Sunday, December 21, 2014

Possibility

"Nothing will be impossible for God."
Luke 1:37


The world and all its inhabitants--you and me--are pregnant with possibility. Yet, generally speaking, human beings are generous distributors of the adage: "Can't be done." Very well, then it can't--not with that as a starting point. What is at stake, however, is more than the power of positive thinking. Here, we speak of faith and the grace that calls it forth.

"Nothing will be impossible for God," the angel Gabriel tells Mary in today's Gospel reading (Luke 1:26-38). Just a few moments earlier, the angel had hailed her as being "full of grace," And with faith, Mary responds to Gabriel's startling announcement (troubling and terrifying might be more appropriate adjectives), by saying, "May it be done to me according to your word."

Gabriel, of course, declares that nothing is impossible for God while assuring Mary that, with God, a virgin can indeed bear a child--just as her barren, older cousin can conceive a son. And Mary's son will not be just any son--he will be the Son of God. He will be a great ruler whose kingdom will be eternal. However, just as God confounds human expectations throughout the Old Testament, accomplishing what he wills for us despite our fickle waywardness, this Son of God--a Messiah both human and divine--will save us once and for all through inconceivable means. He will not be an earthly ruler from noble stock. He will not be a politician or revolutionary. He will not be a fierce warrior conquering every enemy. All of these things were expected--indeed, longed for--by the ancient Israelites.

No, this Messiah, fulfilling all the Old Testament prophecies in a way that virtually no one correctly interpreted, would instead be an obscure peasant laborer, and then an itinerant preacher. Yes, he would teach with authority, drawing many followers and working great miracles, but he would also draw the ire of those who were learned in the Law. He would be a servant who suffers, ultimately dying alone and abandoned as a common criminal in the most humiliating and painful fashion imaginable. And he would do this to save people from their fickle waywardness, to unite in his flesh their fallen humanity with his divinity--before anyone could even care less. In other words, he offers salvation in the most unlikely manner possible to those who do not ask for it, let alone deserve it.

Impossible! Exactly--that's what makes it possible! We cannot save ourselves, no matter what.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
my thoughts higher than your thoughts.
Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
until they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

                                 (Isaiah 55:8-11)
This is the good news Christ came to give us. All we must do is accept the gift with faith (most assuredly, a gift that does involve responsibility and cooperation with grace). It is possible! "All things are possible for God," Jesus tells his disciples (Mark 10:27). Time and time again throughout the New Testament, Jesus emphasizes the role that faith plays in cooperating with this grace and transforming the impossible into more than mere possibility: "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).

But we ask: Where are the miracles in our day? In response, Jesus asks us, "Where is your faith?" (Luke 8:25). The fact of the matter is that miracles are happening every day all around us, but we will only experience them if we discover (or rediscover) our faith. Even at the most basic level, the miracle of our existence is taken for granted by each and every one of us. As Fr. Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., wrote this past week in the excellent devotional periodical Give Us This Day, the seemingly impossible is made real each day:
Consider our planet, its multibillion-year history, and the fact that it became perfectly calibrated to foster and sustain life. What a miracle our world is. Consider our lives, the necessary factors that must align for human procreation. What a miracle you and I are. Consider our creativity, the gifts of intellect and art and invention that God has so endowed us with. To look at art, to listen to music, to understand algebra--these are amazing signs of what is possible with God. What a miracle this vision is.
Even on a more "practical" and less cosmic level, consider the modern miracles of instant electricity at the flip of a switch, clean water at the turn of a faucet, the removal of waste with the flush of a toilet. For the most part, even the most underprivileged among us in this country have access to these things. Yet these "necessities" of life are seemingly impossible dreams for millions in this world, even on the cusp of 2015.

The fact that we have such things here doesn't make us more blessed--but it should make us more grateful, on one hand, and also more responsible users and generous donors, on the other. With such an outlook and practice--cooperation with grace--we can (and must!) make the impossible possible for others who are less fortunate. The have-nots in this world are not less faithful--they are victims of the faithless. We all have a role to play in this economy of salvation--the gift that is freely given by the Savior of the World, who is born naked and crying in a cold and filthy barnyard because the well-to-do closed their doors to the possibility standing right in front of them. Genuine faith is made evident in its works.

On a more personal level, what seems impossible to you right now? An addiction or an obsessive thought pattern? A troubled relationship? A past that won't release its grip or a future that seems foreboding? Does joy seem impossible? Is God even possible?

Again, listen to Jesus ask, "Where is your faith?" and respond by looking for the possibilities that exist right in front of you. And if even this is too much right now, then pray as the disciples did, "Lord, increase my faith!" (cf. Luke 17:5). When asked in all humility and sincerity, it is a prayer that cannot--will not--be refused.

As we conclude our observance of Advent and look toward the birth of our Savior, believe that you are pregnant with possibility. Filled with grace, pray with Mary, who gives the Son of God the human flesh that Jesus reunites with our Father in heaven: "May it be done to me according to your word."

May you be "filled with all the fullness of God, who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us" (Ephesians 3:19-20). Amen.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Hearing and being voices


NOTE: The following is the homily delivered yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent, by Fr. Harry Hagan, O.S.B., in the Archabbey Church here at Saint Meinrad. I thought it was worth sharing. He reflects here on two of the Mass readings for the day: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 and Mark 1:1-8. -- Br. Francis

***
Today the Gospel and first reading offer us two different voices. Though joined by a common text, they are two rather different voices.

In the Gospel we hear the voice of John the Baptist, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Clothed like an animal, “in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and eating “locusts and wild honey,” he is something of a wild man in our minds. His is the voice of confrontation, a shrill voice of the apocalypse confronting us with our broken reality, with our sin. Strangely the people of Jerusalem are attracted to this voice and come to see what it is all about, accepting his “baptism of repentance.”

The first reading from Isaiah 40 begins with the famous words: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” This chapter opens a new section in the Book of Isaiah with a different historical context—somewhere around 550 B.C. Some 35 years earlier, the people of Judah had seen the destruction of the temple and the whole city of Jerusalem burned with fire. Then they had made the forced march into exile. We see something of their horrific experience in the Book of Lamentations, and Psalm 137 captures the enduring anger and hurt: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept remembering Zion.” You can read Psalm 137 as a defiant affirmation of loyalty to Jerusalem, but you can also read it as an attempt to hold off the allure of Babylon—to forget and become just another Babylonian. Surely, it would have been easy to have forgotten the Holy One of Jerusalem who had not protected them from this terrible exile in Babylon. The temptation to despair was real, and real was the temptation to apostasy—to the abandonment of the Lord of Hosts for Marduk, the seemingly magnificent god of Babylon.

These are the people to whom Second Isaiah, as we call him, must speak. These exiles in Babylon do not need a Jeremiah to bring a prophecy of judgment. They are beaten down and in need of hope. The temptation to despair is real. To this hurting people, Second Isaiah brings a message of comfort and hope, but it is not exactly as we would expect.

Unlike First Isaiah, who is clearly a player at the royal court (to say nothing of fiery Jeremiah or the weird Ezekiel) Second Isaiah is a voice bringing what God has said, or occasionally, what Judah cries out. There is no call narrative for the prophet as we typically find in other prophet books. The call to give comfort in the opening lines is not to the prophet—as the Hebrew makes clear. The verb is in the plural. If they had translated this in Kentucky, it would have read:

            You all, comfort; give comfort, you all, to my people.

Who is this “you all”? Strangely, the subject and the object are the same people. Judah is being called to give comfort to Judah.

We see this clearly in the last part of the reading There the call is to “Zion, herald of glad tidings,” to “Jerusalem, herald of good news!”  At this point in reality, Jerusalem is a heap of ruins and Zion is the place of the destroyed temple. However, the call goes out to Zion, to Jerusalem:

Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:

(Note carefully what Zion and Jerusalem are to say):

Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD.

Second Isaiah creates a great affirmation and vision of the living God, the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of all things, the First and the Last. As we hear him say in the chapters that follow: “I am He”, “I am He who comforts” (51:12) and “besides me there is no god.” (Isaiah 43:11; 44:6, 8; 45:5).

The people in exile needed to hear this message. Without this affirmation of the living God, powerful to act, the proclamation of comfort and hope is just fantasy. And this is made explicit in the final lines of the reading where comes the Lord, “who rules by his strong arm” and then “like a shepherd … feeds his flock” and 

            “in his arms he gathers the lambs,
            Carrying them in his bosom,
            and leading the ewes with care.”

God comes with a strong arm that is also ready to embrace.

So in Isaiah 43, we hear the Lord announce:

            See, I am doing something new!
            Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
            In the wilderness I make a way,
            in the wasteland, rivers. (Isaiah 43:19)

Today’s Gospel and first reading give us two voices. They are not contradictory, only different. Importantly, the Church gives us both voices to hear—John the Baptist’s call to repentance, and the call by God in Second Isaiah for the people to announce to themselves God’s power to save and comfort.

Though these two passages have their own historical contexts, they reach across centuries and continue to speak to the hearts in exile, hearts imprisoned by sin.

In preparing for this homily, I have looked at recent news to see who is in need of this message of God coming to act, the message of God’s comfort and hope.

Issues of race have dominated the news since the summer and again recently. Clearly, many people of color in our country feel strongly that the institutions of justice are not fair and equal. One of the great contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King was his proclamation of a dream. A dream is not a reality, but without a dream we are in imprisoned by our present and our past, and Dr. King worked to make his dream a reality.

Sexual violence and allegations of sexual violence have claimed a place in the news. This sad reality is more pervasive than our world is willing to admit. The sin must be confronted, yet there must also be hope for new life lest the past become a land of exile.

Immigration is much talked about: undocumented aliens and exiles in this country. There are many complications and reasons on various sides. Still, what do the words of the Lord mean here: “Comfort, give comfort to my people”?

There are places of violence around the world—familiar places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza. But there are many other smaller places, places that we have never heard of, raked by violence. Others are beset by Ebola —a disease which can penalize Christian charity. All these, and more, need messengers of God’s coming power, of his comfort and gathering.

I read recently about a bishop in the Amazon jungle with 800 Catholic communities and 27 priests. Surely, that is just one statistic of a people weighed down.

Compared with those things, we may count ourselves blessed, but I have talked to enough people for long enough to know that the voices of today’s readings speak personally and precisely to many of us, if not to all. We need to confront our sin and sins. We are all in need of God to act, and we are need of each other to comfort and to call us all to comfort each other.

This is the work of real hope—not just wishing it was different. No, the work of hope is taking up the voice of both John the Baptist and the voice of comfort, and then ourselves becoming those voices in our own world. Our world may seem small and mundane, but nonetheless, it is our own real world. We are called to be the voice of John the Baptist and the voice of God’s hope to each other, so that something new may appear.
-- Fr. Harry Hagan, O.S.B.
Second Sunday of Advent, 2014
Saint Meinrad Archabbey

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Upcoming...


A little bit of news to share: Effective January 1, 2015, I have been appointed as secretary to the Archabbot, and so will be leaving my position as editor of Abbey Press’ Path of Life Publications. However, I will continue to occasionally write for the Publications Division when needed, and also continue my work with the Saint Meinrad oblate program and in the ministry of spiritual direction (in addition to serving a number of directees, I also am completing studies in the spiritual direction graduate certificate program in the school here). Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to write for other venues as well.

In addition, I plan to continue operating this blog, under its current name—so there will be no change in that regard. Path of Life Publications, a publishing imprint of Abbey Press which I helped start up a few years ago, will also continue to operate (though without my involvement). Path of Life Publications will continue to link to my blog (and vice-versa).

Although I am grateful for the new appointment, I will leave the Abbey Press with mixed feelings. Having worked at the Press for more than seven years (which includes the time I spent helping out as a candidate in the monastery in the fall of 2006), I have had the opportunity to be part of a number of worthwhile projects, and have gotten to know quite well probably the best overall group of co-workers I’ve ever had. I continue to pray for the success and well-being of all these.

Time, however, marches on, and I’m very much looking forward to serving the Archabbot and the monastery as secretary. It also is hoped that this new position will afford some flexibility for my other responsibilities on the Hill, and provide the opportunity to focus a little more on my writing. It will be a good change, I think.

Postings here are likely to be somewhat scarce in the next few weeks, however, as I wrap up a few remaining projects at the Press, clean out my office (where did all the stuff come from?!), learn my new job, move into my new office, and also complete several class assignments due by the end of the year. In the meantime, I thank you for your prayers and support, and wish you a Blessed Advent and Christmas season!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Adventus

"I am coming soon."
Revelation 22:12


When the “holiday season” kicks off each year—which used to happen around late November, although it now seems to be much earlier—much of the world makes a mad dash toward December 25. Along with ordinary tasks, the days are filled with decorating, buying, celebrating, buying, fretting, buying, baking, buying—in search of some nostalgic, yet vague sense of hope that, all too often, fails to satisfy and is kicked to the curb on Dec. 26.

By contrast, Christians (in theory, at least) profess this period as Advent (from the Latin term adventus, or coming).

Whose coming do we await? In faith, hope, and love, we await the coming of Christ—God among us—who comes to save humanity from the state that it has itself rendered. Jesus has come once to take on our humanity and redeem it. He will come again to fulfill God’s promise and take all things to himself. And he is coming now, at this very moment—whatever season it is. Eternity will emerge from how we respond daily to God’s eternal presence in the mystical Body of Christ.

Eternity will be what each of us makes of today.

While it’s fine to engage in a little holiday cheer when the time comes, we do well to remember that Advent calls for a joyful anticipation of the Kingdom of God—yesterday, today, and forever. We must recall that the celebration of Christmas (which actually begins Dec. 25 and runs for many days thereafter) evokes that mystical event when God became man in the person of Jesus, whose name in Hebrew means “God saves.” That should indeed bring us great joy—but not the fleeting, superficial, artificial joy so often peddled in the month of December. It is a daily joy tempered by the reality of the crucifixion, a wonderful paradox that gives rise to rejoicing with the psalmist: Lord, “there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered” (130:4).

Advent and Christmas, then, are solemn occasions steeped in true, everlasting joy as we await throughout all our days the full coming of the Kingdom of God. As author Alice Camille points out in her booklet Waiting for God: The Grace of Advent, there is more to it than a cute baby in a manger. It’s serious business. Advent, she says, is a state of spiritual emergency.

Advent involves a different type of urgency than the festal fretting that so often surrounds us before Christmas even begins. We are reminded of this throughout the year at each Mass after the Lord’s Prayer, when the priest says, “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever.

-- From the Abbey Press book
Grace in the Wilderness, © 2013

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Turkey trouble


Just for fun...one of the funniest Thanksgiving sitcom moments in American television history, from the late 1970s show (note the hair and clothes fashions!) "WKRP in Cincinnati." A classic, especially the very last line of the nearly 13-minute segment. After a little turkey and pumpkin pie, sit back and enjoy...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

"Run ... RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!"

And on a more solemn note, I recently ran across a 2007 article from The Boston Globe about the true historical and spiritual roots of the secular holiday we now call Thanksgiving. It is quite interesting, stating that "the modern holiday would horrify the Puritans, who observed a tradition that was quiet, deeply religious, and concerned with betterment, not bounty." Give it a read: "The Opposite of Thanksgiving".

While we may not celebrate Thanksgiving today like the Pilgrims did, let us at least center grateful hearts on the Giver of All Good Gifts, reflect honestly on our lives, and ask for the grace to give of ourselves as God does for us.

A Blessed Thanksgiving to all. 

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," by Jennie Brownscombe (1914)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Mystery of faith


"The Christian does not think God
will love us because we are good,
but that God will make us good
because he loves us."
C.S. Lewis