Advent and the Fat Lady
December 5, 2004
“It’s not over until the fat lady sings.” As unlikely as it may seem, this saying directly relates to the season of Advent, and to a spiritual attitude in which we should try to live each day of our lives. The saying is often attributed incorrectly to Yogi Berra, the manager of the New York Yankees. He probably receives credit because another of his sayings is close to it: “It’s not over until it’s over.”
Both of these sayings point to a truth: you are not going to know who wins the ball game until the last out is made.
The saying about the fat lady does not originate in baseball. The full saying reveals its origin: “the opera is not over until the fat lady sings”. It reflects the common practice in classical opera that no matter what kind of twists or turns there are in the plot, the last scene is reserved to the soprano—usually a hefty woman of some presence who closes the opera with a dramatic aria. Therefore, what the saying tells us is that no matter how the story seems to be going, wait! There is still time. The opera is not over until the fat lady sings.
Now what does this have to do with Advent? Actually, quite a bit. Advent is about waiting. This is what the readings today tell us. We are waiting for the Kingdom of God—a kingdom which Isaiah describes in today’s first reading as a kingdom on God’s holy mountain—a kingdom which is announced by a messiah which John the Baptist proclaims in the desert in the wilderness.
Advent is about waiting, and so is life. Jesus has revealed to us a God who saves us, a God who will not abandon us, a God that has promised us life. But the promises of God are not accomplished in a day. Thus the stance for every believer each day of life, is to wait: to wait for God to act, to wait for God to fulfill God’s promises.
This is why it is such a mistake, such a tragedy, when we conclude that things are finished, when we decide that we have come to the end of the line, when we decide that there is nothing more to wait for. Because if we conclude that things are ended before God has finished, then we rob ourselves of hope, and we rob ourselves of life.
Now when can we choose such false conclusions? It usually happens in the midst of heartache or disappointment. When we learn that a son or daughter is addicted to drugs, when we are told we cannot conceive a child, when we find that we have to face divorce or the rejection of someone we love, when we have to mourn someone that we have lost in death, when we lose our job, when the diagnosis comes to us that it is cancer—in these moments of crisis, we are tempted to call the game, to throw in the towel, to conclude that things are over.
But the Christian is called not to give up but to wait, because only God can say when the story is finished.
This attitude of waiting is really the fundamental stance of the believer. It applies not only to the crises of our lives, but also the every day disappointments. When someone forgets our birthday, when our back begins to ache, when our children cannot come home for Christmas, it is easy to conclude that we should just write it off life as a loss and give in to sadness. But the gospel then calls us instead to wait, to see what God will do next. Because as long as there is another scene, anything can happen. As long as God still has room to act, there is hope.
So the next time you have to face a major crisis, or a small disappointment, don’t throw in the towel. Don’t give up. Wait! Watch what will happen next. We believe that God is still at work, so give God time to act. Don’t presume to conclude that your life is a tragedy. God has promised you a happy ending. It is not over until the fat lady sings, and God is the only one who can tell her when to take the stage. Until that final curtain falls, any good thing can still happen.
Following Christ Today
December 9, 2007
Many years ago when I was still in Seminary training, we were required to spend a semester in jail ministry. It was a very positive experience. Once a week we would go and hold a prayer service for the inmates. Then we would spend some time afterwards sharing coffee and talking with them. But before I began that semester, I remember asking one of the older seminarians who had already completed this phase of training, what his experience of it was. He said: “Oh it’s challenging, but quite important. I think you’ll learn a lot from it.” Then he looked at me and said, “But get ready for a lot of old altar servers.”
Now, I did not know what he meant by that comment. But I discovered as I became involved in the ministry, that a remarkable number of the inmates (perhaps one out of every three) would tell me, “Father, I used to be an altar server.” Now this perplexed me and I tried to explain it. I wondered whether there was a connection between being an altar server when you were young and ending up in prison. I want to assure our altar servers here today that I have not been able to substantiate that connection.
But I was able to conclude that either the inmates were trying to hustle me and impress me with their connection to the church or they were sincerely sharing with me a moment of their life when they felt close to God. In time I began to pray that they were hustling me, because how sad would it be that these men, many in their fifties and sixties, would have to go all the way back to their childhood to locate a moment when they felt they were serving God.
One of the lessons that I learned from that semester was this: The important question is not what have we done for God? The important question is what have we done for God lately? That seems to be the issue that John the Baptist has in today’s gospel. When some of the religious leaders come for baptism, he insists that they must demonstrate their goodness by their actions. He does not want them to presume their holiness by saying that they have Abraham as their ancestor. Now, having Abraham as your ancestor was a good thing and John the Baptist certainly respected it. But he insisted that their pedigree be accompanied with action. Or to put it in other terms, what had they done for God lately?
To be a follower of Jesus is not simply to collect a couple actions of faith and love and then move on to other things. To follow Jesus is a way of life. It is not enough to garner together a couple religious experiences that you can point to when the topic comes up in conversation. Being a disciple is living today and every day as a person who is trying to build the Kingdom of God. That is why Jesus asks us to follow him daily. He says, “I know that last Christmas you were very generous with that family that was experiencing financial difficulty. But that was a year ago and there are people still struggling. I am counting on you to be a sign of my love. I know that you told your wife that you loved her and were thankful for her on her anniversary, but that was months ago. Have you told her that recently? I know that you have stood up for someone who was being ridiculed at school or at work, and I was proud when you did that. But that was some time ago and they are still people being abused today.” Each day Jesus says, “I am proud of the ways that you have acted in service, in justice, and love to others, but I need that to continue. What have you done for me lately?”
Now that question of Christ can seem demanding and even unreasonable. But I assure you, it is not Christ’s intention to shame us or to place heavy obligations upon us. For the truth is that doing what Christ asks us to do, following his will, is the best thing that we can do for ourselves. There is no deeper satisfaction than knowing that we have served as he has asked us to serve, that we have forgiven as he has asked us to forgive, that we have loved as he has asked us to love. Doing his will is the greatest joy we can achieve. He asks us to do his will, not for his benefit, and not only for the benefit of others, but for ourselves. We find joy in his commands. That is why it is important that we do not rest on our laurels. We cannot be content because once we were an altar server or once we sacrificed for the sake of some one else. Christ is counting on us today and every day, to build his kingdom, to be people of service, justice, and love. That is what he asks. That is what he commands. We would do well to follow his commands, for doing his will brings us lasting joy. His question, “What have you done for me lately,” is really only another way of asking, “What have you recently done for yourself?”
The Diet of the Baptist
December 5, 2010
We know a good number of things about John the Baptist. He was the agent of God. He proclaimed a baptism of repentance. He prepared the way of the Lord. But in today’s gospel we learn another concrete thing about John. It is this: John the Baptist was no gourmet. He followed a diet that would make you choke—locusts and wild honey. Now what is it about this strange menu? I know that food was not in great supply in the wilderness, but with a little forethought, John could have packed a lunch!
Why is it that he ate these particular foods, and why are the scriptures so concerned to point them out to us? There is nothing in the scriptures by accident. So I suggest that if we spend a little time thinking about John’s diet, we will not only learn more about him but also something about ourselves.
Both locusts and honey have a history of meaning within the bible. Locusts are associated with plagues. One of the nine plagues of Egypt was a plague of locusts. The prophet Joel foretells of a plague of locusts coming to Israel. Biblically speaking, locusts have a negative connotation. They represent ruin, upheaval, loss and pain.
The notable thing about John the Baptist is that he does not flee from locusts. He eats them! John’s eating of locusts is a invitation for us to admit the evils that befall us in life. All too often when an evil thing happens to us, we deny it. “I’m OK. I’m not upset. I’m not hurt. I don’t care.” But, by denying the evil things that happen to us, we actually intensify them. If we try to flee from pain and discouragement, they follow us, and eventually wear us out and lessen our lives. John the Baptist calls us to honesty. Are you dismayed? Admit it. Are you hurt? Claim it. Have you lost someone you love? Begin to grieve. Take the locust and swallow it down.
But, locusts in themselves do not a complete meal make. That’s why John also eats honey. Honey has its own meaning in the bible. Honey is the flavor of God’s word. God gives Ezekiel a scroll with the word of God written on it and tells Ezekiel to eat it. When the prophet eats it, it is as sweet as honey. The Psalmist tells us that God’s word, God’s law, is like honey on the tongue. So, honey is a symbol for our faith, for the sweetness of belief. It tells us that God is real, that God can be trusted, that God is both our savior and our healer. It is only through the sweetness of God’s presence that we can heal and we can hope.
Now the important thing about the diet of John the Baptist is that it was composed of both locusts and honey—both honesty and faith. Both of those foods are necessary for a complete meal. If we try to live our lives only with honesty, it is not enough. It is good to admit that I am hurt, I am dismayed, I am in need. But, that only takes us so far. By itself honesty can lead to discouragement. We must add faith. We must turn to the sweetness of God’s presence and claim the God who is with us, so that we can face the future with hope.
On the other hand, a life that only has faith is not enough. It is a beautiful thing to believe that God is real, that God is with us, that God will save us. But we also need honesty. If we do not claim our own brokenness, our own discouragement, our own need, we do not know who we are. It is only when we can admit how much we need God’s presence that we can open ourselves to God’s saving grace.
So today’s gospel invites us to adopt the diet of John the Baptist. But, it is important that we adopt all of it. Are you discouraged? Are you hurt? Are you grieving? Then, claim it, admit it, swallow it down. Say, yes, this is the person that I am. But, then turn to the sweetness of God’s presence, for it is that presence that will encourage you and heal you.
When evil strikes us, do not deny it, do not run away. Like John the Baptist eating locusts, take it in. But, then be sure to mix it with faith. Loss and pain cannot be carried without God’s presence. Locusts cannot be digested without the honey of God’s word.
Fruit and Fire
December 8, 2013
Today’s gospel is about fruit and fire. The fruit comes from us. The fire comes from God. John the Baptist is the one who sounds the alarm that our fruit is essential, and he is not talking about apples and grapes. The fruit of which John speaks is our good works of service towards our neighbor. John insists that these good works are evidence of our faith and evidence of our commitment to God. Now, this is nothing new to the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to hear John preach. They, like us, are good religious people who understand that God commands us to love our neighbor. But they do not seem to appreciate the urgency of producing fruit now. They seem to presume that they have done enough. They claim, “We have Abraham for our father and surely that is enough.” John is clear that it is not.
In what ways do we presume that we have done enough, that nothing more is required? Do we say, “I’m not a bad person. I don’t commit any big sins. Certainly that’s enough.” Do we say, “I come to church every weekend. That’s enough.” Do we say, “I served the meal at St. Augustine Hunger Center last September? That was good. That’s enough.” All of these things are good things but John keeps urging us to more. John says, “It’s good that you avoid sin but what are doing that’s good? It’s wonderful that you come to Mass on the weekends but how are you serving the poor? It’s admirable that you served the Hunger Center in September but what are you doing today?” John insists that we must produce good fruit not once, not occasionally, but everyday of our lives.
The fruit comes from us. The fire comes from God. And if we’re going to appreciate God’s actions, we need to realize that there are two kinds of fire in today’s gospel. There is a fire that destroys and a fire that creates. Both come from God. When we do not produce good fruit, when we say that we have done enough, then the gospel says we become like barren fruit trees to be cut down and burnt. When we say that we need to do no more, God is not oblivious to our inaction. Then we are like chaff to be thrown into the unquenchable fire. Without good works of service, we must face the fire of God’s judgment.
But that is not the only fire in today’s gospel. There is another fire of which John speaks when he describes the Messiah. He says, “He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.” The fire of which John speaks here is the fire of God’s love. It is not a fire that burns to destroy but a fire that burns to create. It is a fire that enables us to be agents of God’s goodness. And it is this creative fire of divine love that is the Good News of today’s gospel, because it reminds us that the fruit we need to produce, the good works we need to do should not be motivated by obligation or the fear of judgment. Those good works should flow from the fire of God’s love burning within us. When we realize how much God loves us and has made us God’s own sons and daughters, when we understand how we have the Holy Spirit within us confirming the promise of eternal life, there is no presumption that we have done enough. There is only the desire that we allow that love to flow out in service to others.
We produce the fruit. God gives the fire. So let us, today, open our hearts to the fire of God’s love that burns within us so that it might ignite us to produce good fruits, to serve with joy. It is God’s fire that will allow us to serve, not once, not occasionally, but everyday of our lives.
The Lion and the Lamb
December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11: 1-10
In today’s first reading Isaiah presents his grand vision of the Kingdom of God. In this peaceable kingdom the poor will be judged with justice and violence will end. Wild animals will coexist peacefully with domestic animals. The lion will lay down with the lamb. Woody Allen has commented on this passage. What he says is this: “When the lion lays down with the lamb, the lamb doesn’t get much sleep.” This is Allen’s way of stating what is already obvious to us. Isaiah’s peaceful kingdom is very different from the world in which we live. In our world the poor are often judged unjustly and violence erupts in the wars of many nations, in our streets, and sometimes in our homes. The difference between Isaiah’s words and our experience can lead us to dismiss Isaiah’s vision as pious dreaming. But that would be to misunderstand its purpose. Isaiah describes a perfect world in order to reveal what God intends. Isaiah wants us to remember that our God is a God who is eternally opposed to all that is unjust, violent or evil. Our God wants to change things, and God calls us to participate in the elimination of evil from our world.
But how can we do this? How is it possible to eliminate evil in a world that contains so much that is wrong? Perhaps the example of the white helmets of Syria can help us. Syria is a country that has been at war for six years. Its infrastructure has been destroyed. Only a few hospitals exist, and an organized security force is non-existent. Into this vacuum a number of ordinary citizens have decided to act. They are named after the white helmets they wear. They are tailors, teachers, builders, and doctors. They make it their job to sift through the bombed rubble of their cities looking for survivors. They care for the wounded, reunite families, and bury the dead. There are at present about 3,000 white helmets in Syria. So far they have saved over 60,000 of their fellow citizens. In circumstances much more violent and evil than anything we experience, these ordinary people have decided to do the little that is possible for them to do. Their moto is one line from the Quran. It reads: “Whoever saves one human life, saves humanity.”
If we are going to build the Kingdom of God in a world that is so characterized by evil, we must believe that even our small actions of goodness have enormous value. We must act trusting that saving one life is saving humanity. To some it might seem insignificant to sit with a friend for hours as she grieves the death of her spouse, to visit a single person in prison, to support an addict on the road to recovery, or to find one man or woman a job. But these small actions of goodness mark us as disciples of Jesus and move our world on step closer to God’s Kingdom.
If the beautiful vision of Isiah is to be fulfilled, we cannot be discouraged by the smallness of our actions or the limits of our success. We must find the courage to face off against the evil around us in battles that are small enough to win. We know that our world is not Isiah’s peaceable kingdom, but we believe that our God intends to make it so. We trust that our God uses our actions of goodness, however small, to achieve God’s purposes. It is not yet time for the lion to lay down with the lamb. But it is time for us, as disciples of Jesus, to act.
Finding Our Emptiness
December 8, 2019
John the Baptist is one of the central figures of Advent. Today’s Gospel defines his role. He is to prepare the way of the Lord. But how does John prepare the way of the Lord? We might think that he does this simply by announcing that Jesus is coming. But I think his role is much deeper than that. John’s ministry is not about information. It is about formation. He is not only telling us about Jesus, he is forming us so that we will be able to receive Jesus.
A young man was searching for spiritual enlightenment. He traveled off to a monastery in the mountains of Tibet which was the home of a renowned religious teacher. When he saw the teacher face to face, the monk asked him, “What do you want from me?” The young man said, “I want to be holy. I want to know God.” “That is an important request,” said the monk, “Let’s talk about it.” And they talked for several hours. At the end of that time the monk said, “I think I have something to offer you. But first we must have tea.” So he gave the young man a teacup and a saucer and he brought the teapot over to him. Slowly he began to pour tea into the cup. When the tea reached the rim of the cup, the monk kept pouring. Tea overflowed into the saucer and onto the floor. “Stop, stop,” said the young man, “There is no more room in this cup for tea.” The monk said, “Neither is their room in you for holiness. You must find your emptiness if you wish to receive God.”
John the Baptist preached repentance because he wanted his listeners to change, to empty themselves of pride and self-sufficiency. John knew that it is only if they found their emptiness that they would have room to receive Jesus. John the Baptist wants to form us also. He calls us to own our need and our weakness, because John understands that it is only when we find our emptiness that we will understand why we wait for Christ.
I think that most of us have strong relationships in our family and with our friends. But John the Baptist asks us to address the broken relationships in our lives, the person who we have hurt or who has hurt us. We know that these relationships should be healed but we cannot find the energy or the will to do so. That recognition of our inability to make things right reminds us of why we wait for Jesus. We are blessed to live in this country that has the finest medical system in the world. Yet we know that twenty-eight million Americans do not have adequate access to health care. This is not as it should be. But we see how economics, politics, and the lack of will prevents us from coming to a solution. John the Baptist wants us to own that paralysis, because it reminds us that we need the Spirit of God to guide us. We have certainly been made aware of our weakness as Catholics this last week as we watched Father Robert McWilliams be arrested for possessing child pornography. We can take some comfort in the fact that Father McWilliams was removed from ministry before he could molest a child. But his arrest reminds us that sexual predators are a part of our society and of our church. That is why we need God’s help to keep us vigilant and committed to protect our children from them.
Jesus is coming. John the Baptist wants us to own our weakness and our need. To do so is a necessary action of Advent, because It is only by finding the emptiness in our lives, in our world, in our church, that we will have to room to let Jesus in.