Staying Awake to God’s Presence
Stay awake! Walk in light! Be attentive! War no more! Beat swords into plowshares! Live not in rivalry or jealousy! Wow! The readings for this First Sunday of Advent are a call to escape the darkness, pay attention, and act!
Walking in the light and staying awake to God’s presence in our life and in the lives of others demands that we embody God’s universal unconditional love. The Advent season gives us time to begin to prepare for re-birth of little virtues and practices that will help us to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas.
About those little virtues and practices—here are some ideas. Find an Advent Calendar that suggests random acts of kindness for each day of Advent. Most of them ask us to expand our circle of those included in our love of God and love of neighbor. We can “wake up and stay awake” by being attentive and seeking ways to strengthen our relationships with God, family, friends, co-workers, and even strangers—the friends we haven’t met yet.
In these divisive times, we can seek out and engage in intentional conversations with those who are different from ourselves and try to identify common ground, or unity in the community that characterizes the making of God’s kingdom here on earth.
Not one of us knows when God will call us to make an accounting of our lives on earth! Will we be found ready? The Advent season provides us with a checklist of attitudes and actions. We ask God to help us pray, help us act, and help us achieve and live in peace. And then hopefully we will sing with joy as we go to the house of the Lord.
The Power in Remembrance
This Sunday is commonly known as the Feast of Christ the King, and the image that is used is Jesus on the cross, surrounded by two other crucified thieves and countless, raucous soldiers with shields and spears. Not very “kingly” imagery!
There are two thieves with equal access to Jesus, equal opportunities in the event, equal choices. One thief taunts and rails against Jesus, participating in the chaotic demonstration of crucifixion, a seeming unity with the mob below. In fact, Jesus was taunted to exert royal powers on many occasions in his life. Hanging on the cross, the most unlikely throne, seeming to be totally without power, Jesus answers the humble, simple plea “remember me” of the other “repentant” thief. Jesus utters these compassionate words: “…today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus took the message “remember me” seriously!
We too are challenged by ignorance, force and fear, false opinions and prejudice, out-of-control emotions, and mob mentality. We too have choices. Today, Jesus our King invites us to measure our use of power against his: Do we serve others or manipulate?…build a more just society or secure our own interests?…cause pain to others or help to alleviate it?
Looking forward to Advent, let us open ourselves to God’s power of love, mercy, compassion, and sense of justice, and then reach out to empower others, just as Jesus did in the midst of his own redemptive suffering. What a novel use of power—the power of remembrance—the power of taking all the people seriously.
Life After Life
As Catholics, we believe in the resurrection, or life after the present one we are living. The Gospel for this Sunday poses some questions about what that life will be like, the afterlife or resurrected life. Are the two related? Some people believe that happiness is part of resurrected life while our life on earth is filled with trials, tests, suffering, unhappiness, and misery. Heaven then becomes a reward for our long-suffering.
Others believe that we have choices to make about how we live on earth. Heaven is like the eternal promise or a reward. Hell is punishment. Which are we choosing?
According to John Kavanaugh, SJ, there is a third option. I tend to believe what we says:
What if there is no discontinuity between this life and the afterlife? What if there is just life, some of it eternal, some of it temporal? If that is the case, then the way we live now is the way we will always live. How we live is the promise of our destiny.
In this option, God does not threaten us with hell. We fashion it for ourselves by the choices we make: enclosed, egocentric, untrue, uncaring, unloving. That’s a hellishly mean existence, whether in this life or the next.
Thus, as we live and die, so we become eternally, outside the limits of space and time. There may not be marriage in the afterlife, but there is the fulfillment of what we have been becoming.
All of us, from the moment we begin, are endowed with an openness to God. But those of us who live long enough to exercise our freedom actually take part in determining our fate.
Like the Maccabees, we become what we have most loved, most believed, most hoped.
Thus, Lewis’s fascinating parable of The Great Divorce is a story of people confronted with the deepest choices they make. Those who cling to their fears, who hug for dear life their resentments, who refuse to let go of their prisons, can only be given what they endlessly demand.
Those, however, who give their lives in hope and trust, who cast themselves into the arms of the living God, no matter what their shame or sorrow, find what their hearts desired.
They encounter not only the graces of the earth and the faces of the beloved, but also the one in whom they lived, moved, and had their very being.
Sun of Justice & Its Healing Rays
Some events in our lives change us irrevocably, causing us to lose for good a sense of invulnerability. One of those events was 9/ll. That day we learned that we were no longer secure; our world was turned upside down. Many were left in a world of fear, insecurity, and anxiety. Unfortunately, such experiences characterize so much of human history.
The destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. was an “end of the world” experience for the people of Jerusalem. The temple was for them the heart of the city, the most sacred place, God’s dwelling place among the Chosen People. That which they valued so much, that which gave them strength was destroyed. Additionally, Luke’s community also knew the persecution and hardship Jesus speaks of in the Gospel today. What was important then and remains important now is a willingness to give witness to Jesus in all that we do, in all circumstances, in all that we see as threats to our way of being. Jesus gives us comfort in these words, “I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”
In the next days, months, and years, we acknowledge that in the midst of fear, insecurity and anxiety, we are totally dependent on the wisdom that God reveals to us in Scripture and other sources. How are we called to live as witnesses to the Lord in our lives? How does Scripture inform us about right relationships with all of God’s people? How do we live with diversity of thought, with differences that we don’t yet understand? Where do we seek wisdom, counsel, understanding, and peace?
What are we to do? We are to persevere by staying focused on the teaching and example of Jesus who reminds us that “by your perseverance you will secure your lives.” We are to fear (live in wonder and awe of God’s power), keep busy doing God’s work of justice freedom and love, and trust that each day the sun’s rising brings healing rays of God’s love.
Today and perhaps every day, we can pray the Prayer of St. Francis for unity and healing.
Lord, make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow your love.
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may seek
Not so much to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
On the “Day of the Lord,” we encounter Jesus in the Eucharist, in each other, and in the community gathered. There we receive the grace to persevere through whatever trials and upheavals come into our lives. And when we think of that final “Day of the Lord,” the one where God calls us to eternal life, God will find us ready. Peace to all!
Christ Makes Us Want to Be Better
This week in the reading from the Gospel according to Luke we hear the wonderful story of Zacchaeus, the rich man who collected taxes (or tolls) on behalf of the Roman government. It always seems that there is something charming and delightful about this story. This man who is described as short in stature climbs a tree in order to see Jesus pass by. The Gospel says that he wanted to see who Jesus was. It appears that the sight of Zacchaeus in a tree made Jesus laugh. I think that is what Luke is saying when he writes that Jesus “received him with joy” when he came down. Jesus couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of the little man who climbed a tree to see him; Jesus wants to spend some time with Zacchaeus, and he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. What a delightful meeting! I sometimes imagine that everyone else started laughing with Jesus at the sight of the little man up in a tree.
Clearly, Zacchaeus was not the most loved and admired person in the town, however. The Gospel tells us “they began to grumble” when they heard that Jesus was going to stay at his home. That doesn’t sound good. The Gospel commentator, John Pilch, tells us that it is almost never incorrect to translate “rich” in the Gospel as “greedy.” We might think of Jesus words: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich (greedy) man to enter the kingdom of God.” Little Zacchaeus seems to have a big reputation — nothing like the “big hat, no cattle” syndrome we may hear of in Texas. Zacchaeus is a little man with a lot of money.
There is something in the presence of Jesus, however, that brings about a big change in Zacchaeus’ heart. Maybe, like the Grinch, with his little heart that begins to grow bigger, Zacchaeus, when walking in the company of such a big and merciful love, can’t help but grow in stature himself. There is something irresistible about being in the presence of goodness and love. He pledges to give away half of all he owns and pay back 400% of anything he has extorted from others. Wow, that’s big — more than anyone would have expected. Zacchaeus is full of surprises.
I am reminded of that wonderful scene in the movie As Good As It Gets. Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, says to Carol Connelly, played by Helen Hunt, “I’ve got a really great compliment for you, and it’s true.” Carol says, “I’m so afraid you’re about to say something awful.” After he says something really awkward, she says, “I don’t quite get how that’s a compliment for me.” And Melvin says, “You make me want to be a better man.” Carol responds, “That’s maybe the best compliment of my life.”
Isn’t that about the best compliment any of us could ever want to hear? I think that’s what being in the presence of Jesus was like for Zacchaeus. It made him a bigger and better man. Isn’t that what we should also feel when we are in the presence of the Body of Christ in this community of St. Francis of Assisi? Jesus makes us all want to be better. Let’s pray for that this week — that we might all become better because we are a part of this community, members of the Body of Christ for each other. May we be fed at the table around which we gather to “see who we are and become what we eat.”
How Shall We Pray?
Jesus’ parable gives us some guidance in how we should pray in the form of a story about two men. This image paints the picture. Our prayer is to be in humility, praising God, and recognizing our complete dependence on God’s mercy. In Pope Francis’ words, we are to be among the sheep, to smell like the sheep, and to recognize that we are all sinners depending on God’s mercy.
While I am on pilgrimage and praying for all of us, I suggest these two websites for further reflection on this Sunday’s readings.
The Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow
I am one of the pilgrims on the Pilgrimage of Art and Faith. I am praying for our St. Francis community and all those we love as we visit sacred places. For your reflection for this Sunday, please see the homily I discovered about today’s unjust judges and persistent widows. We pray unceasingly and persistently!
Only One? Where Are the Others?
We know the story well. Ten lepers, persons who were outsiders and marginalized, all ask for healing. All are healed. Only one comes back to Jesus to express gratitude.
What happens to the others? I wonder! They just seem to walk off after receiving the same gift of healing. It’s a miracle; they are healed and they are free to go about their business.
How often do we take for granted the blessings we have been given? It’s not so much that we aren’t thankful. We just forget to stop and express our gratitude, to recognize and praise the source of all goodness, and to act differently because we know we have been healed.
So what does gratitude look like today? God continuously pours grace into our lives. We are regularly healed in numerous ways. Are we paying attention? Are we responding? What change in attitude comes to us?
The attitude of gratitude usually means that we are attentive to the ways that we can help to heal the wounds of others. We want our own healing to be an impetus to assist the healings of others. Can we see Jesus in every excluded person, in persons who are hungry, thirsty, or naked? Can we see Jesus present even in those who are blessed by God but who have turned away from the practice of their faith? Can we see Jesus in the imprisoned, the persecuted, refugees, the unemployed—all who encounter discrimination! Will we be like the “only one” or like the nine others? Finding the Lord, seeking connectedness in worship and study and service, diving deeper and growing in maturity in our relationship with Jesus—these are the attitudes of gratitude.
Jesus intentionally and consistently sought the company of people who for one reason or another were forced to live on the fringe of society. These were the special objects of his attention.
We have modern day lepers, persons who suffer from “skin” that makes us feel dis-ease, to feel fearful or ill at ease. Our labels of persons continue to divide us, and they are more than skin deep. Demonstrations and riots abound. Borders are closed. Refugees die at sea. Healing is needed. And then the words of Scripture remind us that the one who expressed gratitude to Jesus was, in fact, the enemy, the hated one, the other.
How will we respond? Will everyone be welcome? What “foreigners” among us will we embrace? What healing will we ask for this weekend as we gather at the table of thanksgiving, the Eucharist?
Increase Our Faith
Is quantity really an issue when it comes to faith? Or is it the quality of the faith? Jesus makes the apostles think, and his challenge is great. Jesus likens faith to a mustard seed—in its smallness and in its power. Jesus promised that faith the size of a mustard seed, one mustard seed, could move mountains. With God all things are possible!
Do you know people with incredibly strong faith who have moved mountains? Who are they? What have they accomplished? Can your faith help you to do the kinds of things they did? How does faith help us overcome obstacles?
Faith in God provides a vision of hope, a vision of strength, a vision of power, even in smallness. Faith is a gift to be asked for and then acted on. The Gospel connects the power of even a little faith with Jesus’ call to willing and obedient service to God. “Thy will be done” are the four words we pray in the company of our community of faith before we receive Jesus in the Eucharist. The Eucharist gives us the power to be sent forth, to do incredible things in sharing our faith openly and whole-heartedly!
This weekend, as we celebrate the feast of our patron, St. Francis of Assisi, we too ask for an increase in our faith! We ask that the seeds planted in our church community 36 years ago continue to grow and move mountains. May all be possible, as we ask for faithfulness in being attentive to God’s will in our lives and then ACTING on it. Happy Feast Day, everyone!
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Heaven or hell? Have’s and have-not’s! The story of the rich man clothed in purple and the beggar, Lazarus! Have you ever been amazed at which one actually has a name in this story? Surprised?
The story of the rich man and Lazarus invites us to reflect on some harsh realities in life today. What was your first reaction to hearing the Gospel story? With whom did you identify? Why? And now, think about what it would be like to be the other character.
When I read or hear this Gospel, I think of so many who are brought to our doors, to the end of the table—those who need assistance even to get there. And what is our response? To offer scraps? To identify with the poor, the sick, the victims of injustice? To understand the plight of the sex-trafficked woman, the homeless and mentally ill? To work for change, for conversion of attitudes that make us indifferent to the plight of our brothers and sisters? To be advocates? To be change agents?
The reading from Amos warns us about our attitudes that say “we deserve” our blessings. When we truly realize that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God, we can begin to live with all women and men as our brothers and sisters. And we can know, perhaps for the first time, that we are simply neighbors who never met.