Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection 1st Sunday of Advent Year A November 28, 2010
I am reposting what I posted as alternative reflection for the First Sunday of Advent three years ago as I am too busy these days to even think of writing a new one.
The second and third readings’ insistence, not without a tone of urgency, to “rise and shine” and “conduct ourselves properly as in the day,” is striking. There is no mistaking it. It is urgent. It is important. And it is imperative that one gets to realize that, while waiting for something imminent and sure, one really has no time to lose, no moment to spare, no opportunity to waste and let go.
The insistence can be summarized simply thus: it is now the hour!
It is now the hour! Whilst it is true and obvious that in our days, people are hard pressed for time, and are quite incapable of waiting, it is also true that for many people in a mad rush towards something undefined, the sense of urgency can often be more a sign of neurotic attachment to being occupied and busy with something. People rush out of their work places, only to kill time in front of the TV screen, watching and getting involved in telenovelas, or let time fritter away in some entertainment place, while nursing a drink or two in the hand. People everywhere try to cut through snarled or stalled traffic, only to get home and spend more time in front of the ubiquitous computer.
People are in a perpetual rush. And people in rush are people who cannot wait.
Henri Nouwen makes an insightful comment that in the gospel according to Luke, the first personages mentioned are all described as people in waiting … Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna … and, of course, Mary! I would like to suggest my own tentative insight, for whatever it is worth to you my readers. I would like to suggest that for at least two of them, their waiting was crowned with a satisfied and fulfilled sigh of more than just relief. They acclaimed and extolled God who made known His glory at the appointed time. Zechariah waxed prayerful and grateful as he acknowledged the “hour of visitation” from the Lord God: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, he has come to his people and set them free.” Zechariah acknowledged that the Lord’s appointed hour of salvation has come. His profuse praise is made as if to say: “It is now the hour … it is now the hour to thank and praise God who has made good his promises of old."
Simeon, too, was a man conscious and cognizant of the “hour” of God’s epiphany. Happy and fulfilled that the Lord has, indeed, chosen to favor him with his timely self-manifestation, Simeon poured forth his thanks and praise for his “hour” had already come, and that it was now his “hour” to take leave with overflowing joy and a deep sense of gratitude and fulfillment. “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled.” It is now the hour for me to go. It is now the hour for me to take leave quietly, for “my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people.”
But Mary herself was a woman of the hour. She knew how to appreciate and acknowledge the overwhelming truth, not only of the hour, but for all time: “From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty had done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Her prayer is made as if to say, “it is now the hour to give God utmost glory and praise, for he has mercy on those who fear him in every generation” … now … then … and thereafter.
We are a people tired of waiting. We cannot wait a minute longer to get our favorite fast-food meal. Many of us get violent while sitting it out in snarled traffic everywhere. In the Philippines, some people can even get so worked up waiting that, in their anger, they pump bullets into other people who happen to also get very impatient and cranky while struggling for limited driving space in our hopelessly inadequate roads. Road rage is nothing more than impatient waiting turned violent. In crowded restaurants, everyone has a sense of entitlement making unreasonable demands on the oftentimes hapless waiters and waitresses who get the ire of pretentious and unsatisfied customers who all want to be served first. Again, in the Philippines, predictably, ambitious wannabes are already positioning themselves as they drool over the most coveted office in the land as we approach once more the year of national elections.
It is indeed the hour for everyone who has his or her personal agenda to take care of. It is the hour to strut one’s stuff in the ramp of life. When it comes to ambition, it is always the right time. When it comes to personal dreams and desires, it is always the hour. And there is precious little time to waste when it comes to fulfilling one’s overriding desires and dreams. Already, in every Senate investigation and high profile discussions done under the glare of lights and whirring TV cameras, people who drool over national positions of leadership consider it their opportunity “to strut and fret their hour on the stage” of life.
Advent has once more set in for us believers. Today, we begin that very short period of no more than four Sundays when all we do is focus on the main issue of waiting. But today’s opening salvo would have us acknowledge like Zechariah, Simeon, and Mary did, that the time has come. What we are waiting for has come already and has irrupted into our present hour.
The personages in waiting as reported by Luke are individuals who wait, not impatiently, but imbued with the spirit of hope. Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna had all the time to be waiting. Luke’s report tells us they were old, very old, but ever youthful in their active and hopeful waiting. Their beard and hair may have been grey, but their hope never grew grey hairs. For patient and hopeful people who know how to wait never grouse and become grouchy when the “hour” finally comes their way. Impatient people complain when the object of their waiting comes around. “Why only now?” would be their exasperated statement, most likely. But hopeful people burst forth in praise and proclamation when the much-awaited “hour” comes around.
We postmodern people just cannot wait. There was a time people said, “wait a minute” if they had to have people on hold for any reason. Nowadays, people don’t even want to wait a minute. Most people would now say, “hold on a second.” Just a second, never a minute … In a world that communicates instantly “in real time,” a minute of waiting is simply unimaginable and unforgivable.
But important things can stand being waited for, more than just a second, and definitely more than just a minute. Today’s liturgy, the first Sunday of Advent, reminds us that it is now, not the second, it is now, not the minute, but “it is now the hour” of our salvation.
With salvation and redemption so important, a second less, a second more; a minute less, a minute more would not count as important. What really counts and matters in the long run is what that “hour” ultimately is all about – everything that our hope and patient waiting stand for – our salvation in Christ, “for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”
We started the month of November filling ourselves with hope-giving memories of the saints – “the holy ones in light!” The second day of this same month saw us all filling ourselves with fond and hope-filled memories of those, who, like us, once tried and struggled in this valley of tears, to be hopefully numbered among the same “holy ones in light.” We prayed for all our departed brothers and sisters, that “eternal light might shine upon them,” and that “perpetual rest” be given them.
This month is a month so given in to life-enabling memories. All of it, traditionally, is dedicated to prayerful mementoes for all those who have gone ahead of us. This month revels in memorial, and is inundated with what memorial ultimately leads to – thoughts of endings, ideas of finality, intimations of glory, and clues of immortality that await those who are considered by God, “fit to share the inheritance of the holy ones in light.”
We are numbered among this people of the memorial. We Christians are a people of the memorial. We thrive on and flourish owing to memorial. We breathe memorial in and out. But the memorial that we Christians speak of is not the kind that merely looks back. The memorial that we Christian believers are used to, is the kind that looks back, not for its own sake, but in order for us to understand the present, and claim the future.
We look back to the events that make for salvation history. We look to the present and we see connections … events past that make us understand events present … historical events of times past that help us make sense of unfolding history in the present. Adam and Eve … Abraham … Moses … David … they all were men and women with real flesh and blood whose memorial we now keep and cherish. Their life and death, struggles and successes are the very same stuff that we love to share about our own beloved dead, who, like us, once hoped to be numbered among those who now “share the inheritance” from above.
Today’s solemnity, like any feast in the Church’s year of grace, is no exception to this whole cluster of salvific memorial. But this time, we look more ahead, rather than cast a backward glance to history. This time, we don’t wallow in the past, nor get stalled in the present. We claim the future that comes with “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” We claim the future like as if it were already here, and, with the psalmist, we declare: “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord!” (Responsorial Psalm).
We must make a little distinction between mere remembrance and saving memorial … Remembrance: “in those days, all the tribes of Israel came to David in Hebron and said: Here we are, your bone and your flesh. In days past, when Saul was our king, it was you who led the Israelites our and brought them back.” Memorial: “let us give thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.” Memorial: “He delivered us from the power of darkness.” Memorial: “he transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption.”
Remembrance: “the rulers sneered and jeered: If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Saving memorial: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The Solemnity of Christ the King, is not a celebration of an artifact of stale history. It is a proclamation of history in the making, history that unfolds, history that happens, not just yesterday, in the past, but today, in the here and the now.
Celebrations may just be given in to looking backward. This is how we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Small wonder we think of them in terms of numbers of years: paper, pearl, silver, golden, diamond. But in the most famous act of memorial of the Catholic Church, we just don’t say, “let us remember our faith.” Instead, what we are asked to do is “to proclaim the mystery of faith.” And that proclamation crosses the past, transcends the present, and claims the future: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!”
In our times, it is hard enough to remember what happened. We don’t know our history, for the most part. But it is even harder to make sense of the present. We do not understand how we postmodern people can go on destroying the only world and the only home we know – the earth – and still claim to be Christian believers. We are afraid of the future. We are afraid of nuclear war, of terrorism, of cataclysms that are most likely going to accrue from man’s too much tinkering with the world of nature. Like Paul, we don’t even understand why we act the way we do; why we do what we hate; and not do what we love. We are torn between romantically trying to hold onto the past, and embracing the stale status quo of the present.
We need more than just a digital record of events past. We need more than just an empty promise of a technological future. We need saving memorial. We need to hold on to something more than just wishful thinking. We need signs and symbols that effect what they signify. We need a figure of someone to tell us in no uncertain terms: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
We need a King to assure us that the present fiefdoms and turfs of very powerful and well-placed people will end someday. We need a King to show us that He is here with us, yesterday, today, and tomorrow … for all ways, for always, and in all days.
This is the solemnity of Christ. King. Lord. God. Yesterday. Today. Forever. Only He can guarantee our being “fit to share the inheritance of the holy ones in light!”
Last week, we were actually reintroduced to a topic which Christian tradition has always considered integral to faith – our belief in the end times, or what systematic theology of yore, has referred to as the study of the so-called “last things,” (ta eschata) or eschatology. Our reflection last week led us to reflect on how, as Christian followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are, in a very real sense, citizens of two worlds – earth and heaven, and that whilst Jesus’ “kingdom of God” has not fully come to fulfillment, we Christians believe that the Kingdom of God has irrupted into human history, and that we are already immersed in the “already” and the “not yet” dimensions of what Malachi and other prophets were speaking about. We are basically living in a frontier world; with eyes set solidly on heaven, but with feet fully grounded on terra firma.
It is important for us, however, not to fall naively to a too literal interpretation of the “signs” that both Malachi and the Gospel passage from Luke speak about. To err on the side of literalism is to overemphasize the “already” to the exclusion of the “not yet.” To err on the side of spiritualism is to miss the power of the meaning and the message behind the same signs, and to miss the worth and meaning of what is in the here and now. It means to invalidate the world. It means to render our human nature as embodied spirits, and life itself in this world as worthless, futile, and ultimately meaningless. At the end, it means to invalidate everything human, everything earthly, everything created by a God who “saw that [everything] was good.”
Paul should know. Paul, who preached tirelessly about the need to “set [our] sights not on things below, but on things above,” nevertheless shows us not to be so taken up with the thought as not to be engaged anymore in doing earthly things, and helping build a society along the spirit of God’s reign. Paul gives in to righteous boasting as he declares: “You know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.” Paul was not busy with ministry alone. He was also busy earning his keep, so as not to be dependent on anyone.
I would consider today’s readings, among many others, as a big lesson on a Christian sense of balance in today’s complex world. A proper Christian sense of balance is the ability to keep the healthy dynamic tension between the drive for the “not yet” and the complacency over the “already.” A healthy balance would mean a proper valuation of the created world and its goods, on the one hand, and the hopeful imagination of one who knows that “the world and its pleasures are fast drifting away,” on the other. To be so engrossed in this world and what it offers is to identify the world with God’s Kingdom. To be so focused solely on God’s reign to the total exclusion of worldly realities is to act like disembodied spirits, who have nothing at all to do with life in the world. Such would mean we all have no responsibility in and for the word, in the false – if literal – belief that the end times are already here. In that view, the Kingdom of God is totally other-worldly, and has no connection with life in this world.
Christian theology does not support such a bipolar view.
Donald Messer, in his book A Conspiracy of Goodness (1992), narrates a real-life story of a man more than six feet tall, who, in a moment of a sudden boat tragedy, offered to make himself a human bridge to connect the chasm that was too wide for elderly and weak people to jump across. He literally became a bridge which spelled salvation for all those people, who otherwise, could not have saved themselves. Twenty people walked over his outstretched body. Andrew Parker by name, he single-handedly, and by means of a heroic act, changed the meaning of bridge-maker forever. He became very literally a pontifex, a pontem factor, a bridge-maker. He straddled two realms separated by a deadly, churning chasm of chaos over the waters. Messer suggests that such an image could very well represent what we as baptized Christians, ought to be – a community of bridge-makers.
As bridge-makers, we see life as just one single continuum, one reality. There ought to be no extreme polarization between earthly life in the present and the end times that Malachi and Luke’s gospel refer to. If life is just one, then we cannot say that earthly life is intrinsically evil and the other totally holy. The world, where we are all born, is the arena of our salvation. If that is so, then salvation not only begins, but also takes place also in this life, by way of life in this world. In that sense, there is potential holiness and salvation in the work we do, in the ordinariness of everyday life, in the mundane concerns that occupy us during the day. Holiness is to be sought for in the context of earthly life. Holiness is not to be divided into two types: the inferior kind which is the way of ordinary people in the world, and the superior type, which is done by people who take themselves away from the world to be “far from the madding crowd,” and perhaps spend long and sleepless hours in front the Blessed Sacrament. No, there is only one Christian holiness, and that holiness bridges the gap between the here and now, and the coming, and awaited glorious coming of Christ.
St. Therese of Lisieux, who considered herself the “little flower” for the child Jesus, is a shining example of holiness in the every day, ordinary reality. She did no outstanding deeds by worldly standards. She did not even leave her monastery at Lisieux. She did not spend long hours of adoration and prayer. She did not even look for painful self-inflicted suffering or mortification. But she found union with God in simple things, in little things, and insignificant deeds, but all done with extraordinary love. Whilst she did not seek voluntary suffering, she willingly accepted it when it came, and saw in it a channel, a bridge, through which she could express her love for her savior, represented by the child Jesus.
St. Therese was a thoroughly modern and absolutely relevant saint whose sanctity fits the demands of our modern times. Dead at 24 years old, little did she realize that, in her short life, she had acted exactly like Andrew Parker, and bridged the gnawing gap created by a mistaken notion of holiness as only about doing heroic and extraordinary things.
The world and life in this complex world is so ordinary. Everybody joins the rat race for more, for bigger and bigger homes, for more and more luxury and comfort. The name of the game is competition and unbridled thirst for power and wealth. Everybody thinks it is normal and routine now to sacrifice values for the coveted more. But it is precisely in this ordinary world populated by ordinary people that sanctity is born. It is precisely in this rat race world, that people like Andrew Parker come to the fore. It is in these prosaic times that the poetry and passion of heroism surfaces, when prophets and bridge-makers like Archbishop Romero, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Ninoy Aquino of the Philippines, in a sense, even Gorbachev and Reagan, and the thousands of selfless and dedicated missionaries all over the world “stand erect and raise [their] heads, because [their] redemption is at hand” (Alleluia verse). Like Paul, like Christ, like the holy women and men known and unknown, they toil and work – even suffer tribulations. Living in this world of ordinariness, they earn their keep in the meantime. But ultimately, they all work for keeps, for eternity, in the conviction that for those “who fear [the Lord’s] name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
The very pastoral and ministerial Paul continues to keep in mind his fellow believers, as today, in his letter to the Thessalonians, we once more hear him pray for them. Paul, the apostle of the Lord who, two weeks ago we heard taking leave, and almost like saying good-bye to Timothy, now prays for his disciples, and asks them to pray for him in return. Paul, who has spent his time “running the race and fighting the good fight” for the Lord, now has one foot in eternity. Whilst still living in this world, he knows full well that he is really called to live a transformed life together with the God he served so well.
Paul was in effect living in the frontiers. He was, to use the words of Countryman, “living on the border of the holy” (1999). He was straddling time and eternity. He was immersed, at one and the same time, on the “already” and the “not yet” of Christian faith.
I would like to share something personal and dear to me, what appears to me as the best exemplification of what I am talking about. Just before I got to Baltimore for studies at Loyola seven years ago, I got to see my elder sister Maria, who was then close to dying of cancer. Since I worked mostly in the Philippines, that was the only time in the five years that she struggled with the cruel disease, that I got to see her up close, at a time when death was surely imminent, no matter how much we wanted to deny it. At a private Mass that I said in her presence, one of the last three I was able to do with her in attendance, the unmistakable, undeniable, and inevitable reality hit me hard as I celebrated Mass. In her eyes, in her overall countenance, in her serene and limpid gaze, I realized that she had gone far beyond us all, who still expected to stay on for a bit longer in this world. I realized that as I preached, she really was preaching to every one of us around her. There was nothing I said that could have brought her any closer than she already was to the God whose presence I could only feebly proclaim through my weak devotion and attention. It was clear to me, then, than she was, already at that time, with one foot in eternity. She was ready to go.
It was a powerful realization at the moment of the consecration. As I held back tears, choked by the thought of the inevitable happening sooner than I thought, I got distracted by the first line of one of her favorite songs of years past, “all my bags are packed, I’m ready to go … Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane.” Her eyes said it all, as if to say with St. Paul … “I have competed well; I have run the race; I have kept the faith.” In retrospect, I realized that by then, she had already detached herself from everything and everyone she held so dear for all her 56 years of life on earth. I knew the time would come when I can make use of this somehow in my talks, reflections, and writings. The time has come. Today.
Indeed, for this Sunday is a day for us Christian believers to move forward and look forward. Today is a day of hope. Today is a day like every Sunday, when our gaze is led far beyond the daily travails of life, far beyond pain and suffering that form the warp and woof of human, earthly existence. Today is a day when our thoughts are directed toward what is “already” taking place, and towards the “not yet” of our Christian calling, which we can only possess in advance through hope and faith.
It is well for us all to remember that the liturgical celebration, the memorial meal and sacrifice that we are engaged in, this very Mass, basks in the certainty of what in our faith we look backward to, and what in our love and hope, we also look forward to, and what in mystery, is already happening in our midst.
In the liturgy, we celebrate the historical fact that we are a redeemed people. We also proclaim and enact the fact that our salvation is an ongoing process, an unfolding reality that happens here and now. This liturgy is also a proclamation in hope of that which, on account of Christ’s resurrection, we all await – His coming in glory to bring the fullness of salvation. No wonder today, we proclaim after the first reading, “Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full.”
Our proclamation, though, needs to be pitted against that of the three brothers who chose to die horrific deaths rather than do something abominable to the Lord. By their martyrdom, their witness, and their death, the three pointed to their great faith in the resurrection of the dead, in the after life, in Divine justice, in His love, and overflowing mercy.
The situation of many of us may be a far cry from the courage and strength of faith of the three (of seven) brothers who all died in witness of what they believed in. Our faith may not be that strong. Our hope could easily disappear at the first wisp of the winds of trials and tribulations. Our love could easily be overcome by so much hatred, so much lack of care and concern from others, and so much violence in the world. Paul, ever the solicitous servant-leader of his fellow disciples, knew as much. He prayed for them that they “may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith.”
Not all have faith. Not everyone you love share the same convictions. Not everyone in the world believe as you do. And even those who usually do have faith may not have enough during hard times. We feel encouraged by Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians and for us, that we may be granted “courage in our hearts” and “strength in every good deed and word.” We feel supported in our weakness of faith, in the times we so easily give in to discouragement, to cynicism, and to loss of enthusiasm in the good, when we see people like the three brothers in the first reading, Paul and his fellow believers, saints like Therese of Lisieux, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa of Calcutta who saw far beyond the reality and experience of pain, with “tears as their telescopes.” Modesty aside, and by the grace of God, my elder sister could be counted among them. In their joy, as much as in their suffering, whether personal or vicarious, they gave witness to a future that was already present in their lives of faith, hope, and love.
These were people who lived on the border of the holy. These were people, who, as every Christian ought to be, were really frontier beings. They lived in the frontier world that straddled time and eternity, the present and the future, the “already” and the “not yet.” They were prophets who bore witness as much in their life as in their death, to the justice and unbounded mercy of God whose love for us is everlasting. They were faithful souls whose prophetic imagination led them to live in hope and courage, the future that really awaits us still, a future that has actually dawned in the birth of Christ, the Son of God. Men and women of strength and courage, they lived earthly life to the full while looking forward and moving forward to life in its fullness, as promised by the Lord. With feet firmly planted on the ground, they lived life on the basis of what gave life ultimate grounding, on the basis of what Tillich calls “ultimate concern,” God, who revealed Himself in Christ. Men and women of God, they were men and women of earth who lived life to the hilt until the time came when they had to surrender everything associated with earth, including their life the ultimate gift, back to the Giver.
All the people I listed above, including the Maccabean brothers, their mother, Paul, and my sister, were not priests like I am. But although they did not have the sacramental priesthood, they really took very seriously their wider and more fundamental Christian priesthood of all the baptized. By exercising their fundamental priesthood by serving and ministering to others, by being at the service of God’s Kingdom, they brought the world a glimpse of the HIDDEN HOLY that was a reality in their lives. Without doing sacred things, they brought people to the sacral and the mystical, for they were, in the deepest sense of the terms, frontier beings who straddled the realms of earth and heaven, the sacred and the profane, the ordinary and the mystical, the present and the future. The joy that was already in their hearts, could only be made full, when the glory of God finally appears.
I am a pilgrim. I am a learner. I journey with others in faith and life. In all I do, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, "all I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). By so doing, I humbly hope to make a difference in people's lives.