November 30, 2003
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
After awhile, you get tired of hoping. After months and years of waiting, you begin to think, it is foolish to hold on. After trying and attempting so often to change things, you can begin to wonder whether it is time to give up. How do we continue to hope when so few things change? Does it even make sense to keep waiting when so few signs of hope can be seen?
How long have we been waiting for healing within our families? How often have we tried to bring estranged relatives together to resolve past hurts? Does it make sense to keep waiting, to keep hoping for reconciliation? How long have we been waiting for someone to love us, for someone to understand and enjoy us, for someone to build a life and a family together with us? How many times did we think, this was it, only to be disappointed? Does it make sense to keep hoping that the right person will come into our life? How long have we been waiting for our problems to be solved, for our sickness to be healed, for our grief to end? Does it make sense to keep hoping even when our hopes are so often frustrated?
The Gospel today, says that it does. The Gospel makes clear that the foundation of our hope is not what has happened to us in the past, but what God intends to do for us in the future. Today’s gospel shows great turmoil on the earth and distress among the nations, but its message is that underneath that turmoil, God is working to change things. God is working to establish the Kingdom. It is God’s action which is the foundation of our hope. That is why Jesus says that we should stand up and raise our heads because our redemption is at hand. We can always stand in hope because we believe that God is always working to change things and to bring about salvation.
Advent is a season of hope. A season, in which we try to remember what the foundation of our hope. A time in which we rally ourselves to keep hoping.
Yet not every hope is real. There are some hopes that are foolish. This is why Advent encourages a realistic and wise hope that is based upon the truth. There are two characteristics to this wise hope: discernment and action.
Advent hope is a hope of discernment, a hope that realizes that it is not good to hope in things that can endanger us. If we find ourselves in the midst of abuse or manipulation, it is not good for us to just hope that things will change. We must remove ourselves from that danger. If someone has made it clear to us that they will not love us, that they do not want to relate to us, it is not wise to hope that they will change. We must face the truth that the relationship is ended and move on with life. Advent hope is also a hope of action. Although it always depends on God’s timing and the emergence of new opportunities, when the door opens, we must be ready to act. When God provides us with an opportunity, we must seize that moment. When we sense things moving and changing, we must be ready to step forward and dedicate our energy and our talent to promote love and reconciliation.
Without discernment and action, hope can be an illusion, an escape from reality. But when we use our heads and stand ready to act, hope can be a great force that can change us and our world.
There is a painting entitled, “Checkmate” and it shows a scene of a young man playing chess with the devil. The artist has seized upon the moment when the devil has made a decisive move. He has checkmated the young man’s king. You can see the satisfaction on the devil’s face as well the fear and the surprise on the face of the young man. The artist shows where the position of the chess pieces are on the board and many who understand the game of chess have examined that painting and agreed that the game was over, that the move of the devil was decisive, that he had won. Paul Murphy, who was a renowned world chess player, was once asked to look at this picture. He gazed at it for a long time and suddenly saw something that no one had seen before. He realized that there was yet a strategy that the young man could undertake. In his excitement over this discovery, Murphy cried out to the young man in the picture, “Don’t give up. You still have a move! You still have a move!”
That is the message of Advent: Don’t give up. The game is not over. Keep watching and waiting. You will find a way out. Despite all the experiences of the past, despite all the lost opportunities, God is still acting. New opportunities are still emerging. The devil has not won. You still have a move. There still is hope.
Remembering and Rehearsing Advent
December 3, 2006
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Chewing on the past is a bum way to spend your life.” Hemingway was right. Yet we all know how easy it is to get stuck in the past, to play over and over again in our head the way that things used to be, to relive again and again a decision that we wish we would have made differently or words we wish we had never said. Living in the past is both senseless and wasteful. It is a bum way to spend your life.
These thoughts are helpful as we approach the season of Christmas, because there is a tendency in Christmas to get stuck in the past. Our Christmas cards and displays all tend to describe celebrations of the holiday in terms of generations gone by. There is nostalgia to an old fashioned Christmas. Our Christmas carols and family traditions bring us back to our childhood, and it is easy to see our childhood as a simpler, purer way of living. Christmas can idealize childhood and lead us to become entrapped in our memories. We can imagine that the purpose of this holiday is simply to provide similar memories for our children and our grandchildren.
Now there is certainly some good in this nostalgic, old fashioned approach to Christmas. But there is also a good deal of danger, for it is impossible for us to live our lives in the past. If we set up childhood as some kind of ideal, it is an ideal we will never be able to attain, because we cannot be children again. With childhood as a norm, we are saying that the best part of our lives is already behind us.
For all these reasons we are fortunate to have the season of Advent, because Advent is not about the past but the future. It is not about the people we used to be, but the people we can become. It does not tell us that we can find God in the memories of our childhood, but rather in the promises of the future. There is a pattern to Advent, a pattern that we re called to follow. The pattern of Advent is remembering and rehearsing. Advent is not afraid to remember. It does not hold back from reliving what we have experienced and the things we have witnessed in our life. But the remembering of Advent is not a goal in itself. It does not call us to the past but uses the past to allow us to live in a new way. That way is by rehearsing, rehearsing the coming of Christ, rehearsing for the good things that God still intends to give us. Advent is about remembering and rehearsing—remembering the truth of our past so that we can live in the present open to the gifts of the future.
What should we remember in Advent? Two things: our mistakes and our blessings. Advent calls us to remember our mistakes, those patterns of behavior that constantly trip us up. You know what your mistakes are. You know them very well. You know the exact thing that you can say to your spouse which will start an argument. You know the precise thing that you can do when you come home from school which will upset your parents. You know the decisions that you can avoid making which you will pay dearly for in the future. You know the hurts and the prejudices which you continue to feed and which will rob you of peace. We know our mistakes. We know exactly what they are, and yet we keep doing them over and over. Advent calls us to remember those flaws, not to discourage us, not to fix us in the past, but to lead us to a new pattern. Advent calls us to a new step, a step that is wiser, more generous, more life-giving. Remembering the mistakes of the past can lead us to a new way of living; a way that is a rehearsal for the Kingdom of God.
But Advent not only calls us to remember our mistakes, but also our blessings. And blessed we are. Advent calls us to claim those blessings. Do we not have children of whom we are proud? Do we not have a spouse with whom we can laugh? Do we not love our job? Do we not have abilities and talents that give us satisfaction? Have we not been given opportunities which we never thought could be our own? Advent calls us to claim those blessings. Not as an end in themselves, but so that those blessings will lead us to a greater confidence in the way that we live today. Those blessings will allow us to rehearse a conviction of hope, a hope that comes from realizing that if God has blessed us so much in the past, God will not abandon us in the future. With that conviction of hope, we can move forward with the confidence that God will be with us despite the troubles in our family, health issues, and all we have lost in our life. In the words of today’s gospel, we can “stand up and raise our heads because we know that our redemption is drawing near”.
Make these upcoming weeks before Christmas more than a way of looking back to the past with nostalgia. Take some time each day to remember and to rehearse. Remember your mistakes and your blessings, and rehearse living differently and with more confidence. Remember and rehearse so that you can live this Advent in preparation, so that you might be ready to stand before the Son of Man when he comes in glory.
The Christmas Blues
December 2, 2012
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
It is the first Sunday of Advent and it is time for the Christmas blues. I overheard a woman talking in the checkout line this week, and she said, “You know, I am not sure I have the strength to face the holidays this year.”
Now children never feel this way. Children are always excited about Christmas. On behalf of the adults here I would like to thank the children for keeping our spirits up. But for those of us who have to plan, who have to shop, who have to organize, who have to cook, the upcoming weeks can appear as a burden. I also know many people will face the holidays this year with dread, because they have experienced a loss in their lives. The thought of gathering together with family and friends with someone missing is a burden which at times seems too heavy to carry. We know that the demand for professional counseling goes up this time of year. And unfortunately suicide rates spike. So, despite the cheery lights that we see on houses as we drive at night and the music and the holly that surrounds us when we walk into the mall, many of us in this season can feel kind of blue.
This is why today’s gospel is so important. The powerful signs in the gospel are meant to shake us out of the reservations we may have about the upcoming weeks. The roaring of the seas and the turmoil in the heavens are not meant to frighten us but to encourage us. These signs in the sky are the bible’s way of saying that our God is powerful and our God is active. They tell us that God is capable of acting at any time and most especially during this time. And when God acts, there is peace and there is joy. So we have every reason to believe that God will act powerfully in our lives during the upcoming weeks. Remembering that and believing that can dispel the Christmas blues.
You see, the focus of this season is not all the work we have to do but the work that God is going to do. The real importance of these upcoming weeks is not our responsibilities but God’s grace. So our stance is to wait in hope for what God will do. God can touch us with a kindness that we did not expect or a healing we did not imagine. We could be surprised with joy as we turn the next corner and such a gift can more than compensate for all the work that this season entails.
We are to wait in hope for a God who will stand with us in our loss. We can be blessed by a friend who knows our pain and can comfort us without the need of words. We can find the strength to celebrate a family meal, leaving with more thanksgiving for what we have than depression over what we have lost.
We wait in hope for God to act. We believe that God will do so. This is how to shake off the Christmas blues. Despite all of the work we must do, despite the losses that we need to carry, our God is a God who loves us. We are sons and daughters who God will not forget. So we stand erect and lift our heads, believing that God’s action is at hand.
The Lord, Our Justice
November 29, 2015
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
With Thanksgiving and Black Friday behind us, our society and our lives begin to focus on Christmas. The air is full of Christmas themes: family, peace, shopping, joy, and a general admonition to be jolly and merry. But today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah introduces another theme, one that we do not normally associate with Christmas but one that lies at its heart—the theme of justice. Jeremiah says, that a day will come when a “just shoot will be raised up”, someone who will establish what is just and right in the land. As Christians we see Jesus as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise. Therefore we can ascribe to Jesus the title that Jeremiah uses, “The Lord, our Justice.” This title is not normally associated with Christmas. The usual title for this season is “the Prince of Peace.” But the two titles work together. Justice and peace are partners. In the famous words of Pope Paul the sixth, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
So the peace of Christmas is much deeper than the peace between the mother and child at the manger. The peace of Christmas flows from justice. Jesus who was born at Bethlehem is the Lord our Justice, so that he can be the Prince of Peace. His mission is to establish God’s justice, what is right in our world. When his just reign is accomplished, our world will be free from hatred, violence, and war. Justice then is a Christmas theme. Jesus’ mission is to make the world a better place, a more just place. If that is his mission, then it should be ours as well. So allow me to suggest two things for you to include on your holiday list, two actions by which you can promote justice in our world.
The first is this: Prepare to vote. There can be no justice in our world without good leadership, and no leader is more influential than the president of our country. We will choose that man or woman. So listen to what the people who want your vote are saying. Ask yourself which of these candidates are truly committed to justice in our world and in our country. Voting is more than choosing the candidate who will make our lives better individually, or who will serve those who look or think like us. Voting is choosing the candidate who will bring about what is right and just for everyone. Only if there is justice, will there be peace on our streets and in our world.
The second item for your holiday list is affirmation. Affirm the people around you who are doing what is right, who are acting with justice. Who are the people in your family, at your workplace, in your relationships that are making a difference? Notice them, affirm them, and if possible join them. Doing what is right, working for justice is not easy. Others need our support. So affirm those who are working for justice, for they are the true peacemakers.
There are many ways to prepare for Christmas, but since justice is a Christmas theme, we should promote it during the next month. Listen for attitudes of justice in the words of those who seek your vote. Affirm the people around you who are making a difference. Serve the Lord, our Justice, so that he may be our Prince of Peace.
Turmoil, Fear, and Dismay
December 2, 2018
Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Turmoil, fear, dismay. These are words we could use to describe the scene that Luke presents before us in today’s gospel. They are also words we could use to describe our world, because, like every period before it, the age in which we live is marked by many things that are wrong. Internationally democracies seem to be eroding from within as people elect leaders who promise stability no matter what the cost. Countries debate one another on how to handle the issues of global warming and the mass migration of immigrants pressing on their borders. In our own country, we have never been more politically polarized, and legislation seems to depend more on party interest than on the common good.
Turmoil, fear, and dismay, all around. This is why the image that Luke presents to us in today’s gospel is so important. After describing the dismal scene, he says, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory.” Luke is telling us that Christ comes to us in midst of the turmoil and the fear. Luke is saying that Jesus arrives, not once the mess is cleaned up, but even as the causes of our despair hold sway. This is a tremendously important image for us to hold on to: Christ in glory in the midst of our dismay. It is an important image, because all too often we limit the presence of Christ to situations that are harmonious and peaceful. When everyone in our family is healthy, when our job is secure, when all is going well at school, when our country seems to be moving in the right direction, we easily say, “Look God is blessing us.” But, when things become unhinged, when we start to fear the future, we say, “Where is God? Why has Christ abandoned us?”
Today’s gospel invites us to look again, to believe that Christ can be present in every situation, no matter how painful. He is there as we sit in silence with only the beep of medical instruments in the Intensive Care Unit. He is there as we pick up the pieces of our life after a painful divorce. He is there as we wake up again to emptiness because of someone we lost in death.
How can Christ be present in the midst of so much loss and sorrow? There is a mystery to it for sure, because Christ does not come to condone what is wrong or to dismiss what is unjust. But he does come. I have seen it happen. I have seen him come, as a family gathered around the death bed of their mother is suddenly overcome with a love that demonstrates what they mean to each other. I have seen him come to a young married couple, who after months of marriage counseling look at one another and say, “You know, we might make it.” I have seen him come when someone is belittled or their rights violated and another person stands up and says, “This has to stop.”
So, if you find yourself in turmoil, fear, or dismay, do not conclude that Christ has forgotten you. Christ is standing at your side in glory. His presence is mysterious for sure, and often difficult to discern, but he is there. Look for him!