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Friday, December 23, 2011

Don't take God for granted.

"What, then, will this child be?" Lk 1:66

Sometimes, especially when we are busy, we take God, family, friends and faith for granted. We rush about internally and externally trying to get everything done, often enough out of pride. We want everything just right and will be disappointed in ourselves if it isn't. Perhaps that is why today's gospel is about John the Baptist's birth. John is the one who will "prepare the way of the Lord," in clear and unambiguous ways. Reform your lives, he will shout. Clean up your lives. Stop living as if nothing matters but your own safety and pleasure. Our task, John insists, is to sweep the roads, filling in potholes and smoothing out rough spots, so the Lord can enter human history, but  because we often forget this, John, like all good prophets, yells at us.

A few days ago, while working on a homily for Christmas, my computer beeped, alerting me that another email had arrived. Glancing down I noticed it was from an old friend so I opened it immediately only to learn that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Shocked and alarmed, I put aside my homily writing and prayed for a few moments. The clutter of trying to write the perfect homily vanished quickly as I sat in solidarity with my friend. 

John the Baptist was right. I was living in a bubble as I prepared for Christmas and someone had to yell at me to stop. Almost immediately, as I cleared my desk and my heart, other friends came to mind. Two husbands whose wives had died this year, a woman struggling for years to get pregnant without success, a young couple with twins less than a year old and pregnant with another set of twins. 

Honestly, only when we push aside the frantic grasping after all manner of "stuff", do we realize that God is always with us, and it is only our willingness to pause in the middle of the mess that alerts us to the presence of light. Even as I prayed I for friends in distress, I also gloried in the birth of ababy to a couple who thought they would never have a child, and I rejoiced with 100's of people who work together with my brother, sister in law and their family to send out almost a thousand care packages to soldiers far from home at Christmas. As God's people we need to walk with the light of Christ through the darkness and fear within which so many live so that all will know God is our light in all circumstances. Only then will our joy be authentic and deep. Only then will be ready for the Christmas that happens everyday.

Today ask God not to be afraid of the dark.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Gift of Time

"Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home." (Lk 1:56)

Time is a precious gift and often our most important asset. Most of us have been trained since childhood to use time well, to organize ourselves, to be on time and to give our time to others whenever possible.  Unfortunately, too many of us have begun to hoard our time and make ourselves emotionally unavailable to people who need us to be present to them, especially in their confusion and anxiety.

Thank God, Mary was not like this.  Today's gospel reminds us that when she visited Elizabeth it was not for a few hours or days, but for "about three months."  Somehow this young woman was able to put her own needs aside to attend to the cares of her older relative who was pregnant for the first time, and in her compassion becomes a model for all of us.  Too often in North America, time is a commodity which we buy and sell, not a gift of God that allows us to share the Good News with our contemporaries.

Many years ago, I was at the airport in Detroit waiting to return to New York when a crowd of people began moving towards me very slowly.  With a small, bent woman at its center, and a dozen television crews filming her every move, only as the crowd drew closer did I realize it was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. How she managed to stop for the weary, many of whom were carrying small children,  astonished me. Surely, she would be late for her plane. Nothing seemed to faze her.  She walked at a steady, slow pace but refused to rush. Her actions lifted my spirit then and amaze me even more today knowing that she was struggling with a kind of spiritual darkness that occasionally made her question God's very existence, but which she did not let interfere with her public life and ministry.

With Christmas only a few days away, Mary and Mother Teresa remind us that we were created for others and that our lives are meant to "magnify the Lord" by the way we stop for those who everyone else passes by.

Today, stop, reflect, and pray quietly for the grace to give your time to others as a gift.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Do the Right Thing...for the Right Reason

When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb. Lk 1:41

While Mary's visit to Elizabeth seems like a natural and kind response from a young woman to an older relative who is pregnant for the first time, it is much more than that.  In going to visit Elizabeth, Mary risked her reputation in the Jewish community.  Though Luke's gospel does not explicitly say that Mary traveled alone, neither does it say she went with anyone else, and the only women who traveled alone in  the ancient world were prostitutes. If indeed she traveled alone, we are presented with a young woman who was so filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and so committed to her "yes" to God that she does not care what anyone else says about her.  When Elizabeth tells Mary that John the Baptist leaped in her womb when Mary greeted her, Mary knows even more deeply that her role, however muddy, is of God and she will not and cannot veer from the path set our for her.

In these last days of Advent, we are praying for an ounce of Mary's courage so that we might let go of our reputations, fears, reluctance and timidity to announce the Good News with power and joy.  God lives in us, dwells among us and will never abandon us.  Though we rarely have the clarity Mary enjoyed, we surely share her questions.  How can this happen, she asks the angel?  The answer Gabriel gives her is for all.  "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God." (Lk 1:35) If we can believe this, not only will Christmas be different, our lives will be changed in ways we could never have imagined.  Begging us not to be afraid, God is inviting us to be transparent witnesses before the entire world of God's reign.  The work God wants to do in and through us is God's work, not ours.  Our fidelity to prayer, listening, service and love, especially of our enemies, will be God's sign of hope for all.  "Don't be afraid," the angel says, God's spirit is even now overshadowing you, making all things possible.

Today, on the darkest day in the Northern hemisphere, be a light for someone living in the shadows, not for your own satisfaction but for God's glory. Do the right thing for the right reason.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Yes!

"May it be done to me according to your word."  Lk 1:37

In a remarkable and evocative homily about Mary's response to the angel Gabriel, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, an 11th century Benedictine and reformer, speaks for us all in urging Mary to say yes to God and yes to us. Bernard asks Mary:
Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word.(1)
Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Bernard's challenge to Mary is actually addressed to all of us. Advent is not a time to dally or delay, not a time for virginal simplicity. It is a time to say yes without fear.  God needs to be born in us again today, not tomorrow or in the New Year.  God depends upon us in our weakness, fear and sin to accept his hand and assurance that with God all things are possible. Unless we ask for the grace of going beyond our imagination, we cannot hope to arise, hasten and be open.  With God all these actions are not only possible but necessary and Mary's yes assures us of this.  May it be done to us according to your word!

Today, even if you are living in darkness, say Yes to God. The desired of all nations is at your door.

Monday, December 19, 2011

O Root of Jesse

"His wife was barren and had borne no children." (Jg 13:3)
"But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years."(Lk 1:7)

Barrenness is a particularly difficult burden to bear, and in the ancient world it was often seen as a punishment for sin.  Both the wife of Zorah, the father of Samson, and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist were barren, and we can only imagine the pain they felt.  No doubt both women were familiar with the words of Jeremiah who tells us that Rachel wept inconsolably because she was barren.  For Jewish women not to have children meant they had no identity, no value, and no blessing from God.  Zorah's wife in today's passage from Judges isn't even named. How great then the joy of both women when, in their old age, God blesses them with children whose role in salvation history will forever help believers to appreciate the greatness of God who blesses us when we least expect it.

In these last days of Advent, the same is true of us.  Our roles in the ongoing story of God's love for the world, while sometimes muddy and confusing, are radically important to God.  God wants to speak through us, to announce good news, not only through the strengths and gifts we each have, but through our willingness to endure weakness and suffering for the sake of building God's reign.

In today's O antiphon, used at Mass and in the Divine Office, we hear God announce that from the root of Jesse, an apparently dead and useless twig, will spring a Savior before whom Kings will keep silence and through whom gentiles will know God.  We are God's people, the liturgy shouts, despite our sin and failure to live the Good News each day.  God will send us a gift in the form of a child to remind us that his Covenantal love will endure and blossom anew for all the world.

Though we may think of ourselves as barren and bereft of hope, God's vision for all the peoples of the earth will endure, grow and be fertile.  The gift of the Christ child is almost too much for us to bear in our darkness, and we can only thank God that its power is not dependent on us who so often see only our own weakness and the fragility of failure of others.  God will strip away our barrenness even when we are not ready because God is ready to change the world forever.

Today ask God to "fertilize" your heart, which so often seems barren, with the the hope only God can give.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Advent

"The LORD is with you." (2 Sam 7:3)

The 7th Chapter of II Samuel has always moved my heart.  David's relationship with God, even when he speaks to God through Nathan the Prophet, is so natural, so honest and open that it offers us a model for our own prayer.

David, caught up with his duties as King, suddenly realizes that in his hurry to defend and build up the faith of his people, he has forgotten to build a permanent and beautiful place for the Ark of the Covenant.  Even though Nathan assures him that he has nothing to worry about, David knows that he has forgotten something very important and God knows it, too. Nathan, in a dream that same night, is reminded that God has always been a companion to the Jewish people who were nomads for so long. God, like the people themselves, lived in a tent, a dwelling easily dismantled and moved to a new place when their goats and sheep needed new grazing land.  And God was happy to move, to be with his people, to assure them that the covenant he made with them would endure forever no matter where they wandered. Though shocking to Nathan, God insists that he does not need a lavish and permanent dwelling place, but is content to be among his people wherever they are.

In today's gospel, when the angel assures Mary that God is with her, we are reminded of God's caution to Nathan. Not only does Mary not have to build a dwelling place for God, she will be the new temple, the new tent of God as she carries the Savior in her womb for nine months in preparation for God's entry in the flesh into human history.  Alarmed and troubled at first, Mary hears God's assurance to her that the child to be born of her is a gift of the Holy Spirit and she has nothing to fear.  Her "yes" to being the tabernacle of God fills her and us with joy. God who makes all things possible is doing something new and wonderful in her and for us.  Although she could never have imagined the extent of God's promise, as the tent of God Mary would usher in a new covenant in which we as the body of Christ will give birth to the Lord each day by our love for one another and our commitment to building a just world. While we might build beautiful churches all over the world,  they are only the secondary homes of God.  God lives within and among us as God's people and once again God is happy to be with us in the new tabernacle of our own bodies and communities of faith.

Today, pray to be a worthy tent for God.