy.  It’s hard.  It’s frightening.  Yet, with Mary and Joseph leading the way for Matthew, we’re called to go out and encounter the living God and to be that embodiment of love that we’ve witnessed through the eyes of Matthew this year.


Expanding Our Vision

I spent this past weekend helping to lead a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat which I believe I’ve done for nearly eight years now. I never leave the experience without some sense of wonder and awe, not only at what people manage to live through in their lives, but undoubtably the courage they have to see it through to the other side. Or if anything, to begin the process of passing through.

If there’s one thing about pain and suffering, it has a way of narrowing our world view and often to the point where the sense of the eternal seems all but lost. Everything that we see and experience is viewed through that one narrow lens that does not lead to reconciliation and conversion, but to greater isolation and separation. It seems like the endless spiral of life for so many, choice after endless choice only leading to greater violence towards life and to ourselves.

It is the story of salvation history, though, as well. All this season we hear these great messages of hope from the Prophet Isaiah, including this Sunday. It is certainly the story of people Israel who often found itself in conflict after conflict, leading to greater separation. In today’s reading, despite the message of hope, Jerusalem once again plans for an impending attack from beyond its walls but also from within as this ongoing separation that leads to greater injustice and suffering. Heck, even if you go today it isn’t much different from thousands of years ago. It’s probably one of the craziest cities I’ve visited. They are so focused on their own pain and the need to protect that it has led to building walls that separate, from our own faith, the place of birth from the marking of death, a separation of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It’s led to great problems beyond the walls and in places like Bethlehem, leading to a greater degree of poverty and injustice towards the people. Their vision had become so narrowed and they start believing that they really are the eternal rather than seeing it all metaphorically, that it eventually leads to their demise and destruction, time and again.

Yet, the message for Jerusalem and for us this weekend is of hope. That somehow these seeming opposites in the natural world will somehow lead the way and bring example to us humans as to how it’s done. Is there possibility for reconciliation? Is there possibility for less separation and a working towards greater justice, especially for the most vulnerable? Isaiah likes to believe so. For as hard as Isaiah can be on people Israel, this season offers a message of hope to those who have only known darkness and despair, to those who have viewed their lives through their constant suffering and the greater degree of poverty it leads to in one’s heart and soul. Like so many of our own sins, even those who walk this horror movie through the experience of making a life-ending choice, are so often symptoms of something much deeper going on in our lives, both individually and collectively.

Certainly John the Baptist was aware of this and everyone around him was aware of it. It’s why he was such a threat to the leaders, who often perpetuated the darkness for their own benefit, but also to the structures of his time. He was leading a revolution to call out the injustices of the society of his time, but for John it began with himself and for those who followed. He called them to look at themselves and how they too have sinned on this deeper than cellular level of their lives. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew it and did everything to avoid the fear that arose within themselves before the one who threatened their perceived power. John’s message is to repent, to do an about-face in life and to be awakened from their slumber to a new way of life, a life with greater vision, expanded vision, of a true and lasting God that sets them free.

This is the God we celebrate today and the God we prepare for all at the same time. There is no denying the greater darkness that has ensued so many lives, defined lives, ceased lives, and has caused us so often to stop growing ourselves. We get to a place that begins to seem hopeless as our world continues to shrink and dissolve around us, as the storm seemingly collapses over and over again before and within us. But there is hope. With just a crack in the walls we have created, the light begins to shine forth and God once again begins to break through and we submit ourselves to the invitation. This is a season of hope and a season to not only celebrate but to prepare for as the eternal breaks in and is broken open before our very eyes on this Table. As we gather and go forth, we pray we may continue to allow ourselves to be open to something and someone bigger than ourselves, to expand our vision while healing our pain and suffering. It is the fullness of life God desires of each of us and a fullness of life promised in this season of Advent.

The Impossible Becomes Possible

Micah 5: 1-4a; Luke 1: 39-45

After weeks of listening to the end times and then the challenging call of John the Baptist the past two, we now begin the pivot towards Christmas in this beautiful encounter of Mary and Elizabeth. We know relatives of one another, now both pregnant, but also at opposites end of life. Mary, still virgin, young in age, with much to lose, even her life, in saying yes to giving birth to this child. Elizabeth, as we know from scripture, who is called barren, beyond child-bearing age, with nothing to lose at this point. And both are a moment of grace. Of course, most of us somewhere in between, seeking life and yet at times feeling the burden of being barren. Yet, all is a moment of grace.

Yet, there is something else about the two of them and what they model for us in our own lives, in seeking new creation in our hearts as well. See, they both must confront the impossible in their lives. Elizabeth questions. We know Mary questions, “How can this be?” she asks of the angel. Like them, in our own lives in facing what seems to be something impossible, we try to figure it out, reason it, rationalize it, control it in some ways so that it unfolds the way we want it to. But they show us another way, even in spite of their own questioning. They come to a place, as we all need to, where we can accept that this isn’t about me and it’s not about you. Rather, that this life is given to us by God, and when they get to that place, they can finally let it go and it no longer seems impossible but possible with God. Both exemplify this and in this encounter today that we hear of, we all are given the opportunity to step into this intimate moment and be filled with the holy spirit and freed from ourselves so that we too can say yes to new a new life, a new creation.

Micah, in today’s first reading, anticipates a new Israel, in someways personified in the story of Mary as we hear it. Here is a people that have faced great upheaval in their lives, constantly invaded from beyond the borders, and always facing outside threat. But there’s a new warning in anticipation of the new Israel, and that’s the threat from within. In our own sense, we face that as a country, that it is us who bring ourselves down without the need from an outside threat. But spiritually it’s also our greatest threat to a new life and new creation. It’s the war that often ensues within us and the voices that try to outdo the voice of God and our responding yes. We find ourselves over and over again saying yes to the wrong god, furthering ourselves from the new creation that is promised, barren and being called to come to our home, the womb within our hearts and souls. Yes, we know it’s a painful process. Birth always is. New life always is. That voice of God never gives up and is always calling us forth to a fuller life, an incarnate life.

Like Mary and Elizabeth, this new life demands our yes, as hard as that can be for any of us. We get in the way of the life that we have been formed for, the life God has planted within and now comes to fruition in the coming feast. With Mary and Elizabeth as our model in these final days of preparation, we pray, albeit painful, for an awareness of the competing voices in our hearts, that want less of us, desire the minimum to avoid rejection and pain, that tell us we can’t, that remind us just how impossible it all is and consistently keep us at war with ourselves and with God. As we pray for that awareness we anticipate the grace-filled moment, as did Mary and Elizabeth, as we encounter the Lord, when what was and seemed impossible became possible by and through a God, who now invites us into, a season of surprises, a season of new life!

A People of Promise

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36

“Do you think this is the beginning of the end?” I was asked that question earlier this week upon discussions of world events, war, violence here and abroad, issues of climate, and every other issue that seems to plague our conversations and our politics. Do you think it’s the beginning of the end? Certainly if you listen to these readings now week after week they are quite ominous. They almost sound somewhat realistic to what’s going on around us and maybe even within us at times. There seems to be so much uncertainty. And, well, quite frankly, we’re not always good with uncertainty. We want to know. So is it the beginning of the end? My response was that it’s the beginning of the end of something, but I don’t know what. Nor do you know what that is and nor does anyone else. If anyone says they do, they’re lying to you. We always want to know but faith is about living in the unknown, even in the midst of what seems like the beginning of the end and some very turbulent times in our world and lives.

This season, though is about a promise, as we hear from Jeremiah today in the first reading. It’s not about a promise of the destruction of the world. It’s also not about the destruction of evil for that matter. That’s not God. That’s us and our own lack of faith and living with uncertainty and mystery. The promise of God, rather, is that of the restoration of Jerusalem. It’s about a new creation that will take shape. It’s a promise of life in the midst of the war, violence, and uncertainty. It’s a promise of a God made flesh. But where is it? It seems, and we’ve often told ourselves that it is about the destruction and the overtaking of such darkness. Yet, so often hidden in the darkness of our lives, life begins to sprout and call us to a new way of life, one that is rooted in this promise given to people Israel. Even for them it seemed as it was the beginning of the end. They often felt hopeless and helpless for that matter.

Yet, Jeremiah today reminds them of the promise that was and is made. They began to lose hope when leader after leader never met their expectations. They promised that things would change and yet, it never happened. One by one they bought into the corruption and power, leaving the people even more oppressed than before. It, of course, led to cover up and despair, greater confusion and chaos, a people looking for something to hold onto in all of it. There, in the darkness, the light begins to expose the darkness for what it is and a people are freed from the oppressors. The promise is not to destroy but to raise up life in the midst of it, a mystery revealed in the darkness of our lives, our city, and our world.

Luke, whom we will now hear from this next year, raises it to another level. It now goes beyond one another, even beyond nation against nation. We get that. It so often seems to be our way of life. Luke raises it now the cosmic level, where these great cosmic events will begin to unfold as a warning to the people that something is not right. It’s as Paul writes in another letter, that all of creation groans in labor pains. We get that too. When the promise of life is upon us, it comes at great cost and great pain. We live with the uncertainty. We want to feel secure and safe to protect that life. Yet, it’s not what Jeremiah speaks of nor what we have lulled ourselves into believing. He speaks of a God that will continue to provide for the people, even in their despair. We too quickly buy into fear, thinking we can somehow be safe and secure from all danger. If we only expel the darkness and evil to another location we will somehow be safe. That’s crazy talk! It’s also not faith. It’s not of a God who continues to reveal in the mystery of our lives and world, but rather a god created by us out of fear, perpetuating the injustice that people Israel continued to struggle with in their lives and that we struggle with this day.

It’s the beginning of the end of something but rooted in the promise of a new creation, of life. We know how it all feels and the experience of letting go and walking into the unknown. When we’ve experienced the loss of a loved one. When, all of a sudden, someone is diagnosed with a terminal disease. When relationships fail and divorce seems imminent. When people are killing other people right here on our streets of Baltimore. When we live, so often with a loss of hope that things will ever change, the promise of a new creation, of life.

As we enter into this great season of anticipation, we await the fulfillment of this promise. We await the fulfillment of the promise in our lives and in our world and in the world to come. When we begin to feel despair, we find hope in the promise. When we begin to feel engulfed with the darkness, we find hope in the promise. We are a people of promise and we don’t have to settle for anything less. When we do, we succumb to the fear of our own lives and our need for security and safety, we give into certainty, rather than falling into what this season is about, the mystery of life as it continues to unfold and call us forth to be the new creation to a people who walk in darkness.

Mirror of My Soul

2Sam 7: 1-5, 8-12, 14, 16; Luke 1: 26-38

The obvious connection with the first reading and Gospel today on this Fourth Sunday of Advent is the lineage of Jesus with David and the fulfillment of that line in Jesus through Mary. However, like most of Scripture there is often a deeper meaning and connection with them. You see, there’s something happening in both the life of David and Mary at this very moment. There’s a stirring deep within their hearts and souls of a God leading them to greater fulfillment in their lives and ultimately in the world. A God who can accomplish the impossible is hard at work and on the scene in both of their lives, both in very different places and circumstances of life, but both being stirred by this God who brings life.

For David, it’s probably similar to many of us, albeit it to the extreme. The reading even begins by mentioning that David had just gotten settled. It’s in that moment when he’s getting used to his role as King and the great palace that he now lives and the many walls and such that protect him, and yet, none of it is offering fulfillment in his life. He knows in his head that God is always with him; Nathan makes that point to him in the reading today in the reading today. Yet, as a visual, he then sees how the Ark of God dwells in comparison to himself, an earthly king. Here’s the ark in a tent, exposed to the elements, vulnerable, out there, in the line of fire, per say, and then here’s David in his protected walls and palace with everything at his fingertips. He can do anything he wants or desires and then there’s the Ark of God. In that very moment, things begin to stir within his heart and soul. It’s almost as if you were to hold up a mirror to David’s heart and soul, looking back would be what we hear in the gospel today, the unfolding of the annunciation and the beginnings of the incarnation of our God. Here’s David, long before Jesus ever enters the scene or is dreamed of, being moved in a way, deep within his own vulnerability and emptiness, his own empty crib as we see before us, a God who begins to stir within David to bring about the God in the flesh into the world and do great things, pondering all these things in his heart. Of course, he doesn’t always do it right. He abuses his power, takes advantage of the role he has has king, and yet, in a moment of vulnerability and emptiness, despite have everything he could possibly want or imagine, God begins to stir.

Mary experiences that same stirring and vulnerability within herself as she enters the scene. If you were here on the Immaculate Conception I had said Mary, of all the characters we encounter in Scripture, is probably one of the most misunderstood. We have done a greater job at creating her into who we want her to be or think we need her to be than to encounter her for who she is in this passage. Mary enters in poverty. Mary enters as peasant. Mary enters in a male-dominated world. Mary enters with absolutely no clout, like David, and is totally exposed and vulnerable as a young teenager. If there’s anything against anyone, it’s Mary, yet, she can’t ignore the stirring within her. She could try to ignore and pay no attention to it, but God has other plans and in the deepest part of Mary, pondering all these things in her heart and her empty crib, Mary responds with a yes despite the expectations of a world in which she grows up and lives. Mary goes against the tide and says yes to the incarnate, despite knowing the implications on her life, Joseph’s life, and the life of Jesus. When God stirs in our own vulnerability and empty crib, we come with great humility as Mary does knowing it was designed and built for one, our Lord.

There will be great demands brought upon all of us this week. We will do everything we can to fulfill expectations of others or even of ourselves. We will spend time with loved ones and even some we may not be fond of, but all along, God knows we’ve spent a great deal of this time trying to fill that longing and empty crib with many other things and so I go back to what I said on the First Sunday of Advent, how important it is to find silence in this time. We may not experience the empty crib right now. Some may experience it on Christmas but for many of us, we begin to experience it following Christmas when we begin to realize that so much of it hasn’t brought fulfillment. We didn’t get the right gift. They didn’t like what we had gotten them despite the hours walking in the mall. All of these things begin to grow within and like David and Mary and Elizabeth, that’s when God steps in and begins to stir us. If God were to place that mirror up to your heart and soul, what does God see? What have we tried to fill that crib with other than God? God invites us to sit with it long enough to allow the stirring to bring life and healing, for when we do, the impossible becomes the reality in our lives and world.

Reflectors of the Light

Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

As much as Matthew, Mark, and Luke deal largely with the ministry of Jesus, John deals with much deeper issues beyond the doing of Jesus. As we make this tilt towards the final days of Advent, John begins to shift our focus from the end times to the indwelling of the Christ and the identity of Christ and His relation with the others he encounters, including whom we hear from today, John the Baptist. Both Jesus and John push back on a system, a patriarchal system that is still a part of who we are to this day, where identity it fully identified, at least as a man, in his role, function, what he does rather than a deeper understanding of who and whose he is.

But John’s not going to play that game. John has already moved beyond the normal roles in life and has found a deeper sense of who he is in Christ. He’s had to let go of what others think, their expectations and his own, the prescribed roles that would be expected and now lives from another place. Yet, he experiences this interrogation today by the scribes and pharisees who have defined roles and will do everything they can to try to box him in and pigeon hole John for who they want him to be rather than who he really is. They ask question of what he is and who he is…are the prophet, are you Elijah, are you the Christ, and again, rather than playing their game, John tries to change the rules and play by a different game.

As the Gospel of John goes on, it becomes somewhat laughable because Jesus’ approach is very much the same. He will experience the same push back and boxing in that John experiences in today’s gospel reading. It becomes laughable because it’s more evident as times goes on that they are often talking past one another and totally different planes. The Gospel writer may be a theologian of sorts, but he’s also a mystic in his own right. The shift takes place even in Jesus’ approach to ministry and becomes more evident in John’s Gospel. It appears to come from a different place. Rather than the doing defining Jesus, his very being, as the Christ, becomes the source of life. Think how often we try to define ourselves, others, and even God by who we want and expect them to be. We label ourselves by what we do and our jobs…teacher, doctor, priest, football player and so on, rather than see ourselves as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of Christ and God. When we lose the role and functions, so many can no longer live because it’s all they have known. Both John the Baptist and Jesus point in another direction.

Now it takes great humility on the part of John the Baptist, and for us as well, to step aside and admit who we are and even who we aren’t. When he’s interrogated today, he is sure to note that he simply testifies to the light but is not the light. You see, the Baptist, like us, can never be the Light and we can never be Christ, the Baptist’s humility comes in the recognition and acceptance that he can simply testify to it. John reflects the light and he reflects the light. It’s a great deal of pressure and responsibility to put on ourselves when we think we can be something and someone that we are not. Yet, in the culture and world we live, many try. They try to live up to their own expectations and the expectations of others, boxing themselves in and simply settling for something much less than God ever intended for any of us.

Jesus too tries to expand that vision of who and whose we are. In Luke’s Gospel he quotes this passage we hear from Isaiah today, expanding the realms of God and salvation, the gift of the Christ goes beyond those who have deemed themselves worthy, such as the scribes and pharisees who often put themselves in the place of God, it now extends to the trenches and the fringes of society, the poor and downcast who have often been neglected. When our eyes begin to see differently and we no longer have to by into the boxed in world we create for ourselves by our roles and functions, we begin to see as God sees and we begin to reflect the light and reflect the Christ and see all as brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of Christ and God.

It’s easier said than done, but as we make this shift in the Advent season, where am I still boxing myself, others, and God in, making them in my image rather than accepting them for who and whose they are? The Christ-event which we prepare for and actively wait in anticipation, is the expansion of our world view and an expansion of our hearts and souls, making room and space for God and others who have been shunned by us for one reason or another. But we can take the pressure off knowing we aren’t the Light and we aren’t the Christ. All we can simply do is reflect and mirror the divine and to see it and accept it in the other. In these final days of this season, we pray that we may find and accept our true identity in Christ and allow God to incarnate in and through us as we reflect his love to a hurting world.