Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Spirit of Vigilance

(1st Sunday of Advent, C)

I love the first Sunday of Advent, because it’s one of those ‘cognitive dissonance’ days in the liturgy. We have the giddy joy of starting this new year—the year of our salvation 2010—and as we arrive at Mass the church looks different for the first time in a while. We’ve all absorbed the catechetical sound bite about how Advent is the time to ‘prepare for Christmas’ and we’re ready for this ramp-up to that sweetest of Christian solemnities. And so we settle down here for Mass, ready to begin ‘preparing ourselves for Christmas,’ and we hear a very different kind of word in the readings: The Gospel warns us that in “anticipation of what is coming upon the world,” “people will die of fright” and “on earth nations will be in dismay.”

What gives? Christmas may mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but for most I don’t think it involves people dying of fright or nations being in dismay. Here we see the twofold meaning of the Advent season: Yes, it is a time when we prepare to recall the dawn of our salvation in the Incarnation of the Word of God, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, but Advent is also a time when we look forward to the return of the Lord in glory, to the destiny and end of the world. To hope for and anticipate the return of Jesus Christ at the end of time is a permanent and ordinary part of our Christian faith, and we recall this to ourselves in every single Mass in the prayer after the Our Father: “…as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.”

That spirit of waiting “in joyful hope” is at the core of this special season. We are joyful as we recall the mysteries of the Lord’s Nativity, and we are hopeful as we look forward to his return. The Advent season as the privileged time to meditate on the “in between-ness” of our existence; we are those pilgrims on the earth who live in between the inauguration of the new creation in the birth of the New Adam and before the final fulfillment and destiny of creation at the end of time.

As we enter into this time of looking both back and forward from our place in between, the readings we hear today help us to learn the spirituality appropriate to this season. St. Paul exhorts to “conduct” ourselves “to please God.” In the gospel we are similarly invited by Jesus to beware that our “hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life” so that we are not rudely surprised by the day of the Lord when it comes. To me this is very appropriate spiritual advice for this time of year; on the one hand there are a lot of parties to attend and we must be careful that the festivities do not distract us from our spiritual vigilance, our waiting on the Lord. On the other hand, it’s also a time of year when the anxiety of this life weighs heavily on a lot of people, and to hope in the Lord is the soothing remedy.

This spirit of vigilance, of waiting on the Lord, is the spirit we cultivate and protect in these days of Advent. The season of Advent reveals to us a God who is just that, adventitious. Our is a God who is arriving in the world: his obscure birth in poverty is a mystery played out at every celebration of the Eucharist, as God in Christ is just dying—literally—to make a home and be born anew into each our lives in Holy Communion. In these days, let us await the coming of the Lord with joyful vigilance, until the fullness of his Kingdom is revealed “at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Christ the King

(Christ the King, B)

Back in studies I once took a political science course, and in the class I met a guy from the island of Tonga. Now maybe you’ve never heard of Tonga – I know I hadn’t. Tonga is a little island in the south Pacific, and our political science teacher, interested as he was in different systems of government, was very interested in meeting someone from Tonga. You see, Tonga is one of the last places in the world with a real monarchy. They have a real king who actually rules the country.

Now this is pretty foreign to our experience. We’re not used to being ruled by royalty. For us, we are familiar with more modern forms of earthly government: presidents and prime ministers, parliaments and congresses. For us, kings are a thing of the past.

Does this make it hard for us to get into this feast of Christ the King? I don’t think so. Fact is, the kingship of Jesus Christ and the nature of his kingdom are so different from any earthly idea of power and government that perhaps we who don’t have any experience of earthly kings will understand today’s feast more easily.

Think about it. Take a look at Christ the King. What kind of power is this? Instead of earthly power he is nailed to the Cross and can’t even move his hands and feet. Instead of royal robes he is naked and shamed. For a crown he has only the crown of thorns made by his torturers.

What kind of king is this? Pontius Pilate was pretty curious about it. Seeing the beaten and bound Jesus before him, he wondered what kind of king he could possibly be dealing with. And so Jesus described his kingship to Pilate: For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice.

The kingdom of Christ is about truth, not earthly power. Reigning from the throne of his Cross, Jesus Christ reveals the truth. And the truth is that real power in this world is humility and the giving of oneself for others. It’s not about having it your way, and not the power to influence and control anybody. Real power is humility and the willingness to give of oneself for others. And this is the kind of king we are dealing with in Jesus Christ.

Reigning from the throne of the Cross, Christ the King reveals to us the truth about our world. The true story of the world is not in the halls of power or in the overwhelming suffering of war. It’s not even in the world’s false hope for an earthly peace which is only about everyone being able to pursue their own desires without interference. The real history of the world is not found in the careers of presidents and prime ministers.

Christ the King reveals to us from the Cross that the true royalty of this world are those who quietly struggle to love each other, to bear with each other’s burdens, to give of themselves without counting the cost or expecting anything in return. The true story of this world is the story of those who in so many small and forgotten ways, give of themselves for each other, give of themselves for the life of another. And this is the Kingdom of God. It’s the real history of the world, and you won’t see it on CNN.

Jesus explains to Pontius Pilate that his kingdom “does not belong to this world.” The kingdom of Jesus Christ is not of this world, but it is in this world. And the kingdom of Christ is in the world because of you and me. In the book of Revelation we hear today how Jesus Christ has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father. It is us who are made into the kingdom of God in this world.

In the sacrament of baptism we witness the royal anointing with oil we have all received. Just as David was anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the greatest of the kings of Israel, and just as Jesus was anointed on his feet by Mary in preparation for his enthronement and glorification on the Cross, we too are anointed in our baptism to share in the kingship of Christ.

You and me, we are the anointed royalty of the kingdom of God. As baptized Christians we are the kings of the world. But our royalty doesn’t get us anything as this world counts power and value. Our royalty is the kingship of Christ the King who rules from the Cross, naked, unable to move, and crowned with thorns.

Our kingdom is the kingdom of God, the kingdom of those who try to follow and imitate Christ by giving of themselves for each other, who offer their efforts and love and lives for the life of the other, indeed for the very life of the world.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The End Times

(33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

As they do each fall as we approach the end of the liturgical year, the readings and prayers today invite us into a reflection on the end of the world and the Last Things. This creation had a beginning, and it will have an end according to God’s loving and gentle purpose.

Great care must be taken when we begin to talk about the end of the world. In the whole history of the faith and down to our own day, there are many who have preached the end of the world. They proclaim dates and issue warnings, but often what they imagine is a vision of the ‘end times’ made in their own image; one that provides vindication for them and their associates, and punishment for everyone else. Always run—don’t walk—from self-serving apostles!

In fact, it’s hard to for us to know and understand what the end will be like. We are creatures and this creation is the world we know, and just as it would be impossible to explain the breadth and variety of this world to an unborn baby whose whole world is her mother’s womb, so it’s hard for us to wrap our limited minds around the “life of the world to come” to which we look forward in the Creed.

But we do know some things. Perhaps more importantly, we know what we don’t know. We know that we don’t know when the end will come. Jesus himself says it in the gospel today: “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Even Jesus doesn’t know. Now this has never stopped people from setting dates. As the year 1,000 approached, people were so afraid of the end times that peace movements sprang up all over and many wars were stopped. Sadly, we know how much that takes for us. Back before the year 2,000 we had a little taste of the secular, technological fear of the end times as we looked forward to the end of society when Y2K would come. Right now the stylish date for the end of the world is December 21, 2012. If no one has informed you already that the world will surely end on that day, no doubt you will hear about it soon. Jesus cuts through all of this needless anxiety and speculation. We know that the end times will come, but—at least in this gospel passage—Jesus doesn’t know when and neither do we. So, we shouldn’t be surprised if the end comes later today, tomorrow, in 2012, or somewhere long after we have gone to our rest.

Though we don’t know exactly what will happen when the end times come, the readings today give us some idea what it will be like. Jesus’ advice that we “take a lesson from the fig tree” helps us to understand that the end of the world will be something like the annual transformations of the changing seasons. Both the gospel today and the first reading from the prophet Daniel let us know that the end will be something like a gathering or a harvest. At this time of year when we look forward to Thanksgiving, the image of the harvest is very much with us. It is a rich and encouraging image for the good news of the coming end times. Through our communion with God through Christ, God promises that the destiny of creation is a harvesting and gathering of all the love, care, and goodness we are for each other, preserving it unto eternity.

This recalls to me one of my favorite prayers from the entire Liturgy, which is the introduction to the Vigil for the Deceased, commonly called the wake service: “We believe that all of the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel in death.” This is the gospel, the good news of the end time, whether it’s our own end at our personal death, or the final destiny of all of creation at the end of time: Because we are lifted up into the life of the Blessed Trinity by our baptism into Christ and our Communion with him here at Mass, all of the love and goodness we are for each other in this life does not just evaporate into nothingness when our pilgrimage on earth is over. On the contrary, in God’s great gathering and harvest, all of the loving good we were created to be is not only preserved, but made indestructible as God draws it lovingly into his own eternity.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


(32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

(Follow this link for my introduction and apology for this homily.)

For the past five weeks we have been hearing the letter to the Hebrews in the second reading here at Sunday Mass. Since we finish the lectionary’s selections from Hebrews today, I thought it might be good to stop and reflect upon its teachings. On these Sundays in Ordinary Time, the readings from the gospels and the first reading from the Old Testament are selected to match and complement each other, while the second reading proceeds on its own cycle. Because of this, preachers sometimes don’t pay a lot of attention to the second reading during Ordinary Time. Hebrews is worth our time, however, and the readings given by the lectionary lead us into a reflection on the priesthood of Christ. This priesthood matters for us, because we all have a share in it. In some ways, it is the good news of our whole religion.

When we think of the priesthood, we often think just of the ministry of ordained priests in the Church. That’s too bad, because for us Christians priesthood is much more than that. In the simplest terms, a priest is someone appointed to offer sacrifice to God. Since the earliest times, indeed since Adam and Eve’s sons Cain and Abel first offered sacrifice to God, the loving relationship between God and his people has been ratified, exercised, and bonded by sacrifice. Under the old covenants sacrifices of all kinds were offered to God, day after day, year after year. The Temple of Jerusalem, the preeminent place to offer sacrifice in God’s Presence, became the center of the world for the people of God.

The New Covenant ratified in the Precious Blood of Christ reveals all of these prior sacrifices to be foreshadowings of his own sacrifice of himself. Jesus fulfills, ends, and goes beyond all of these sacrifices of religion by offering himself as the perfect, eternal sacrifice, once and for all. In his Passion Jesus takes upon himself everything we are at our worst, even to our dismissing, torturing, and killing each other. On the Cross Jesus enters into the deepest misery and suffering that we have brought upon ourselves and each other with our sins, up to and including the searing alienation from God our modern world knows so well, to the depths of losing even our consciousness of our Creator and the Ground of our being: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.”

But though Jesus could suffer and die in the humanity and human body he borrows from us through our Most Blessed Mother, death could not hold on to his divinity. The divine Son of God bursts forth from the death we have brought upon ourselves and brings our humanity and human body with him into the new life of the Resurrection. This is what we call the Paschal Mystery of Christ, his passing over through our death into what can now be our new life.

This is why Christ is our High Priest; he is the one who offers the perfect sacrifice to God, and indeed, within God. So in Christianity, there is really only one priest, Jesus Christ, because there is only one Sacrifice. This priesthood of Christ is the priesthood of the Church, because the Church is the assembly of those who have baptized into the death and Resurrection of Christ, and who become his broken body and blood poured out in the offering of the Eucharist.

What this means is that each of us who is a Christian, a member of the mystical Body of Christ, shares in the priesthood of Christ. Each of us is a priest, because the communion each of us enjoys with Christ enables us to offer our own sacrifices and have them drawn up into the one, saving sacrifice of Christ.

This isn’t necessarily some big or glamorous thing. Many of the sacrifices we make in our day to day lives are very small. We give someone our ear or some of our time when we don’t want to. We let go of some our feelings or plans and enter into the messiness of someone else’s life so as to give them some mercy and comfort. Not that there aren’t immense sacrifices that people often make in life, such as the many ways ordinary people give up possibilities and opportunity in order to care for or give to others. The good news for us who share in the priesthood of Christ, is that God raises all of our sacrifices, large and small, to a certain divine dignity. By our baptism and our Communion with the sacrificed Body and Blood of Christ, God draws the sacrifices of our individual lives into the one, perfect, and eternal Sacrifice of the Son of God. Our sacrifices become part of the Sacrifice that saves and renews the world, leading us all from the meaningless of death to the hope of Resurrection. Each of us is a priest of the New Covenant, a sharer in the one Priesthood and one Sacrifice of Christ. This is our dignity and our joy as the priestly people of God.

As we offer our humble gifts at God’s altar today, let each of us offer the sacrifices of our own lives, uniting them to the Sacrifice of Christ we make present in this Eucharist, and let us be grateful to the God who makes us a priestly people in the Blood of Christ.