Psalms 122:1-2, 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 8
1st Sunday of Advent - November 27, 2022
The passage we just heard is only part of a long conversation that St Matthew records in Chapters 24 and 25 of his Gospel. Up until this point in the conversation, Jesus has been explaining what the age of the Church, the period of history between his resurrection and his second coming will look like. He has explained to his Apostles that the age of the Church will be marked by both wonderful growth and also painful persecution. He has explained that Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Old Covenant, will be destroyed to make definitive way for the New Covenant. He has explained that the world itself will eventually be destroyed to make way for the new heavens and the new earth. And then, by referring to the example of Noah, he explains that although these things definitely will happen, the Apostles can't know when: "you do not know on which day your Lord will come."
Jesus spoke about what he knew - his explanations were not mere theories. And when the Apostles heard him, they recognized the ring of truth in his voice. Why is Jesus telling them these things? Why does the Church remind us about them every year as Advent begins?
God wants us to know that our time is limited, that our lives and history itself will come to an end. He wants us to know this, because he wants us to use our limited time wisely, living as true Christians. Jesus considers this lesson to be so important that he dedicates four separate parables to it before he finishes the conversation, driving the lesson home. Jesus knew how easily even the most faithful disciple can fall into the trap of thinking that this earthly life is the goal, and not merely the path.
This theme constantly comes up in the world's great literature and art. Artists have a special sensitivity to the question of life's purpose, which they often address through the image of life as a journey.
Homer's great epic poem, The Odyssey, is perhaps the most famous of these works. This was one of the books which was in my summer reading list as I entered BC High in 1968. It was written around 800 BC in Greece and has been inspiring mankind ever since. The poem chronicles the 20-year ocean journey of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) from Troy, where he just helped the Greeks win the Trojan War, back to his kingdom on the Island of Ithaca.
He and his men must survive an excruciating gauntlet of life-threatening encounters on the way. They meet the Cyclops, the Sirens, the Sea Monsters of Scylla and Charybdis, Circe the sorceress, and many others. Throughout the journey, Odysseus is tempted over and over again to give up and settle down. The pleasures of the islands along the way and the dangers of the sea make the temptation even more alluring. But he knows that authentic happiness can only be found in Ithaca. Only there can he be truly himself because there his family awaits him, there is his one true home. Each one of us is like Odysseus. We are on a journey through this life, and our true home is in the Father's house, where the family of God eagerly awaits us, on the shores of heaven.
To use a more recent and maybe a more familiar example, we are each like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Original sin was the tornado that cast us out of the Creator's house and far from our home in heaven. This life on earth is a journey along the Yellow Brick Road of following Christ, until we reach the real Emerald City, heaven, where we will find once again our heart's deepest longing.
We know this. We believe in Christ, and we are constantly being reminded of this all-important truth that life on earth is only the path, not the goal.
This is why we are able to find: strength in the midst of life's difficulties, hope in the midst of life's inevitable tragedies, and courage in the midst of temptation and failure.
Today we should thank God for the great gift of this knowledge, this certainty that our lives and history itself both have a goal, an endpoint - they are going somewhere. Without this knowledge, we would have to invent our own meaning and block out the burning question of life's purpose. We would be like children playing make-believe in a sandbox - distracting ourselves from distractions with distractions, as the poet T.S. Eliot put it.
We should be grateful, but we should also be helpful. There are people in our lives - friends, colleagues, neighbors, maybe even family members - who have never had this knowledge, or who have lost it.
And because of that, they are living with a deep sense of frustration. It may be hidden, but it is there.
It is no coincidence that more suicides happen during the Christmas season than in any other period of the year. During the Christmas season there is so much hope in the air, that those who have no hope find their frustration turning into despair. This Advent let's share the Good News of Jesus Christ with someone who needs to hear it. Let's help someone - even just one person - arrive to Christmas this year not just distracted from their troubles but filled with meaning for their life.
Let's invite someone into the Ark, not Noah's Ark, which perished, but the Ark of the Church, which Christ has guaranteed will make it safely through the floods of time and into the eternal harbor of heaven.
Psalms 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
2nd Sunday of Advent - December 4, 2022
The days get shorter, and Christmas gets closer. It seems like a paradox, but it’s a powerful reminder that light overcomes darkness. The Church offers us Advent to train us in attentive trust, so that we can give God permission to come into our lives.
And so, the gospel today brings the figure of John the Baptist to the forefront.
He’s a wild character, the last of the Old Testament prophets. He’d be perfectly at home in a survival show, with his camel hair gear and his eccentric diet of locusts and wild honey. He doesn’t mince words either. He calls for repentance. He takes the religious leaders to the prophetic woodshed for their insincerity, and he calls all of us to repent.
Repentance is simple. It’s the recognition that I am infinitely loved by God, that I have sometimes failed to live up to that love, and that I need his mercy. Repentance, in the end, is giving God a free hand to work in my life as he wants.
This is supremely freeing. It means that I don’t have to save myself. It means that I allow Jesus to enter into my life and take control. St John the Baptist lived that in his own life.
We know that later he was arrested by King Herod for pointing out the King’s adulterous relationship. John was thrown into prison, and he was tempted to doubt. Was this part of God’s plan? Sure, the whole baptism episode was clearly from God, but could God really want him to be unjustly imprisoned?
He sent some friends to ask Jesus if he were really the savior or not. And Jesus replied: “Tell John to remember what he has seen and heard.” Jesus is pointing out that true repentance means accepting that God is free to work in our lives as he sees best. He is God, he loves us so much and knows what is best for us.
Cardinal John O’Connor of New York was consecrated a bishop in 1983 in Rome. On his way down the aisle after the consecration, he blessed the people gathered in the church. Suddenly he saw a famous face and went over to greet Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
He gave her a blessing but was not prepared for what came next. She grasped one of his hands in both of hers and said to him: “Give Jesus a free hand! Give him permission!” Cardinal O’Connor never forgot those words, and he said that he tried to make them a watchword for the rest of his life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks very clearly of the importance of intercessory prayer. What is it? Very simply, it’s prayer on behalf of others. God is at work in everyone’s life, and at the same time he wants us to be a part of others’ salvation. One of the ways we do that is by praying for them.
When we see a tragedy on TV, is our first reaction to turn to God in prayer? When we hear about a loved one who’s sick or suffering, do we immediately turn to God? Just like John the Baptist, we’re called to give God a free hand in our lives, and to bring others to God. Praying for them every day is an excellent way to do exactly that.