Advent – Cycle A

Third Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

13 December 2014

Reflecting on I Thessalonians 5:16-24

Test everything. Retain what is good.

Paul’s advice to the church at Thessalonica sounds so easy, but how do you really know how to test the counsel that you receive, and keep what is good?  How, for that matter, does an intelligent person read the paper, watch the news, or vote in an election? Is it possible to see through the spin and discern who, if anyone, is telling the truth?

St. Paul is guiding the infant church in Thessalonica, the second largest city in Greece, in the ways to live their lives now that they have put on Christ. Since Paul’s letters precede any of the gospels―and since this is, in fact, his earliest letter, written less than twenty years after the resurrection― their questions take on even more urgency.  How DO they live their new lives in Christ? How DO they become mature and faithful disciples of Jesus?

There are no gospels, no Catechism of the Catholic Church, not even any other Pauline letters circulating around to give guidance to this early Christian community.  They are dependent upon what they learned from Paul himself when he visited two years earlier and founded the church there. They are a newborn creation, but how, then, should they live?

Huh. Somehow, modern Christians can’t figure that out either. We feel guilty no matter which way we vote. We feel certain that God is calling us to this job, this house, this friendship, and then things change and we’re not so sure.

St. Paul’s words give us guidance. Do not quench the Spirit. Refrain from every kind of evil. And surely John the Baptist would add, Prepare the way of the Lord.

How is Advent going for you so far?

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I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

Second Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

7 December 2014

Reflecting on Mark 1: 1-8

The funniest bumper sticker I’ve ever seen has a kind of Advent tint to it: Jesus is coming back. Look busy.

I still chuckle. What makes it funny, I think, is that it betrays our hapless misunderstanding of the Divine. If Jesus is coming back―and, by the way, he never left, thanks to his abiding Holy Spirit―then it must be like the teacher coming back into the room, or the boss returning from a trip.

Look busy, everybody! Because everything we’ve been doing while the boss was gone must be worthless. Working on projects, answering e-mails on our own schedule, or even taking a delicious sick day must all be a waste of the company’s money. The boss wants us to work, work, work, and if we work enough we’ll get promoted so we can work even harder.

Yuck. What an odd and unhappy Jesus we must be expecting.  We see in the gospel that people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were making the trek out to the desert to hear John and be baptized by him. And I’ll bet they were all willing to use their sick days to get there.

Why? Because they sensed that John was the witness of the One to come, and they wanted to be as close as they could get.

I suspect that, if Jesus has questions of us at his return, they will be something like this: Did you notice the astounding beauty of the world? Did you love as well as you could? Did you dig deep and find the grace to forgive?

And, finally, I imagine him asking that great question  that Aslan, The Christ figure in the last book of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, asks each of us:

I have known you long. Do you know me?

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.
I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

First Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

2 December 2014

Do you love Advent? I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t. And these days, after reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s exquisite book Learning to Walk in the Dark, I think I know why. After the long days of summer and the fading lights of fall, we’re finally ready to give in to the dark. Advent gives us permission to stay in the dark for four delicious weeks.

Something there is that doesn’t love the dark, but there is another part of us that craves it. Even the most roaring extrovert is grateful to crawl under the covers and let the night come in, with its healing dreams and restorative quiet.

And it is in the dark, of course, where we keep watch the best. The stars guide sailors to safe ports, and the changing shapes of the moon give expression to our own spiritual shifts, from consolation to desolation and back again.

This Advent I’m trying something new, and my soul is ready for it. I’m going to spend more time in the dark. I’m going to watch the darkness give way to the dimmest violet―an Advent color, by the way―in the early hours of the morning. I’m going to sit in the pitch dark―or at least as dark as our over-lit urban landscape allows―and listen for coyotes and night song.

It was, after all, in the night watch when the angels appeared in the sky, announcing the birth of the Savior and singing their Glorias to highest heaven. Just think: if the shepherds hadn’t been spending the night in a pitch-black field they would have missed the greatest moment in the history of the world.

It’s getting dark. It’s time to go outside.

What sacred memories do you have of meeting God in the dark?

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.
I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

21 December 2013

Reflecting on Mt. 1: 18-24

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

When my friend Emily was a freshman in high school, she was reading Matthew’s gospel in Theology class.  When she came across the section where the angel told Joseph to name the child “Jesus” she was stumped.  Huh?  Why does the angel tell Joseph to name the Baby “Jesus” when, just one sentence later, we read that all this is to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah said, which was that the Child would be called  “Emmanuel”?

I nodded wisely and assured her that once she was older she would understand the many hidden complexities of Matthew’s gospel. Then I went home and scrambled to find a decent answer to give her.  It’s only taken me twelve years, Emily, but here’s my attempt.

The author of Matthew’s gospel (which we are now reading for an entire year) desperately wants us to know that Christ will never leave us.  The historical Jesus, the actual person who was born in Bethlehem, smuggled out into Egypt by his wise father, baptized by John in the Jordan, began his public ministry in the Galilee at thirty, was crucified by Pontius Pilate, suffered, died, and was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea―that historical person, our Savior, was named Jesus (or “Yeshua”—God saves).

After his resurrection, on the day he ascended to heaven, he said these very last words to his disciples, and to us: Behold, I am WITH YOU always, even to the end of time. So, Matthew’s 28 chapters begin and end with that promise.  He is with us.  Emmanuel. In sickness and health and sorrow and joy, and yes, for all eternity.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

In what ways do you sense that Christ is “with you”?

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.
I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

Third Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

14 December 2013

Reflecting on Mt. 11: 2-11

© Jesus Film Media

Waiting.  It’s excruciating.  I’m not thinking about the usual waitings: in line, in traffic, at the doctor’s office.  Those are character-building, and give us daily opportunities to pray for all the people who got to the post office ahead of us, who were daydreaming when the light changed, who were getting serious news from the doctor while we were reading magazines in the waiting room.

I’m thinking about the kind of waiting that’s truly painful.  Like waiting for the nausea medication to work when you have the stomach flu.  Or waiting for the sound of the garage door opener when your teenagers are two hours past curfew.  Or waiting for the biopsy results on that asymmetrical mole with the irregular borders.

It seems that all creation quivers in a constant state of waiting.  Chipmunks are good waiters. They store seeds and nuts under their nests in late summer, then rouse themselves from sleep during the winter to eat what they have wisely stored. Bears are expert waiters.  They store fat before winter, and then hibernate in a sleep so deep that they don’t wake until spring.  And then, get out of their way.  They are ravenous from their months of waiting.

And don’t even mention the word “waiting” to butterflies.  They are creation’s superstars of waiting.

John the Baptist, shut up in Herod’s prison, knew he was coming to the end of his earthly waiting.  He sent his disciples to see and hear the One of whom the prophets foretold.

Go and tell John what you see.  The blind see, the lame walk, the poor have the Good News preached to them.

Dark night is done.  Bright morning dawns at last.

What are you waiting for?

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.
I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

Second Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

8 December 2013

Reflecting on Isaiah 11: 1-10

Imagine that Someone was offering you the gifts of the Holy Spirit that Isaiah mentions in today’s reading.  Here are your choices:

Wisdom:   Those who possess wisdom will save the world.  Let this gift work in you, helping you to order your life around the things that endure.  Let the words of your mouth, and the meditations of your heart, be touched by wisdom this year.

Understanding:    What a comfort it is to have a friend who truly understands you.  We make quick judgments of people these days.  Those with the gift of understanding are never quick to judge, always quick to listen.

Counsel:    This supernatural gift works with your intuition to help you discern God’s work in your life.  God is healing and saving every day.  Use your voice and your life to be God’s co-agent.

Strength:    Strength is standing with a friend when she is losing the positive regard of your other friends.  Strength is the day-to-day showing up, at work, at home, at prayer.  As the poster of the tree, battered but standing, in my oncologist’s office says, Do not pray for an easy life.  Pray to be a strong person.

Knowledge:    There’s nothing as peaceful as knowing your own truth.  But don’t confuse this with what the culture wants you to know.  There is a Spirit-voice that will lead you in deeper peace and knowledge of how you want to be in the world.

Fear of the Lord:    When was the last time you stopped the car in mid-errand and just looked at Creation all around you?  Breathe in the crisp winter air.  Revel in the profound changes that this season brings.  Don’t go a single day without the awareness of the AWESOMENESS of God.

Which gift do you need the most right now?

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.
I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

First Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

2 December 2013

Reflecting on Matthew 24: 37-44

Here’s a thought.  What if the Second Coming of Christ isn’t being held off by God, but held off by us?  What if, as St. Charles Borromeo suggests, “Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again”, and we’re the ones who are delaying his coming?

Here are a few of the ways I’ve experienced the “drawing near” of Christ in my life:

  1. When, outside of “sacred surroundings”, people share about the ways in which Christ is working in their lives.  Or, just because they want to, people sing psalms and hymns together.  Or they talk about the homily in the car on the way home.  Or they pray together, just because they saw each other in church and know that Jesus is their connection.
  2. When people who were estranged join hands in friendship.  There is nothing more powerful than forgiveness, no quicker way to enter the kingdom of God than to watch enemies begin to speak to one another.  Especially if we are the ones estranged, and we are the ones to make the first move toward reconciliation.    Test this out this holiday season, and let the Prince of Peace overwhelm you with his immediate presence.
  3. When we are forced out of our comfort zones and find ourselves making friends with people of every race, language, and way of life.  People, after all, are the crowning glory of God’s creation.  Find ways to enjoy the company of people different from you, and guess what?  There is Jesus, right in your midst.

The advent of the kingdom is only this: Draw near to him, and he will draw near to you (James 4:8).

In what ways will you help the kingdom draw near this year?

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.
I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

18 December 2010

Reflecting on Matthew 1:18-24

Do you know this old joke?

Johnny:  Mom, I get to play St. Joseph in the Christmas program!

Mom:    Go back and tell Sister you want a speaking part.

It’s true.  Joseph doesn’t utter a single word in any of the Gospels, and if it weren’t for Matthew, with his unique memory of St. Joseph’s saving role in the protection of Mary throughout her pregnancy―and  of the Mother and Child after the birth, with the dangerous flight into Egypt and eventual return― we wouldn’t know much about St. Joseph at all.

As early as the second century, writers began adding their own imaginative additions to the scant information given in the Gospels about both Mary and Joseph.

In those books we learn that Joseph was a widower with several children; hence the several occurrences of the New Testament phrase “the brothers and sisters of the Lord”.  (That’s one reason he is often drawn as an old man in Nativity scenes.)  In these stories, Mary lived in the Temple.  When she was fourteen all the unmarried men from the royal lineage of David were summoned so that her spouse could be chosen.   Calling on the prophecy from Isaiah that we heard last week―a branch shall come forth from the family of Jesse, a blossom shall bud from that tree―they all brought branches and extended them.  And sure enough!  The Holy Spirit descended on Joseph’s branch.

That’s why St. Joseph is often depicted in art as holding a branch with a blossom on the top.

Never mind that St. Jerome later said “phooey” to the stories by simply translating “brothers” as “cousins” and ending the need to create stories to line up with theology.  There’s something charming about it anyway.

Sharing God’s Word at Home:

What customs do you share about St. Joseph?

This column was written in my head while having a fascinating conversation with my friend and greatest teacher, Sr. Macrina Scott, OSF, who once again opened me up to the wideness and depth of our Catholic traditions, some of which made it into Scripture!

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.

I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

Third Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

11 December 2010

Reflecting on James 5:7-10

It’s easy to tell someone to be patient, and so hard to actually do it.  Our children need us to watch them closely, but they also need enormous amounts of “looking the other way” as they mature and eventually find their way in the world without us.

Our aging parents need our patience.  As they deal with the greatest losses in life―loss of health, loss of memory―they need us to care for them, finding creative ways to help them recover strength and well-being in an increasingly unsettling world.

We need to be patient with ourselves, too.  Real change―changes in how we eat, how we live, how we regain strength after surgery or an illness―will surely come.  Just as the farmer awaits the yield of the soil by waiting for both the early and the late rains, we watch ourselves for the changes we work on little by little through the years.

Last spring I had an ingrown toenail removed.  The whole event took about six months.  The new nail grew in as the old nail died.  I could actually see the boundary between death and new life every time I examined my toe. We don’t see that transition as clearly in other parts of our lives until, one day, we look at someone we love and ask, “When did you get so tall?  So beautiful?  So self-assured?  When did you grow into yourself?”

Patience, people.  God is surely at work in us, giving us grace and insight as the years go by.  Watch for the changes in yourself that signal that the Lord has been near all along.

Sharing God’s Word at Home:

How can you help God help you make a real change?

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.

I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

Second Sunday of Advent – Cycle A

4 December 2010

Reflecting on Isaiah 11:1-10

Ah, the peaceable kingdom.  How we long for the day when the wolf shall be guest of the lamb, and the calf and the young lion browse together.  But how on earth (and in heaven) do we build it?

Peaceable Kingdom, painting Edward Hicks

I recently came across a letter from my childhood friend Gloria, written on the occasion of my mother’s death.  I’ve saved it all these years because I need to take in the comfort that her words still give me:  Kathy, you loved your mom so well. Don’t make yourself sick in the years to come agonizing that you didn’t do enough. I stand as a witness to your life, and I’m telling you that you loved her well.

And then the peace comes.  And flowing from that peace comes the grace to send similar letters to people I know who may need an extra infusion of love today.  Is there anybody in my life I can let off the hook?  Is there anyone to whom I can say, “That little thing?  Are you kidding?? Don’t even worry about it!  I totally forgot about it a million years ago.”

Is there a friend or relative whose entire DNA is completely foreign to you, whose behavior is consistently grating, whose past offenses haven’t been nearly as itemized and publicized as they should be?  Tap into the grace that is always there―the kingdom of God is within you―and see them as God does, who has been the constant witness to their life and wants to heal them today, through you.

There is no peace until we are each at peace, and it begins now.  Find someone to be extra gracious to today.  And then stand back and watch the kingdom break forth.

Sharing God’s Word at Home:

Have you ever seen someone differently when you look through God’s eyes?

What would YOU like to say about this question, or today’s readings, or any of the columns from the past year? The sacred conversations are setting a Pentecost fire! Register here today and join the conversation.

I have come to light a fire on the earth; how I wish it were already burning (Lk.12:49).

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