Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Day (Readings for Mass at Midnight)
The Cavalry in the Child

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6; Psalm 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
Picture: CC luvsbooks

Sisters and brothers, just before the 8:30 Mass last night, I received an email from a relative, asking for prayers for her father. He’s in the hospital with internal bleeding. And the doctors have yet to discover the source of the bleed. My relative said that she is both worried and scared. She also said that somehow it doesn’t feel like Christmas even though it is. Have you ever had a similar experience: that it doesn’t feel like Christmas even though it is? I suspect that the feeling is more common than we might think. And, with the global economy in its current state, we might expect the experience to be even more common this year.

But what does Christmas really feel like? What situations and emotions do we usually – habitually, and almost unconsciously – associate with Christmas? One of the things that come to my mind, of course, is a childhood memory of desperately waiting for Midnight Mass to be over so that I could rush home to open the presents under the tree. Of course, we will all have our own cherished memories of Christmas, of family and friends, of church and carols. And, for the most part, these will be pleasant memories, warm and cozy memories, memories that fill our hearts with song. But is that really all there is to Christmas? When we listen to our scripture readings today, for example, what kind of experiences, what sort of images do we find?

I don’t know about you, but the image that our readings bring to my mind today is one from the old Westerns. You’re probably familiar with it. The pioneers are happily moving west in their wagons, when they are suddenly attacked by Indians – or, to be more politically correct, Native Americans. Immediately, they circle their wagons and try to hold off the fierce aggressors. But, being both outnumbered and outgunned, they don’t stand a chance. The casualties mount. Resistance seems useless. The end is imminent. Then, just in the nick of time, they hear the welcome sound of a bugle call. The cavalry is here! The attackers are driven off. The pioneers are rescued. There is great relief and much rejoicing all round.

We find a similar situation in our readings don’t we? There is an initial experience of oppression, danger and despair. The first reading tells us of a people who walked in darkness. And this situation is mirrored in the gospel, where Joseph and Mary are among those laboring under foreign occupation. Even though Mary is with child, they have to undertake an arduous journey for the sake of a census. But then something happens. Much more than a bugle call, we find instead a wondrous angelic proclamation, a multitude of the heavenly host… praising God and announcing that a savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord... The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… And as a result, there is much relief and great rejoicing. The cavalry is here!

What does this tell us about Christmas, sisters and brothers? What do we learn, if not that the true feeling of Christmas, the great joy that the Christ-child brings, is something that is rescued from the jaws of danger and despair. The joy of Christmas is meant precisely for those who, like my relative, find themselves worried and scared. It is to people such as these that God sends a message of rescue and of hope.

But still, the image of the cavalry’s arrival only gets us so far, doesn’t it? How are we to hear the bugle call when a loved one is desperately ill in hospital and the doctors can’t seem to find the cause? How are we to catch sight of the cavalry when our 401(K) investments are besieged by market forces and there is no rescue in sight? How are we to lift our spirits in joy and excitement when all we feel is the dull weight of anxiety and apprehension?

We have to admit that these are difficult questions, without easy answers. Even so, on this Christmas day, could our readings have something more to say about all this? Indeed they do. But we need to look more closely at the picture that they paint for us. For, although this picture is very similar, in some respects, to the one in the old Westerns, it is also different in very significant ways. And it is to these differences that we need to pay close attention.

First, notice what happens to the shepherds upon receiving the angelic proclamation. Quite unlike the pioneers’ immediate positive response to the bugle call, we are told that the shepherds were struck with great fear, a feeling with which we can all identify. It is a natural reaction to strange and unexpected events, events not unlike a sudden illness, whether physical or financial. Yet, to their credit, although the shepherds are afraid, they do not run away. They remain in conversation with the angel, at the precise location of their fear. And in doing this they find reassurance and guidance. They are told what to do. They are taught how to recognize the cavalry: this will be a sign for you… an infant… lying in a manger… Could this be what we are invited to do too, when we find ourselves feeling fearful at Christmas?

Which brings us to the second significant difference. This is something we know all too well. But often familiarity breeds ignorance. So we need to allow our readings to remind us yet again: the rescue we need so desperately, comes not so much as a deadly cavalry charge but rather in the form of a helpless infant, sharing a bed with animals in a cave, because there was no room for them in the inn. Could it be that to experience the true feeling of Christmas, we need to spend time gazing upon this infant – to see, in this child, not just the valiant charge of the cavalry, but also, especially, the selfless giving on the cross at Calvary?

There is also at least one more difference to consider. In the Westerns, what is highlighted is usually the dramatic and lightning-quick rescue brought about by the cavalry. The pioneers themselves don’t need to do too much. But the situation in our readings is rather different. Notice what we heard in the second reading about the effects of Christ’s coming. The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires… to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good. The cavalry rescues the pioneers all but instantaneously. But the child in the manger saves us by putting us through rigorous training. Could this training be what we need to experience the true joy of Christmas?

Of course, all this requires time. The move from fear to joy requires time. The recognition of the cavalry in the child requires time. The training that molds a people eager to do what is good requires time. Are we not fortunate, then, that Christmas doesn’t end with Christmas day, but continues throughout the Christmas season, until we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord on January 11? Won’t we need all this time to learn to experience the true feeling of Christmas?

Sisters and brothers, the bugle has indeed sounded! The cavalry is here! How are we being invited to deepen our Christmas joy today?

A blessed Christmas to one and all!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

4th Sunday of Advent (B)
Getting the Right Idea

Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Psalm 89:2-3, 4-5, 27, 29; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Sisters and brothers, I’m reminded today of a person, whom we will call Sam. Sam was browsing in Borders Bookstore one day, when a perfect stranger approached and said, Hi Honey! Now, there was no one else along that particular aisle at the time. What do you think was Sam’s reaction? What do you think went through Sam’s mind? Perhaps Sam remembered having heard or read somewhere that people don’t go to Borders simply to shop for books, but also to hook up with other people. And perhaps Sam was indignant at being accosted in this way. Perhaps Sam was even ready to turn around and give the bold stranger a telling off for being so forward. Thankfully, however, Sam took a moment to first look more closely at the offender. For it was only then that Sam noticed the little gadget sticking out of one of the stranger’s ears. Of course! The person wasn’t being rude. The person wasn’t even speaking to Sam. The person was greeting someone else, on the phone.

Have you ever had a similar experience? Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to get the wrong idea, how easy it is to allow what we see and hear to lead us to make certain wrong assumptions about what’s actually going on?

And isn’t it easy too to get the wrong idea about what Advent and Christmas are all about? Many of us find ourselves much busier than usual during this holiday season. There are gifts to be bought, trees to be trimmed, food to be prepared, decorations to be hung, cookies to be baked, cards to be written and sent… Where I live, for example, there are three Christmas trees – one in the reception area, one in the dining hall, and another in the living room. With all this busyness going on around us, it’s easy to go through the season thinking that Advent and Christmas are all about filling up space – space in our homes and on our streets, on our mantles and in our stockings.

To be fair, of course, not all of these activities are for our own enjoyment. There are those of us who also make a special effort, during this season, to give to charity. But still, don’t even worthy actions such as these often remain just another thing that we do, at Christmas, simply to fill up the spaces in our lives? I’m reminded of hearing, for example, a member of a charitable organization lamenting on National Public Radio the other day, that while there is a typical spike in contributions during the holiday season, in contrast, February and March are particularly difficult months, when the poor seem all but forgotten.

But if Advent and Christmas are not really about us filling up space, then what is it about? And if we are, indeed, so prone to getting the wrong idea, what can we do about it?

Perhaps we need to follow Sam’s example, and take a closer look. In particular, we need to examine carefully what the scriptures are telling us today. For in our first reading, we find someone else who is also prone to getting the wrong idea, someone no less than King David himself. Prior to the events of today’s reading, David has been very busy fighting wars and struggling and scheming for his own political survival. And, finally, we meet him today at the pinnacle of his power. We are told that he has settled into his house. He has subdued all his enemies and his seat on the throne is secure. He now has time on his hands. We might say that, after all the busyness, he suddenly finds an opening in his schedule. And how does he react? Rather quickly, he tries to find something else to do to fill up that empty space. He wants to be a master-builder. He proposes to construct a house for his God.

But God has other ideas. Instead of allowing David simply to continue engaging in yet another activity, even an activity for God’s benefit, God invites David to reflect more deeply on the true significance of all that has happened and is happening to him. God reminds David that it was never really only about him, about what he was doing for God, but it was instead about what God was doing for him, and through him, for the rest of the people. It wasn’t David who was filling up space, as much as it was God who was preparing a place for God’s people. It was God who was the divine Master-Builder.

It was I who took you from the pasture… to be commander of my people Israel…. I will fix a place for my people Israel; I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place without further disturbance…

And if it is God who is the Master-Builder, if it is God who seeks to fix a place for us in God’s kingdom, then what is our proper role? What is our proper response? What is the true significance of Advent and Christmas for us? More than simply a time for us to fill up space, this is primarily a season in which we make space – space in our hearts and in our lives – for God. And if, ultimately, it is God who is the one who builds, then the appropriate response for us is not that of King David in the first reading, but that of Mary in the gospel. Our proper role is not that of master-builder but that of handmaid.

Of course, Mary’s is not an easy role to play. The master-builder calls the shots. The handmaid only listens and obeys. The master-builder may enjoy the limelight and the acclaim. The handmaid is happy simply to remain in the background. As Paul tells the Romans in the second reading, not to us, but to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ be glory forever and ever.

And there is a further difference between the builder and the handmaid that makes the latter role a far more difficult one to play. Like those who contribute to charity only at Christmas, the builders among us can choose to give only particular portions of our time and resources. We can be satisfied with offering only whatever is convenient, whenever it’s convenient. But the handmaid is different. To be a handmaid is to give not just what one has, some of the time, but also all of who one is, all of the time. As we said of the Virgin Mary in the opening prayer, she placed her life at the service of God’s plan.

Isn’t this why we need this season of preparation? Like Mary, who took time to converse with the angel, and like Sam who took time to look closely at the stranger, we too need this season to consider carefully what is expected of us, to surface our doubts and anxieties, and to experience God reassuring and strengthening us. We need to do this so that we may obtain the courage and generosity to dedicate our lives ever more completely to God’s great construction project. We need this time to make space – in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world – so that Christ, the Living Temple of God, may once again be born among us.

Sisters and brothers, it is indeed easy to get the wrong idea. But how is God inviting us to look more carefully, and to make space more generously, for the Christ-child today?

Monday, December 15, 2008

3rd Sunday of Advent
Stay in Touch with the Light

Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Picture: LATimes Print Edition

Sisters and brothers, something about the main section of Friday’s LA Times caught my eye. You probably noticed it too. It was quite difficult to miss. A quick glance at the paper brought to view the usual slew of bad news. On the front page there was a report about how the recent Metrolink train crash was probably the result of bad decisions made by the company two decades ago that had gambled with passenger safety. On the same page, there was also news about how, in China, economic woes have led to increasing outbreaks of rioting and unrest. And, of course, the auto bailout had died in the Senate. Further on, on page 16, there was news that a meter reader in Orlando, Florida had found the grisly remains of a toddler, suspected to be those of 2 year old Caylee Marie Anthony, missing since June 15, and alleged to have been murdered by her very own mother. Like I said, it was the usual slew of bad news.

But in the midst of all this darkness, what caught my eye was the lone colored photograph on the front page. It was a photograph of an elderly Jewish man, planting a kiss on the cheek of a younger black man. It was the picture of 86-year old Marty Biegel, former history teacher and basketball coach at Fairfax High School in LA. And the man he was kissing was Darryl Brooks, a former player in Marty’s team. In the paper, Marty’s story took up the whole of page 20. It told of how, in a dark time of racial desegregation in the schools of LA, Marty had helped to build bridges between the races by welcoming black athletes into his gym. It was also about how these players had since become his friends for life, such that even to this day, Marty and his former players, black and white, continue to have regular get-togethers. It was a story of how one person was able to make a difference in the lives of others. It was a heartwarming story. You could feel your spirits lifting even as you read it. You felt happy. You felt like life was worth living, even in the face a slew of bad news. You noticed how the story in the paper ended with Marty telling his friends to please stay in touch. And you found yourself wishing you too could stay in touch with this person who had let his light shine out so brightly, yet so unobtrusively, in the midst of the darkness.

But what I found so amazing was that one could actually feel that way simply by reading the story of one person, even a person such as Marty Biegel. How marvelous it was that even a single story of someone who had let his light shine out in the darkness could actually lighten my heart on a Friday morning, when the rest of the news was threatening to plunge it into the depths of darkness.

And isn’t this very much like what our prayers and readings at today’s Mass are seeking to do for us today? We all know very well that times are bad – perhaps worse for some than for others. Everyone has their own story of woe, their own burdens to carry. Yet, in the midst of our experiences of darkness, both personal and communal, our attention is being drawn to a particular figure. It is a figure that we already met last Sunday. It is the figure of the voice crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord.

As we may remember, last Sunday, what was emphasized in the message proclaimed by this voice was the call to repentance. We were invited to level the mountains and to fill in the valleys of our hearts, so that a smooth highway might be paved for the Lord’s coming.

Today, the message remains the same, but the emphasis has shifted. Even as we continue to heed the call to repentance, today the voice beckons us also to rejoice. As Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading: Rejoice always…. for this is the will of God for you…

But how are we to heed this call? How are we to rejoice, especially if we find ourselves engulfed in darkness of one form or another?

Much like Friday’s paper did with the story of Marty Biegel, our readings invite us, not just to listen to what the voice is telling us to do, but also to what it tells us about itself. We are invited to listen to its story. For not only does this voice tell us to rejoice, it also speaks to us of its own experience of rejoicing. As it tells us in the first reading, I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice…

Here, we find the first answer to our problem. The first secret to rejoicing in the darkness is to continue to look to the Lord for our joy, to recall the many things that the Lord has done and continues to do for us, not least the gift to us of Christ the only begotten Son, both in the stable at Bethlehem and on the mount of Calvary. Again, as Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading: in all circumstances give thanks…

But that is not all. Notice also what the voice says at the beginning of the first reading. Notice the strong sense of purpose. The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor… And notice too, how, in the gospel, this same sense of purpose fills the mind and heart of John the Baptist. Like the one in the first reading, John also comes to testify to the light. And notice how this sense of purpose, this mission of testimony, gives John an enduring appreciation of his own proper identity. He is quite happy to tell the religious authorities that he is not the Christ. Indeed, he is quite happy to say that he is not worthy even to untie the sandal strap of Christ. Isn’t there something deeply liberating in this realization – that one is not the Christ? Knowing who we’re not frees us to be who we are meant to be, and to do that which we are called to do, to testify to the light.

The scriptures go on to show us at least one other secret to the art of rejoicing in the darkness. We caught a glimpse of it in the first reading, which speaks of how just as the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations. We saw it too in the second reading, where Paul assures the Thessalonians that the God of peace will keep them blameless for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The secret is a firm hope in the fidelity of God – trusting that God will always remember God’s promise of mercy.

Gratitude, testimony and hope – these are some of the things we find when we listen carefully to the voice crying out in the desert. These are the means by which the voice rejoices, even as it continues to proclaim a message of consolation in the desolate wastelands of the desert.

And if, in this season of Advent, we were to continue to focus our attention on this voice, might it not happen, as it did with Marty Biegel and the LA Times, that we will find ourselves caught up in its joy, the same joy that endures even in the most desolate of deserts? Might we not find ourselves illuminated by the light that shines even in the darkest of nights? Might we not find ourselves desiring to heed Marty Biegel's parting words to us, to stay in touch with the light?

My sisters and brothers, on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, what reasons might we have to rejoice in the Lord today?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

2nd Sunday of Advent (B)
Cleaning the Coffee Machine

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85:9-10-11-12, 13-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
Picture: CC psd

My sisters and brothers, do you like coffee? I know many people do. Isn’t it a great feeling, when you find yourself stumbling sleepily, reluctantly, out of a warm bed, early in the morning, to have your senses pleasantly jolted awake by the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee? Have you ever felt that way? Or maybe it’s the middle of what is turning out to be a long and tiring day. There’s still much more to do, but already, you find your concentration drifting, your eyelids drooping. Again, isn’t it such a relief, isn’t it such a comfort, to be rescued from drowsiness by a steaming cup of coffee? Have you ever had a similar experience?

And yet, sisters and brothers, as much as many of us might enjoy our precious cup of joe, how many of us actually like to be the one to prepare it? I didn’t think so. As consoling as it is to be greeted by freshly brewed coffee, it’s often difficult to find the motivation to make it, especially if it’s the first pot of the day – that usually involves having to be the first one out of bed. And then, of course, you can’t make coffee without first cleaning out the coffee machine. Not only do you have to empty the coffee pot and wash it, you also have to throw out the used filter along with the damp and tired coffee grains contained in it. Not a very pleasant thing to do. Is it any wonder that Starbucks is still doing a roaring business even in the midst of a recession?

Still, whether we like it or not, it remains true that you can’t enjoy the consolation of coffee unless there’s someone willing to prepare it. And you can’t make a fresh batch of coffee without first cleaning out the coffee machine. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if someone were to try to make coffee using an un-cleaned machine – with some of the old coffee still in the pot, and the used grains in the filter? No, we all know this well: when it comes to coffee, the consolation comes only after the cleaning.

And the same principle applies in the spiritual life as well. Isn’t this what our Mass readings are reminding us? Isn’t this what the voice crying out in the desert is saying to us? Notice how all three readings today offer us the assurance that a great consolation is coming. In the first reading, we find this in the moving image of the shepherd, feeding his hungry flock, and tenderly gathering the weak and defenseless lambs into the warmth and security of his powerful but gentle arms. In the gospel, John the Baptist takes the place of the voice crying in the desert. And the One who is mightier than John fills the shoes of the shepherd. Just as in the first reading the shepherd comforts his sheep, so here in the gospel, we’re told that this mighty One who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that we received at our baptism. This is the Spirit who comforts the afflicted and nourishes the starving, who enlightens the ignorant and strengthens those who are weak. In the second reading too, we hear the wonderful news that the coming day of God will bring with it new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, a situation where there will be no more suffering and no more pain, no more lives devastated by recessions and no more homes destroyed by wildfires, where the hungry will be fed, the lonely cared for, and every tear will be wiped away.

This then is the awesome consolation that our readings speak to us about on this second Sunday of Advent. And, like the smell of freshly brewed coffee, this is a message that brings us comfort in our troubles, consolation in our distress. This is the same Good News that we are preparing ourselves to receive more deeply during this season of Advent. And even as we listen to this message, do we not find our hearts being moved? Do we not experience our lips beginning to mouth the words of today’s psalm response? If this is indeed what the Lord’s coming will bring, then Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation!

But that is not all that the voice in the desert speaks to us about. For in order to welcome the One who is coming and the consolation that He brings, there is something that needs to be done. As it is with coffee, so too is it with the Coming of the Lord. Before the consolation there must first be a cleansing. The first reading speaks of this in terms of valleys being filled in and mountains being leveled, so that a straight road might be paved for the One who is coming.

What does this mean for us today? What might it mean to level mountains, to fill in valleys, and to build roads? During this difficult time of economic recession, when there is much talk about financial bailouts, perhaps road building might have something to do with examining and correcting the way in which financial institutions have been doing business up till now. Perhaps it has something to do with taking initial steps at reforming the way in which Wall Street, and indeed the whole global economy, operates. Perhaps it also has something to do with getting rid of those attitudes and actions that caused the death of 34 year-old Jdimytai Damour, in the stampede at a Long Island Walmart on Black Friday. We can’t make fresh coffee without first cleaning out the coffee machine.

But the machine that needs cleaning is not just in the world outside. It is also within us. We, who have already been baptized in the Holy Spirit, are called, each in our own way, to be voices crying out in the desert, brewers of fresh coffee for a drowsy world. And, to do this, doesn’t each of us need to examine the coffee machine that is our own spiritual life? Changes in the world require prior changes within each of our hearts. Like the people of the Judean countryside, who flocked to John in response to his preaching of repentance, we too are invited to allow the mountains of our sinful habits to be leveled, and the valleys of our selfish attitudes to be filled in. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. We cannot enjoy and share the fresh coffee of Christ’s coming without first cleaning out the tired coffee grains and the used filters of our hearts.

And for this to happen, we need the Lord’s help. Isn’t this why, in our opening prayer just now, we asked God to remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy? We – you and I – need the Lord to show us the sinful tendencies within us that need to be reformed. Perhaps it is a hurt or a grudge that we haven’t quite been able to get over, or a prejudice that we have only been vaguely aware of till now. Perhaps it’s the tendency to live beyond our means, or to desire to keep up with the Jonses. Whatever it may be, the season of Advent is a golden opportunity for us, as individuals and as a community, to pray for and to receive the grace to clean out our hearts and our lives so that we can not only receive God’s consolation, but also share it with a waiting world.

On this second Sunday of Advent, a voice cries out in the desert: prepare for the Consolation that is coming.

But, my dear sisters and brothers, how ready are we to clean out the coffee machine?