Why we re-read old Bible stories

Lesson2Towards the middle of her pregnancy, Mary goes to join her family in the seclusion of the hills in the countryside of Judah. Much like King David had taken the Ark of the Covenant into that same protective retreat in the hills for three months, so too does the Mother of Our Lord withdraw to nurture her child. She is the tabernacle, and during this period of advent silence, she pulls the veil tightly around herself as a sign of the holiness and majesty of the treasure contained within. Mary meets Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Both of these women are in the midst of miracles and they draw close to support each other and ponder the mystery that has entered their midst.

Advent is domestic. It’s a gathering up of the family, a time when we see distant relative and re-connect, and I know my mom is thrilled simply to have her three sons all under her roof again – she quickly gets over that feeling and remembers why she pushed us out of the nest in the first place – but for a moment, before we start fighting over board games and eating every single bit of food in the house, she’s happy. What do families do when we get together but share memories? Gather round the hearth with your egg nog or, in this parish, your rum with a splash of egg nog for the sake of appearances, and laugh and reminisce and play games. I always like to ask my older relatives to tell stories about their childhood and ancestors that I never got to meet. We all have our traditions we repeat every year. These are rituals with a vital purpose, that help us celebrate the family, the people who mean more to us than anything in the world.

Does anyone here like Little House on the Prairie? My family is obsessed with it. Little House is a beloved set of stories because of how they celebrate family and family memories and because of how amazing Michael Landon’s hair is. There’s an episode from the first season called “Christmas at Plum Creek,” and in it, they discover that the secret of Christmas is to follow the star all the way to Jesus, to share in his selfless love and to imitate him by making our lives a gift to others. The episode ends with them all gathered around the Christmas tree, looking at the star on the top and simply enjoying being near each other.

The Church is a family too. We are all very different people, but we have followed the star to the side of Jesus, and we are here together as brothers and sisters simply to be together in his presence. Like any family, we share memories. For weeks now we’ve been rehearsing the prophecies of the Old Testament about the coming of the Messiah. We’ve been seeing how they maintain their expectation and hope in the midst of suffering. We have been reading about the events in the life of Mary and Joseph as they prepare for Christmas, how the words of the angel Gabriel called them to reach out in faith and trust to follow the plan of God. At Christmas itself we will read the actual Christmas narrative about the birth of Christ, how he came into the world as part of a family, because family is at the heart of human existence, this is true of our natural families but even if you may be lacking in that it is equally true of our spiritual family.

When we rehearse our history as a Church, when we read the scriptures, we aren’t doing it so much as scholars or archaeologists so much as we are remembering our story. This is our history. We may not understand everything we read and may end up, like Mary, pondering these questions in our hearts. We may not understand every symbolic action or prayer in the Mass, which is a repository of shared ritual and history. Certainly there are times I read the scriptures and scratch my head, but that’s okay because the mystical Body of Christ is a reality that carries significance even if we don’t grasp it’s fullness yet. There is a fellowship of saints into which we are being drawn. We read and interpret these stories and prayers with their help. Our worship and our traditions and our stories are alive and vibrant, encompassing generations. As we reminisce about them they reveal their inner life.

Expectation is a state of being that flows through our whole personal and familial existence. In each of our lives, there are infinite ways in which we wait and hope, from very small things to very large and important things. Mary and Joseph wait for their son to be born. John the Baptist waited for the Savior to arrive. The prophets waited for deliverance. We wait to hear the result of a test at school, the result of a job interview, if a client is happy with our work. We wait for family to arrive from out of town, for a meeting with a friend. We wait for forgiveness, and linger before the Blessed Sacrament, and for answers to our prayers. In that waiting there is hope. We join in with our Church family in the great hope for the arrival of the Savior. We talk about it, and think about it, and anticipate it. As long as we wait and hope, we are fully alive, because we can measure ourselves by what we hope for. [Credit – this paragraph is a Pope Benedict XVI paraphrase]

This is why Advent is apocalyptic and deals not only with the arrival of Christ at Christmas but also his arrival in our hearts. Scripturally speaking, an apocalypse doesn’t mean stuff blowing up and the world becoming a nuclear wasteland. It means a lifting of the veil, Mary emerging from seclusion, a revelation of the true nature of the universe, a personal encounter with the God who lovingly crafted our souls, who is fearsome and exalted but nevertheless knows us intimately.

The stories we tell are a tugging at that veil, the glory of God exploding out of a dark stable, a finger pointing inward at your buried potential and reason for hope and expectation even if you don’t see how, in a billion years, God could think that you are so very important. Take comfort, you are a part of this family and in a family everyone, from the matriarch to the smallest child, is known and loved.

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The superabundance of the Christian life

download (11)The Antiphon for first Sunday of Advent is gorgeous: “Ad te levavi. To you I lift up my soul.” This is the very first prayer of Advent, marking it as a turn heavenward when we leave behind the cares of the previous year and orient ourselves directly towards Christ and his Kingdom.

The Antiphon for today’s Mass begins, “Gaudete in Domino semper. Rejoice in the Lord always.” This is a direct quote from St. Paul and the reason we call this Gaudete Sunday. The Antiphon is written in Latin, we translated it to English to sing it, and to make it more complicated, St. Paul wrote it in Greek. His word for rejoice is “chairete,” the exact same word that St. Gabriel uses to greet the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation when he says, “Joy to you, full of grace!”

Those verbs are all in the imperative form, meaning that St. Paul almost commands us to rejoice. Children, the imperative form is the word that you’re used to hearing from your parents: “Stop doing that right now,” “Straighten up or I’m sending you to live in a zoo,” that sort of thing. St. Paul uses it to impart his fatherly joy to us. When Gabriel says it to Mary, he offers it to her as a gift.

Joy is our birthright as children of God. It does not eliminate negative events, we need to be honest about that. God’s promise is not that we will never experience illness or have cash flow problems. He doesn’t promise we’ll always get the closest parking spot or never have periods of mourning or grief. His joy is actually bigger than that – it encompasses all of those things. Within God’s joy are all of the events of our lives, and whatever happens to us for good or bad is in his hands. With his joy, we can overcome any adversity.

I remember when I was a child, I was very morose. Morbid ruminations were sort of my specialty, and I would sit in my room and listen to REM and Bob Dylan and write horrible poetry. I haven’t even told you all about my goth phase yet when I painted my fingernails black – something to look forward to I guess – but I would get really down. My friends would get so frustrated that they would eventually just try to command me to be happier. It didn’t work because I’m stubborn, or I just enjoyed being weird, I don’t know, but it is true that joy can be a decision. We can choose it even when we don’t feel it.

There are hints in our readings about how to choose it. It’s not that hard, really. Be mindful of God’s mercy, that you are loved, that he is with you at every moment. Also, because we are created to connect with others, we are happier when we stop navel-gazing and consider how to help others. When you are depressed, directionless, unmotivated, do a simple act of love. Show someone kindness. The mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysius says that the good is diffusive of itself, meaning that when we give away joy, not only do we create it for others, but we also find it returned to ourselves.

Bishop Robert Barron says, “God’s whole life is joy.” It is a letting go of ourselves, our seriousness, self-certainty, and anxieties. Joy almost seems unnecessary. It won’t add one dollar to your salary or get you that bigger house. It has nothing to do with basic, material survival, but that is why it is so precious. A life well-lived doesn’t proceed by necessity, and human beings are special because of how good we are at what is totally unnecessary. We are about more than mere survival. Think about it: We don’t eat nutritional soylent green bars for dinner. No, we make up a huge pizza with a massive number of meat-based toppings and we feast. I think we would all agree that our lives are defined not so much by career but by leisure time – watching the kids play sports, going to a movie, meeting a friend at the coffee shop, hanging out on the back deck.

Jesus comes to give us joy. That is his mission. Joy is at the center of the Christian life. We are baptized, St. John the Baptist says, by the Holy Spirit and fire, showing that from the very beginning the Christian life is one of superabundance.

The Mass itself is a good illustration of this. I could say the words of consecration very quickly and we could be done with it. Why all the prayers, the singing, the incense, the candles, the vestments, the decorations and statues? These might seem trivial, but in fact, there is an interior glow and force to the liturgy. It is a joyful, totally unnecessary lingering in the presence of God. It is a celebration. There is no real defense for our actions here at Mass except that, here, we reject the limitation of the human soul to industriousness and profit motives. Here, there is an overflow of grace, liberty, beauty, and holy joy.

St. Paul cautions us that anxiety is the thief of joy. Those cares and worries of everyday life can seep in and overwhelm us. It’s natural. We have responsibilities. Maybe the boss said something and it’s on your mind. School is stressful. Relationships have their ups and downs.

I know the sins of my heart, and if I ponder them even for a moment, anxiety naturally sets in. I feel like a hypocrite, an undeserving, ungrateful, and very lucky person. A true, honest inventory of the contents of our heart, the depths to which we can sink, the grudges we’re willing to enforce, the secret thoughts about other people, the faithlessness, it ought to rattle us to the core. It’s like a personal apocalypse, what future could I possibly have seeing the mess I have made of myself? And you see how the joy is all but gone now? There’s a narrow path we must walk. We must be honest with ourselves, yes, but the proper response to discovering our sins is not overwhelming guilt, but joy that we can seek God’s forgiveness and be set free.

Anxiety is a symptom of thinking that we are in charge of our own lives. We are not. Jesus is Lord of everything. Put him in charge and let him give you his joy.

GK Chesterton says that, “the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce… So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.” Our Lord is winnowing the wheat and clearing the threshing floor. It is time for us to start listening, and we will hear the heavens ring with angelic celebration. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says St. Paul. “Again I say, Rejoice!”

The virgin will come walking down the street, pregnant with Light

john-of-the-crosscrucifixion
A simple picture by St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross, in the year 1569, is a young man completing his theological education in Spain where he lives. He has already been a Carmelite monk for about six years, but it is only when he goes to school and meets a nun by the name of Teresa of Avila that history really begins to notice him. That meeting is the spark that begins a great forest fire throughout the Carmelite order. John himself is lit ablaze by her passion, and the fire both illuminates his life and also burns to the ground all of his ambitions, friendships, and career prospects. Later on, he will cling to that divine flame because everything else had subsided into a moonless darkness, a dark night of the soul in which all he can feel is God’s absence and abandonment.

When John first meets her, Teresa is trying to reform the Carmelites by re-introducing poverty and solitude to the spirituality of the nuns. By 1571, she has begun a parallel order of Carmelites, referred to as “Discalced,” meaning that they go about the convent barefoot as a sign of poverty. She needs a spiritual director and asks John to fill the role, then after a while she needs a man to establish the Discalced Carmelites among the men. Again, she asks John.

In 1575, as a result of his reform attempts with the men, the other Carmelites, the ones who still wear shoes, kidnap and imprison him in the basement of a monastery in Toledo, Spain. They treat him poorly, feeding him only bread and water. They physically attack him regularly. After nine months, like a child emerging from the womb, he slips away under cover of darkness. He later describes his escape in a poem, writing, “I went out without being observed, since all in my house were asleep. In darkness and secure, by the secret ladder.” Once back home, he manages to live with his fellow monks for a while, but then once again is exiled to a place far from home, this time in Andalusia. While there, an infection from his imprisonment worsens but the monks who are guarding him dislike him so much that they refuse him treatment and he dies before his time, finally whispering to Jesus, “Into your hands, Beloved, I commend my spirit.”

You can see how, perhaps, looking back on that fateful meeting with Teresa, John may have wished that particular day he had skipped class and stayed home, that he had never been drawn into her orbit, because as he learned during the course of his life, the cost of holiness may be your destruction at the hands of an unfeeling, calloused world. But John never wrote a word of regret, never allowed himself to be defined as a victim. In fact, he wrote some of the greatest lyrical poetry that the world has ever known.

Now, I take a step back and compare St. John of the Cross with myself – I’ll pause a minute for you to stop laughing – Let me tell you, I suffer in the comparison (just a little bit!). I’m the kind of person who burns my hand on a pop tart because I can’t wait for it to cool off. I’ll start the microwave to heat up my coffee and but simply cannot wait until it counts down to zero and grab the coffee early. When my computer starts a software update, I literally become Job and ask God why he made such a horrible creation. There’s a certain attachment there to convenience and having what I want right away. I assume that none of us would want to live like St. John. I suppose we all have certain attachments. It might be to material things, or being popular. It might be television, or food, or shopping. Or perhaps we’re attached to a certain identity we’ve crafted for ourselves, all the way from being overly prideful to cultivating a sense of self-pity.

In his book Ascent of Mount Carmel St. John predicts that people like us would one day roam the earth, and he explains that our attachments hold us back, “because [you] have not shaken off some childish thing,” he writes, you fail to gain the fullness of God’s blessing.

It’s really convicting to think about, really. Here was a man who had everything taken from him and yet was able to seek God with his whole heart, and here we are constantly distracted and even in the midst of our comparative wealth, we desire more.

What was St. John’s secret? It was his total abandonment, his steadfast detachment from desires. By the end of his life, he desired only one thing, union with God.

Advent is all about detachment. As the days grow darker and we are encouraged to slow down, wait patiently, watch, and pray, what we are really doing is adjusting our expectations and desires. It is time for us to leave behind old vices and selfish desires. Any attachment, as small and insignificant as it may seem, can bring your spiritual life to a halt. It will forever be the barrier that separates you from union with God. St. John says, “The soul that is attached to anything, however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for, until the cord be broken, the bird cannot fly.”

In the days of spiritual darkness before the arrival of Christ, when the world was under the domination of rapacious political forces and a corrupt religious priesthood, a prophet was raised up, one who blew about the desert like chaff, who emerged as though from a nest of vipers and kindled a watchfire. This is another John, St. John the Baptist, whose mission is to shout as loud as he needs to in order to get our attention. His message is simple. Break free from attachments, because when Our Lord arrives he will do so by a straight path, and every desire we conceive in opposition to him is a bend in the road.

Love comes down that road, and we must make ready to receive Him. We are to be filled with his presence love. Room must be made in our hearts, for it is only then that God can enter in. It is exceedingly difficult to abandon what can feel like pieces of our selves, to leave behind certain attachments that over the years have come to define us, but in doing so, be assured that it is nothing less than an imitation of Christ, who felt supreme abandonment at the Cross, who entered into the darkness so that his broken heart could spill forth divine love.

In a poem about Advent, St. John of the Cross sees the light at the end of the tunnel. “If you want,” he writes, “the virgin will come walking down the street, pregnant with Light, and sing!”

The Immaculate Conception and the intention behind our existence

bellegambe stanne immac concThe doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary is the Mother of God, not that she herself is a goddess but that she is a human being who, from the very moment of her conception, is set apart and kept pure so that, when God decided the time was right for the Incarnation of Our Lord, she would be a worthy tabernacle for him. For this purpose, she was born free from the stain of original sin. In this sense she was not substantially different than you or me, but she was set free from the very beginning to be fully human. Even as she was preserved from original sin, it was still her choice each and every day to avoid committing an actual sin. Her life was her own, and the gift that God gave to her was the ability to choose freely without the baggage of lingering vices to affect her decisions.

There is an intention to her creation. God has a specific vocation for her, and when he knits her bones and flesh together in the womb and endows her with a soul, her dowry is a life with a very definite meaning. She has a path to travel. But when we talk about the intention and miracle of her existence, we are not talking so much about what she will do or accomplish, but simply about the Blessed Virgin herself as a person, lovingly conceived, filled with the love of God. This is the miracle of each of our existences, not how much money we earn or fame we achieve, how smart we become or what we eat or where we travel, it is the simple fact that each morning we open our eyes to the gathering of God into yet another blessed breath, and his divine nature is etched ever more deeply into our hearts as we wait upon his presence.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard remarks that, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” T.S. Eliot gives his own perspective to that statement when he says, “You are the music while the music lasts.” In other words, Mary is held in the highest esteem not because of what she does, but because of who she is. All of her actions, her tender love, her faithfulness, her generous intercession on our behalf, all of it comes from the wellspring of her nature. She is who she is because she has chosen to live in harmony with the intention of God when he poured the spark of his divine life into her.

You and I are also made with intention. You are I are also created in the image of God, endowed with his lifeblood. St. Paul says that God has “Blessed us…with every spiritual blessing in the heavens,

as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world.” He goes on to say that we exist, “for the praise of his glory.” This means that, before your conception, God’s name was marked upon you, in fact that divine autograph defines the horizon of you are. Thomas Merton says it is like “pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.” This is the glory of God within us, and simply by being who we are, seeking his face, leaving behind sin, we are a living, breathing, testimony to the glory of God.

With God nothing is impossible. I, a sinner, can be baptized and offered the chance to be kept free from sin. I, a sinner, can go to confession and have the stain of sin removed by a singular act of grace, and walk out of that confessional to never sin again if I so choose. How is this possible other than that God made me and you with the intention that we be free from sin. He made us to be complete.

There is intention to our creation, a loving tenderness, a purpose. The Blessed Virgin honors that intention by imitating it and saying her Fiat, Yes, God, it shall be as you desire. I am yours. When we say Yes to the movement of God in our lives, we learn well from our Blessed Mother, and we join in with the great act of creation. We join in the intention of the Creator and become co-creators.

Every kind word we speak, every time we step out in faith, every harsh word left unanswered, every secret act of generosity, every prayer offered up, enlarges reality and makes room for the Holy Spirit to come down, and who knows what miracle may be birthed?

The fear and hope of Advent

download (10)When I was about to graduate from seminary, back in 2006, I was living in New England and searching for a job. In the Episcopal Church, which is what I was at the time, the potential pastors actually respond to job openings and interview for the position, so I was doing the rounds and trying to sort out my future. The process was complicated because the Episcopal Church was in the midst of a nasty break-up, with a lot of fighting over issues surrounding marriage, basically all the stuff we’ve been fighting over for the last 15 years as a society. To put it this way, some Episcopalians wanted to bake the cake for any type of wedding some Episcopalians didn’t want to bake the cake. Because of the argument, my job prospects were severely limited. One weekend, a brand-new parish on Cape Cod, MA asked me to come up and preach for them for the weekend because they didn’t have a priest yet, so up I go, all excited because at that time I wasn’t tired of hearing myself talk yet, and I arrive at this Church, but it wasn’t a Church. It was a parishioner’s house, and the Church met in the living room, and there were about 15 people there. That was okay, we worshiped and had a great time chatting during coffee after and I left and went back to seminary.

Not too long after that, they contacted me and offered me a job. I had a few other options I was considering, but this extremely risky offer intrigued me. It was crazy, the salary I needed I would have to fund-raise, and there was a ton of work to get this little parish established and growing. Looking back on it, I may have been out of my mind, because I said yes. Like a baby bird pushed out of the nest, I graduated seminary, was ordained, and headed out to take on this challenge. It was terrifying. It was a huge task and I was not entirely sure this new parish would survive more than a year. I took it on, though, because I felt a strong prompting from the Holy Spirit that this was where He wanted me at that time in my life.

And you know what? I spent six years there, loving every second of it. I met some of the greatest people in the world, people still dear to my heart. They believed in me, and supported me, and really taught me how to be a pastor. We ended up with a nice worship space and a nice, little parish. I ended up taking on a second parish while there and that initial group of 15 expanded to 100. When I felt God’s call to be received into the Catholic Church and move on, it was a bittersweet development. Sweet to be called into the loving arms of the Church, but bitter to leave that wonderful part of my life behind. I say all this because God will often challenge us and place us in situations where we don’t quite see how we’re going to succeed. Why? Because he believes in us. God believes in you more than you even believe in yourself. But because of this, he puts before us these huge, daunting vocations, and following him is often an act of faith.

There is a great, sweeping movement in today’s Scripture readings, a shaking forth of life-as-usual, as if God is picking up the universe and shaking us free from the nest. In other words, it is terrifying. Jesus says that people will die of fright, and as a new world is coming on, the old world must be dying, and there will be a re-ordering of everything that we thought we knew. There’s a certain inertia that comes with comfort, a reluctance to change, because even if this world is flawed and violent and so often disappointing, it’s the world we know. Even if conditions are less than perfect and I’m still stuck in patterns of sin, there’s a hesitation to change, because who knows? Maybe I’ll take a risk and fail. But that self-defeating attitude is based on fear and it’s one of the ways that Satan keeps us mediocre and anxious. In the poem Paradise Lost, Satan declares he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven, he would rather serve his own need for comfort and control rather than step out and follow Jesus. His actions are like sawing off the limb of a tree while he’s sitting on it. We see the problem so clearly in the actions of Satan – it’s destructive and he’s going to end up alone and sad and have a great fall when the branch gives way – and yet we allow our pride to cause us to imitate his self-destructive choices.

This is the fear that comes with Advent, the fear of being dragged out of our comfortable place, the fear of relying on God instead of ourselves. At Advent, the Gospel message becomes very clear – God is about to arrive, and nothing will be the same. It’s a feeling of being lost at sea, unmoored and drifting. That is, unless we step out in faith and turn to Jesus as our ark of salvation. Here is where we must learn to trust that his plans for us are for the good. He wants us to be fully awake, fully alive, set free from sin, always finding new gratitude and joy. When Our Lord arrives, he wants us to be able to greet him not with fear but with hope, able to say, I don’t know where you’re leading me or if I’m even ready for this but I trust you and I will follow you.

The heart, in going out to God, leaves much behind and cannot look back. This is the logic of love, that we are willing to abandon anything that would keep us from our beloved. The old self, fearful and anxious about many things, grasps at every illusory promise of security, clings to things, arranges them in great useless piles, looks on them caressingly and takes inventory of them. The loss of any thing, even the most insignificant, represents for the old self the loss of control, the loss of power, and of comforting familiar pleasures. All of this in incompatible with hope.

What we have before us in the season of Advent is an opportunity to take some time to reflect. How has the year gone? What is God asking of me? What are my fears that I need to give to Jesus, what is the hope that he places before me? These are some good questions to help slow us down a bit, not jump into Christmas just yet, and properly prepare ourselves for his arrival. We always remember, always, that no matter what happens in our lives, our redemption is near at hand.