The Promise Realized

Micah 5: 1-4; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45

I’ve been reading this book, God is Young, which is basically an interview that Pope Francis had done with an Italian journalist as a preliminary conversation before the Synod held in October on young people. The basic premise surrounds the question, “How do we move forward?” It seems that we’re rather stuck, not only in the Church world, but certainly as a country and even city, where it seems that we just can’t seem to move beyond this point of separateness. The gist of what Francis tells the journalist is that we have to connect the two generations that often get tossed aside in our world; obviously young people as to whom the synod was dealing with as well as the elderly. The young tend to get disregarded as being naïve and the elderly we don’t have time for or don’t want to deal with the reality of aging. He says, the answer forward is in those two. The young people are the dreamers, the visionaries, the prophetic voices where as the elderly have the lived experience and the wisdom to temper the energy but combined a way forward evolves and unfolds. He pretty much says anyone in between the two have a tendency to become too attached to the systems, whether in terms or religion, politics, or economically, that they don’t want to change and can’t see the necessity and so they try to silence the two that have the necessary vision.

It is, on some level, what unfolds in this dramatic scene in today’s gospel from Luke in the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. It is the reconciling of the past and future, in the one that is barren with the one who is full of life, the old and the new. Neither has any idea what the other has been through following the announcement of the birth of their children until they have this encounter with one another. In that very moment, two worlds collide with one another and a semblance of peace comes to their hearts, confirming that God has fulfilled the promise of long ago through their very lives. Here are two women at opposite ends of their lives and yet facing similar situations. Mary, in her teens, now faces with trepidation the shaming of a society, casting her aside for having this child under such circumstances and Elizabeth who has lived with the same reality in remaining childless her entire life and now beyond child-bearing age. In this moment, the Christ reconciles these two worlds and a vision unfolds, a vision that Luke has already began to spell out in the telling of these miraculous stories.

As the promise is fulfilled, Mary will go on and proclaim a vision for who this child is to be and a radical image of a God who has delivered the two of them. Mary’s Magnificat will turn the patriarchal God of the past on its head and a fresher and newer understanding of God who becomes incarnate as we will celebrate on Christmas. Luke already begins to point us in that very direction with these two women as the prophetic voices announcing this God of vision. The one would be seen as the prophetic voice, Zechariah, the head of the house, the man, is silenced in the announcement of their pregnancy and the voice of the women are raised in their consistent faith and trust in God, not separated from their lived experience of shame and being voiceless. Before the Christ is born, Luke already begins to point us to a new reality of God of giving voice to the ones who had been cast aside announcing the fulfillment of the promise made from the beginning of time.

You would think that Israel would have greater faith and trust in such a God, certainly symbolized through these two women, knowing their own heritage of a God who has seen the people through exile. Here two woman, one full of life and the other barren, learn to trust not only through their experience, but the experience of their ancestors of past that regardless of their own circumstances, God will see them through, even if not experienced first-hand. They obviously knew that Moses never did, and yet the dream, the promise, the prophetic voice continued to break through reconciling past with a present all in the name of Christ, God’s will.  Israel, to this day, stands as a microcosm of a separated world. The place of life and birth, as Micah proclaims, in Bethlehem, still remains separated from the barren city of Jerusalem by a wall. When we separate the two rather than reconciling we become what we are, a stuck people, clinging to dysfunction rather than trusting a new vision and hope for the human race, for the Church, our country and world.

As we gather for this Fourth Week or day of Advent, we gather mindful that these two women are more than just a story; they are each of us. God has planted within all of us a vision, a dream, a prophetic voice that can get out of control if not tempered by the voice of wisdom gently moving us along, teaching us to trust and let go. As much as it needs to happen in our Church and world in bringing together the ones without a voice, it’s a challenge to each of us individually as well. Their story remains are story as well. Israel, despite it’s own inability to get out of its own way, raises us these two radical women today while silencing the powerful ones of the world, leading us to a place of trust, that the promise given from the beginning of time continues to unfold and be fulfilled in our very lives. Sure we often prefer begin stuck in what we know, but Mary and Elizabeth remind us just how unsatisfying life is lived in that way. The more we keep ourselves open to the unknown, to mystery, to a God of great surprises, that same God will continue to give birth to us through the very same Spirit that has always stood as the great reconciler of dreams and wisdom. The promise given from the beginning is our promise, to have faith and trust and God will see us through. We may not know what it all looks like, but that’s why these two are about trust and the courage to say yes, not just once, but over the course of their lives, gradually opened to the birth of a new God, a new reality, rooted in Mystery.

A Millennial Exodus for Meaning

The following are my remarks made at the opening of our pastorate meeting…

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the chance to dialogue with some Millennials who I have met along the way and was telling them about the changes that are taking place in the Church.  Some faithfully practice and others come and go when they can.  At the same time, I’ve learned through them, that they are often the most misunderstood generation that exists and they get blamed for much of what we, older generations, fail to take responsibility for.  Their way of thinking and way of life can be foreign to so many of us, and yet, in many ways, I relate to them in a very different way.  If I had to sum up my experience not only of those who are friends but also whom I have worked with is that more than any other group they seek meaning and purpose in their lives.  They aren’t going to stay at a job or a church forever if it isn’t feeding the deeper hunger of their lives.  Honestly, we’re better at serving stones than bread.  It’s part of the mass exodus that has taken place over the years.  That’s not just the main Institution but the parishes that have been institutionalized as well.

Quite frankly, it’s probably a miracle or at least the grace of God that I have stayed in this institution over the years just knowing how much we haven’t met the younger generations in that way, often because we think it’s still about us.  Instead, we’ve blamed, resented, and projected our own stuff onto them while failing to see, become aware, and accept where we have gone wrong as Church, where we have failed at feeding the ultimate hunger of meaning in people’s lives.  And I include myself in this, we have fought over who can and can’t receive communion, we’ve fought over music and style of liturgy, we’ve fought over empty meetings that have been more about building ourselves up rather than the encounter with the other, and of course, even times and places for mass and other events.  All this while poverty continues to exist and grow, churches empty out because of our pettiness, attaching ourselves to superficiality while returning home empty, yes, even fighting over spaghetti sauce, war persists, hunger persists, murder within the pastorate rises, drugs run rampant up and down York Road, immigrants looking for direction, a school barely hanging on, people persecuted because of color and sexuality, among other things, and yet here we are, all of us, locked in the upper room out of fear, hiding in the comfort of our own space.  More often than not, clinging to what we have known rather than braving the great unknown.  If you want to know why Millennials often don’t show up, well, we typically don’t have to look too far.

If you haven’t realized, and I know many don’t know me beyond the priest, there’s a lot of stuff I just don’t care about, but what I do care about I care very deeply.  I care about people much more than institutions and parish agendas and identities.  I care about souls and the spiritual well-being of people because I know if we’re not healthy in a spiritual way we just won’t be healthy.  We’ll get hung up on the trivialities and have no perspective and larger picture.  I care about people and relationship and meeting people, having coffee with people, talking about faith and certainly preaching about it.  I’m well aware I have other responsibilities and other things happen in the life of a parish, but more than anything, I am about prayer, silence, and leading others to that same place, to find meaning and purpose in their lives.  It’s not that I don’t care about other things, because I do, but I can never quite stop myself from looking for deeper meaning and trying to lead people to the great unknown now so it won’t be as painful later, because it does always come.  I care about leading others to finding deeper meaning and purpose in their lives, through the muck of consumerism, capitalism, and politics which are often the gods we cling to in life.

When I teach, I always remind the students that, more than anything, we cling to what we know.  We like to be certain.  We like things to be black and white.  Yet, the more I have allowed myself to delve into mystery the less I see that as being real.  We, more often than not, find ourselves somewhere in between.  For me, one of the great stories that I use is that of the Exodus and people Israel.  They were miserable with what they were clinging to and yet, no sooner they are led to the unknown to encounter God in a very different way, being led to conversion, they immediately want to go back to what they know despite being miserable.  Heck, they get ticked off at Moses for leading them out of Egypt because they would have rather died to what they had known and clung to than to begin to experience life differently.  Aren’t we very much the same at times?

As we proceed, like Moses, we never quite know the twists and turns that we will encounter, and we have encountered them and will continue to do so, but our faith and trust must transcend what we know and what we cling to, which is often not real in the first place.  Don’t get me wrong.  We can continue doing what we’ve always done, business as usual, but know there are consequences to that as well.  Demographics continue to change, population is shrinking in most of this pastorate and appears to be in the near future.  In other words, we’ll die with it.  We’ll die with it.  As the poet, W.H. Auden, once wrote, “We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”  If I have learned anything this past year it’s that both locations have just that, illusions of one another, often deeply rooted in fear and the unknown which only entering into relationship can change.

So here we are, at the crossroads of change.  Like the disciples of Jesus in John’s Gospel, some may high tail it out because of change and what will be asked of them, because something is asked of all of us.  Some of this is personal.  I was close to just breaking down in exhaustion earlier this summer and I cannot continue to do that to myself.  If you read my blog you know that Notre Dame was like a “field hospital” for me and vacation more like respite care.  We currently have seven masses on the weekend and I’m seeking to move it to five.  In relation to the seven and nearly 30 in this vicinity, it’s not that much when we see ourselves as stewards of the liturgy rather than possessors.  I am a believer that less is often better because I can be better, and not allow the celebration that stands at our center to be entered into in drudgery and exhaustion. 

Change is hard and it’s messy.  There have been missteps and there will continue to be mistakes.  There always is when you wander through the desert.  Like the Israelites, our eyes have a way of deceiving us.  Change is also good and one of the few consistencies in our life.  As we enter into this discernment process and dialogue, we pray for the grace to move us to a place of encounter with and through one another.  We pray for the grace of the Spirit to come upon us and lead us to the place of poverty within our soul which often holds the key to so many of our struggles.  One of Pope Francis’ first quotes about the Church was that it is poor and for the poor.  It leads me to the image that we hold so dear, that first Christmas in Bethlehem when poverty took on flesh.  Here we are some 2000 years later, still asking for the grace so that we may be the same in the here and now, in this pastorate, as one people in and through Christ.  That, my friends, is what we’re all about and where we will find fulfillment of the deeper hunger for meaning and purpose in our lives.