Saturday, December 10, 2011

Listening to Prophets

"They did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased...He was speaking to them about John the Baptist." Mt. 17: 12-13

All of us have people in our lives who get under our skin.  Almost anything they say makes us defensive and resistive. Though we cannot easily articulate what it is that disturbs us about the other person, it is very real and disabling. Often enough the person who annoys us at every turn is a mirror image of ourselves. If we find ourselves talking too much and not listening carefully enough to others, we resent it when others prattle on and seem not to hear the opinions of others.

On the other hand, it is good to remember that our personality gets under other peoples skin. Not only is this humbling, it can take the edge off our annoyance and calm our spirits.  It can also be the first step in recognizing and accepting this reality. When we obsessively try to figure out what it is about ourselves or others that bothers us, it is almost always fruitless. Rather than asking God for insight, we ought to asking for acceptance.

Clearly, John the Baptist got under the skin of the leaders of the Jewish community. To counter his influence, the Pharisees accused him of being too rigid, too judgmental for their tastes, They dismissed his blanket condemnations of their leadership and lifestyle as the ravings of a mad man. Although the Pharisees knew that prophets did not equivocate, were never disingenuous, had little patience with long explanations and silly excuses, they were determined to undermine John's role as a prophet by picking at his religious practices, manner of dress and diet. But Jesus saw through their ploys, and so must we. Advent is a time to fearlessly reexamine our lives and listen to the prophets all around us who want only to help us prepare for our our own rebirth at Christmas.

Today, pray for the gift of fearlessness.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Responding with the Heart

"Wisdom is vindicated by her works." Mt 11:19

Spiritual directors often speak of "resistances" to God's action in our lives.  Sometimes it is unresolved conflicts from the past that seem to block our submitting ourselves to God.  At other times, it is too much work , too much television or too much time in front of the computer. Part of my work, for instance, demands that I spend time reflecting on the daily scriptures, researching areas with which I am not familiar and actually writing this blog or a homily, but the computer cannot be my life.  Unless I take sufficient quiet time to remember God's enduring presence all around me, what I read, study and write will be like dry straw. Lacking a certain spirit, it will be unable to help lift people to God and urge them to live for God and do God's work.

In today's gospel text, Matthew uses the image of children playing a flute hoping that people will dance, but no one listens. Addressing the Jewish leaders of his day, Jesus suggests that their lives are full of "resistances" because they reject John the Baptist for being too strict about fasting and him for being too lax.  In other words, the Pharisees and teachers of the law are determined not to like or respect the actions of John and Jesus because their own power and religious observance is threatened or judged as less than authentic. 

Advent is a good time to examine our own commitment to faith and its practice. Have our prayers become routine, mumbled out of obligation quickly and with little heart?  Has our inability to stop comparing ourselves to others impeded our own progress in the spiritual life? As Jesus reminds his hearers: the wisdom of following him will be vindicated by our good works.  People will see in us the Christ who grounds us in hope or they will ignore our halfhearted attempts to appear religious.

Today, ask God to reveal how you resist his Word. Don't live a gospel life for show, but ask for the gift of authenticity.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary

"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Lk 1:27

Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, is the Patroness of the United States. Today's feast therefore, whose focus is Mary's sinlessness, is a good time to reflect and pray about the effects of being without sin. Sin often results from self absorption and self centeredness, but it is only when we are other centered that we reflect the glory of God and the holiness of Mary.

Think for instance about those times when you experience a deep freedom.  Nothing clutters your mind or your heart. You can listen without searching for an answer. You can respond without having to be right. You can give of yourself totally to another not because there is a reward for doing so, but simply because it is the right thing to do.  When we experience this kind of freedom, we touch a bit of what Mary knew as a way of being in the world.  To be born without sin, to be able to resist sin in all its forms, freed her to be Christ's mother and ours. What a gift Mary is in this regard.

Whenever I get a glimpse of authentic, uncluttered love I am always moved. I remember watching the Special Olympics a few years ago when one young man stumbled running around the track and two of his competitors stopped to help him before continuing their own quest for a medal.  Their action was so natural and so pure that I knew they were challenging everyone watching to reexamine their priorities. While being the best you can be is a worthy goal, the desire to win at any cost can destroy our integrity and belittle others.

Mary's arms, in so many statues and paintings, are always open to the world. Never closed and defensive, Mary's gesture of inclusiveness and service challenges us to seek justice for all upon which we can build a lasting peace. Especially for us Americans who can be seen as greedy and patronizing, Mary is an inviting figure of care for others before all else.

Today, ask for the gift of other centeredness.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

St Ambrose of Milan

"My yoke is easy, and my burden light." Mt. 11:30

Every society that seeks good order among its members needs directives, laws and guidelines.  Speed limits, stop signs, and traffic signals make sure that cars and trucks proceed safely to their destinations while safeguarding the people on the streets and highways. At the same time, when rules seems excessive we chaff.  All of us can remember being funneled from three lanes of traffic into one for several miles only to find no one actually doing anything when we pass the work site. The safety cones, intended to protect workers from speeding traffic, only slow every one down.

Something very similar to this happened at the time of Jesus.  The leaders of the Jewish community took the Torah, which the rabbis often called a wall or a "yoke" around the life of the community to guide and protect it, and expanded it beyond its intended use.  Rules to regulate the sabbath, for instance, had become overwhelming. In addition to the general laws of sabbath which require Jews not to work, cook, carry things or require others to carry them, there are 39 categories of prohibited things one cannot do on the Sabbath.  Within these categories hundreds of other prohibitions had arisen making it almost impossible for the ordinary person to observe the Sabbath well. Jesus rails against the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in this regard, accusing them of laying heavy burdens on people's shoulders and doing nothing to help them. (Mt 23:4)  The yoke of the law, intended to guide their behavior for the glory of God, was choking the spirit out of their hearts.

The gospel today assures Jesus' hearers that his "yoke" is easy.  Love God completely and love your neighbor as you love yourself will be a binding yoke of charity.  Believers who are committed to these simple directives will discipline themselves to develop practices that insure their fulfillment of the law.  Prayer, worship, study and service of others will be ordinary, everyday events in the lives of Christians.  The yoke of Jesus will free us from self absorption, fill us with gratitude and make us "doers" of the word, people committed to a life of transparent service as a sign of God's enduring love for the world. Properly crafted yokes are sanded smooth so that the animals wearing them hardly feel their presence unless they struggle to move away from their tasks.  Jesus' yoke is weightless if we live the gospel simply.

Today, ask to be free of the yoke of guilt and shame.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


"It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost." Mt 18:14

Not infrequently, a few of us friars, as a way to wind down after a long day, watch a nature show in the evenings.  Often, the program is about the hunting abilities of a particular breed of big cat, and it is always fascinating, if a little unnerving, to watch the animal as it isolates a young antelope or gazelle for its next meal.  Cunning and fast, it waits for the perfect moment before swooping in for the kill.  Sometimes the younger and smaller animal, sensing danger, is able to retreat to the safety of the herd and the cat slinks away in search of another more vulnerable target.

Jesus is talking about much the same situation in the today's gospel.  When a sheep, a naturally communal animal, drifts away from the herd, it is not only vulnerable, it loses a sense of who it is.  Sheep herders tell us that an isolated sheep might stop drinking and eating, threatening its very life.  Unless the sheep is led back to the herd it risks injury and death. That is why Jesus suggests that the "good shepherd" leaves the ninety nine who are safe when together, to seek out the lost stray.

Belonging to a community is essential for our humanity.  While there are times when we ought to be alone for prayer, reflection and rest, isolation is not good for us as humans and especially as Christians. Isolation eventually fills us with dread and foreboding and often makes us defensive and argumentative. Belonging, on the other hand, frees us from unnecessary anxiety and reminds us that even when we are struggling with a particular problem, we have an identity that gives meaning to our lives. We belong to Christ, the good shepherd, in whom is not only safety but salvation.

Today, stop and let Jesus, the Good Shepherd, find you.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hope at Every Turn

"The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song....Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water." Is 35, 1,6

The prophecy of Isaiah is wonderfully visual.  Reminding us that all creation "lives" in God, the prophet invites us to think of the desert drinking water gratefully and the mountains singing for joy.  God's love, Isaiah suggests, is so immediate and so full that one can taste it, smell it, hear and touch it. Working hard to help his sisters and brothers in exile not lose hope, Isaiah reminds them to focus on the simplest of God's gifts, their own senses, as a pathway to renewed life in the Spirit.

Unfortunately, in a society so glutted with visual images, we sometimes fail to appreciate the fulness of God's presence all around us, and the days before Christmas, in the name of love and self giving, often make our lives more obsessive, more hurried and much less human.  As Jesus says: "You have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear." While I realize that I am one of the fortunate few who is not compelled to buy dozens of gifts, nevertheless, it saddens me to think that the frenzy and rushing of preparing for Christmas can steal the most precious moments of the church year and strip us our ability to see beyond the physical. Advent can be a time that we so "stuff ourselves" with preparing food and finding the perfect gift that we don't really enjoy anything.

What would it be like, for instance, to take one minute each day to pause and picture the person for whom you are buying something happy, content, and faith filled.  It is not a difficult exercise, but I feel certain that if we gave members of our family an inexpensive gift and a brief note telling them how we prayed for them each day during Advent, they would treasure the note much more than the gift.

Today, think simple.  Live simply.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Second Sunday of Advent

Comfort, give comfort to my people. Is 40:1

Prophets are fascinating people. Like all good leaders they warn us about dangerous paths we might be taking or reprove us when we fail to live up to our values, but they can also be incredibly gentle and consoling. The 40th chapter of Isaiah is like this.

The Jewish nation is in exile. Many have forgotten who they are and to whom they belong.  Others are finding ways to compromise with their captors as a way of staying alive, but are neglecting their religious obligations. Isaiah knows all this and decides that honey works much better than vinegar when people are lost and in pain.  Like the Samaritan who stops to help the fellow left for dead by robbers, he reminds his listeners that soon they will be home, among their friends and families and will be free to worship in Jerusalem. Don't worry, he seems to be saying, God is near and, "Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care."

Advent's scriptures are often like spiritual comfort food for me. Just as a big bowl of coffee ice cream can transport me back to childhood vacations with my family in Westport, Ma, Advent fills me with warmth and hope. As life was once simple and rich, so it will be again.  As we prepare to celebrate the Lord's birth, we are reminded that Christmas is not about the gifts we give and receive, but the incredible promise of God not to leave us orphans nor abandon us when we are in exile. 

Today, comfort someone who seems lost.