Sunday, November 29, 2009

1st Sunday of Advent (C)
Coffee, Karate and Christmas

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

Dear sisters and brothers, as you know, today we begin a new church year by entering the season of Advent. Why, you may wonder do we do this? Why not follow what we do on New Year’s Day? Why not just dive straight into Christmas, with a countdown and some champagne? Why bother with the four Sundays of Advent? To answer this question, I think we need to appreciate an important difference, a difference that we often forget about. Sisters and brothers, what is the difference between coffee and karate?

About a month or more ago, Starbucks Coffee introduced a new product: instant coffee. Of course, other brands of instant coffee have been available for a very long time. But Starbucks claims that their instant coffee is as good, if not better, than their regular version. To prove it, they even let people take taste tests at their stores. Now, I am not a coffee drinker. I don’t know the results of those tests. But if the claim is true, then coffee might well be one of those things that you can enjoy instantly without sacrificing quality.

Compare that with karate. Some of us may remember the movie The Karate Kid. A teenager takes up karate to defend himself against some bullies. But, although he’s very eager to learn, his teacher – who looks like a harmless little old man – only gives him ordinary household jobs to do. Paint the gate. Wax the car. Sand the wooden floor. At first, the boy is frustrated and impatient. Why is he wasting his time doing chores, while the bullies are learning karate under their own teacher? Why can’t he learn as quickly they seem to be doing? But later, he realizes that his chores were really part of the training. By repeatedly applying wax on and taking wax off, for example, he was learning defensive blocks. More importantly, his teacher was teaching him that karate was much more than just about beating an opponent in a fight. It was also about discipline and perseverance, mercy and self-restraint, things that the bullies had failed to learn. Even if they had picked up some fancy moves rather quickly, theirs was not the real thing. True karate requires much time, effort and self-sacrifice. Unlike coffee, there really is no such thing as instant karate.

And what about Christmas? Have you noticed how, suddenly, the radio stations are playing nothing but Christmas carols? Overnight, a huge Christmas tree has sprouted on State Street. Christmas decorations are everywhere, even while some of us are still finishing those leftovers from Thanksgiving. What is this, if not instant Christmas? But is there really such a thing? Is Christmas really more like coffee than karate?

Not if our Mass readings are anything to go by. While everything around us might lead us to think that Christmas has to do only with trees and tinsels, presents and parties, or even cribs containing cuddly newborn babes, our readings remind us that it’s also about much more. Long before we hear anything about a baby born in a manger, the liturgy helps us to prepare for Christmas by reminding us about its deeper meaning.

The first reading reminds us that Christmas is about the fulfillment of a promise. The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to house of Israel and Judah…. In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall be secure… To a small and insignificant nation, a people constantly threatened by powerful enemies – a people not unlike the karate kid – God promises safety and security. And this promise is made also to us. Even if we may live in the most powerful country in the world, aren’t we also threatened by bullies of different sorts? Some of our bullies are external: like rising costs of living and unemployment, or addiction to alcohol and drugs, or misunderstandings with family and friends. Other bullies are internal: like selfishness and greed, or the refusal to forgive, or the neglect of those who are suffering. But if Christmas is the celebration of the fulfillment of God’s promise to help us deal with our enemies, then we must first be able to identify them. Who are your enemies?

And not only does Advent give us the opportunity to identify our bullies, it also helps us to recognize the God who comes to deal with them. For God appears among us in many different ways, sometimes in ways as surprising as the harmless little old karate master. And not all of these appearances are as pleasant and attractive as a cute and cuddly newborn baby. In the gospel, for example, Jesus paints a terrifying picture of the circumstances surrounding his second coming at the end of time. People will die of fright, he tells us, in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud of power and great glory… And not just at the end of time, even today, God can come to us in surprising ways. Think, for example, of the person who, after losing his job, begins to realize how much he has been neglecting his family. Advent is a time for us to learn to recognize and to welcome the God who often comes among us in unexpected ways.

And, as the karate kid found out, to do all this, we need to undergo training. Our readings describe this in three ways. The first is waiting. After begging God to teach me your paths, the psalmist says this: for you are God my savior, and for you I wait all the day. Not just an hour or two. The psalmist waits all the day. Second, in the gospel, Jesus tells us that this waiting involves being alert. Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life…. Be vigilant at all times and pray for the strength… to stand before the Son of Man. Third, to engage in vigilant waiting does not mean simply doing nothing. It involves continually trying to do the right thing. As Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading, we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us how you should conduct yourselves to please God... you do so even more. Vigilant waiting through right conduct – this is the training that we are undertaking in this season of Advent, in preparation for the God who comes to fulfill God’s promises to us.

Today, most of us live in an instant world. Starbucks sells instant coffee. For a cheap lunch, I often make instant ramen. We get instant information on the Internet. We contact one another instantly by cellphone... All this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it can get dangerous when we forget that, unlike coffee, there are also things in life that cannot be had instantly, things like karate, of course, but also things like justice and peace and true friendship. As well as things like Christmas. Isn’t this why we need the season of Advent?

Sisters and brothers, what will Christmas look like for you this year? Coffee or karate?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Solemnity of Christ the King (B)
Candles, Comedians and Christ the King

Readings: Daniel 7:13-14; Psalm 93:1, 1-2, 5; Revelations 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37
Picture: cc anne.oeldorfhirsch

It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Dear sisters and brothers, you’ve probably heard this saying before. And, if you’re like me, you probably also think that it makes a lot of sense. But isn’t it true that it’s often far easier said than done? At least speaking for myself, when I face a dark situation, my first reaction is rarely to find a candle to light. For one thing, sometimes I can be so engrossed in other concerns that I’m not even aware that the lights have gone out. At other times, I either get paralyzed by anger at those whom I think are responsible, or I try not to think about it, hoping that the darkness will simply go away by itself. And isn’t it also true that often, when the lights go out, you can feel so powerless that it’s difficult to find a candle, let alone to light it? Which is why, I must confess, I have a secret admiration for comedians. They have this amazing ability to find light in a dark situation.

Take David Letterman, for example. As you know, he recently faced a very dark time in his personal and professional life. Someone had gotten hold of evidence that he’d been cheating on his wife with several of his female colleagues and blackmailed him. What did he do? Instead of ignoring the problem or trying to cover it up, he told everybody about it on national television. And he even did it in a way that made people laugh, raising his ratings in the process. In a time of darkness, he lit a candle by speaking the truth.

Also, recently, I happened to watch an old routine by George Lopez. I think he was talking about the changes made by the previous Administration to the immigration policy, changes that may have cast a very dark shadow on the lives of many undocumented migrants in the country. In a very funny way, Lopez questioned the wisdom of the changes. What is going to happen, he asked, when they deport all the undocumented aliens? Who will maintain their roads and clean their streets? Who will build their homes and water their lawns? Who will care for their kids and walk their dogs? What was Lopez doing? In a time of darkness, when people were feeling powerless, he lit a candle by helping them to recognize another power.

What the comedians teach us, I think, is this. At least three things are required to light a candle in the dark. It involves looking into the darkness, speaking the truth, and recognizing another power.

We find something similar in our readings on this feast of Christ the King. Notice how the action in both the first reading and the gospel takes place in a time of extreme darkness. The first reading is set in a time of exile. The chosen people have been defeated and deported to an alien land. Their Temple is destroyed, and they are prisoners of a foreign power, first the Babylonians, and then the Persians.

A deep darkness covers the gospel too. Remember that here, in John 18, Jesus has already been betrayed by a close friend, accused by his own people, and tortured by the Romans. He will soon be crucified between two thieves. Remember also, that earlier, in John 13, when Judas leaves the supper room to sell his master, we are told that it was night, not just the usual darkness that falls when the sun sets, but rather a spiritual gloom resulting from the eclipse of the Son of God.

In these times of darkness, our attention is drawn to two men. One is able to light a candle. But the other remains in the dark. The first is the prophet Daniel. Remember his situation. Although an exile, he lives in the king’s court and enjoys royal favor. Living a relatively comfortable life, he doesn’t really have to pay attention to the darkness. But he does. With deep anguish, he gazes intently at the gloomy situation of his own people – a situation that he believes is the result of their own sinfulness, their infidelity to God. In his prayer, he confesses the truth of his people’s guilt. As he stares into the dark, he sees visions during the night. Even as his people are laboring under foreign rule, Daniel sees a vision that reminds him that there is another power. Not only is this power greater than that of the Babylonians and the Persians, it is also able to overcome the people’s sinfulness. Daniel sees one like a Son of man receiving dominion, glory, and kingship…. that shall (neither) be taken away… (nor) destroyed. For us Christians, this is the same power that we heard about in the second reading. It is the power of Jesus Christ… the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth…. who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. By staring into the night, speaking the truth, and seeing a greater power, Daniel lights a candle in the darkness for his people.

In the gospel, Pilate too comes face to face with another power. But he cannot recognize it, not only because it appears as a body bruised by scourging, and a face bloodied by a crown of thorns. Pilate is blind to this power because he doesn’t appreciate the extent of the surrounding darkness. For him, the situation is difficult only because, if not handled properly, it may threaten his career. Although Caesar is his king, Pilate is really his own servant. Pilate’s concern is only to save his own skin. And in his selfishness, he is unable to speak the truth of Jesus’ innocence, let alone to accept the possibility that Jesus might truly be a King. As Jesus tells him, everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. By clinging to his own career, Pilate loses sight of the truth. He rejects Christ, the Lighted Candle, and remains engulfed in darkness.

As it is with comedy, so is it with the spiritual life. In order to light a candle at least three things are required: one must face the dark, speak the truth and recognize another power. Daniel was able to do this but Pilate was not. Daniel saw the light, but Pilate remained in the dark. Even so, there is at least one thing that sets the spiritual life apart from comedy. We can watch a comedy and have a really good laugh, only to leave and forget all about it. And maybe some of us treat the Mass in the same way, except that we may not laugh as much. But, as you know, we Christians are called not just to come to Mass to see the light, but also to leave this place and to be lights in the surrounding darkness. And isn’t there much darkness around us, if not in our personal lives, then at least in society at large? In the front page of today’s Santa Barbara News-Press, for example, we are told that the unemployment rate in California has reached a modern-day record of 12.5 percent. Elsewhere in the same paper, there is a report of a four year-old Lompoc boy, who was allegedly beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend, while both the mother and the accused were strung out on drugs.

We live in a dark world, a world waiting for light, a world in dire need of people who are able to face the dark, to speak the truth and to recognize another power, the power of Christ, the Crucified and Risen King.

It’s better to light a candle than to curse the dark.

Sisters and brothers, how might we light our candles today?

Sunday, November 08, 2009

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Heroes for the Heroic

Readings: 1 Kings 17:10-16; Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44 or 12:41-44
Picture: cc tanakawho

Dear sisters and brothers, when you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? I remember having various options in mind, the usual favorites: doctor, engineer... But mostly – I’m embarrassed to say it – even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I think I just wanted to be a hero. You know, someone others would look at and then nod their heads in approval and admiration, someone people would point to and say, in tones at once reverent and enthusiastic: Yeah! What about you? Did you ever want to be a hero?

And have you ever noticed how important heroes are to us? Especially when we encounter a bad situation of some sort, have you noticed how quick we are to identify and shower praise upon extraordinarily courageous individuals, even as we denounce those we consider to be our enemies? Take the terribly tragic shooting that took place in Fort Hood, Texas this past Thursday. Within just a day or two, the media has already identified a hero: Kimberley Munley, the police officer who ended the massacre by shooting the suspect, but not before sustaining injuries herself. CNN characterizes her as a "tough woman" who patrolled her neighborhood and once stopped burglars at her house. A Facebook fan page, on which she is referred to as A Real American Hero, is reported to have attracted 1,400 members.

It’s perhaps not too surprising that we should look for heroes in a crisis. The attention and adulation that we give to them somehow helps us to bear the shock and the grief of the moment. By focusing on the heroism of some among us, we are able, at least to some extent, to change our sorrow into joy, our shame into pride. And yet, as much as our heroes help us to deal with our pain, as much as they deserve our praise, we may perhaps wonder whether something gets lost when our attention is focused exclusively on them.

Take our scripture readings for today, for example. The widow’s mite is a story that we all know very well. And our usual approach – my usual approach – is to think of the widow as a hero, a model to be praised and emulated. Painfully poor as she was, she willingly contributed all she had, her whole livelihood towards the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem. The rich may have donated much more in absolute terms, but she, even at great cost to herself, gave 100 percent. The widow in the first reading is just as heroic. In a time of drought and famine, even though she and her son are themselves close to starving to death, she willingly shares her food with the prophet Elijah. And what is even more worthy of praise and emulation than the widows’ heroic generosity is the attitude that motivates it. Both widows are willing to sacrifice everything, even at the risk of losing their own lives, because their trust is ultimately in the Lord. In the words of our responsorial psalm, they believe that their God is the Lord who keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. Aren’t these women true heroes? Shouldn’t we be like them? In our own lives as Christians, shouldn’t we try to be just as generous, just as trusting, just as heroic?

Of course we should! And yet, isn’t there also something crucially important that gets left out when we focus only upon the widows as heroes? For, as heroic as they are, aren’t these women also themselves, in a sense, victims? Aren’t they themselves in need of a hero? Isn’t this precisely what they are hoping for from the Lord? To gain a better appreciation of this, however, we need to consider more closely the biblical context in which each of the stories is situated.

In the first reading, for example, the drought that occasions the widow’s suffering is not a random occurrence. It is the immediate result of the powerful word spoken by the prophet himself. As the mouthpiece of God, Elijah calls down a drought on the land because of the idolatrous behavior of Ahab, the king of Israel. Thus the widow – who is a foreigner living in the Sidonian town of Zarephath – is suffering because of the infidelities of the chosen people, in response to which God sends the prophet to issue a call to repentance. The Sidonian widow’s heroism is called for because the chosen people have become corrupt. And if she is a hero, then, Elijah is the hero’s hero.

We find something similar in the gospel as well. As some scripture scholars remind us, the story of the widow’s mite comes immediately after Jesus’ critique of the scribes – or at least some of them – and the prevailing system of religious practices that they administer. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. In this context, Jesus may well be drawing his disciples’ attention to the widow’s contribution, not just as conduct worthy of emulation and praise – although it is surely that – but also as a state of affairs to be lamented, a problem needing to be addressed. Why, we may ask, should a poor widow, struggling to keep body and soul together, be expected to donate her very last two coins toward the maintenance of the Temple? Shouldn’t the Temple be providing for her upkeep instead? Isn’t her situation a concrete illustration of how the administrators of the Temple and the Law devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. In this bad situation, like Elijah before him, Jesus appears as someone sent by God to speak up for the victims and to call the victimizers to repentance, to be a hero for the heroic, even at the cost of his own life.

But is there really any difference between the heroism of Jesus and Elijah on the one hand, and that of the widows on the other? Don’t both pairs share in common a genuine generosity born of profound faith and hope in the Lord? Aren’t both pairs willing to sacrifice everything for God and their fellow human beings? What difference does it make whether we focus our attention on one or the other? An indication of an answer might perhaps be found in our second reading, which makes a clear distinction between the sacrifices offered by the high priest and that of Christ. While the high priest’s sacrifices have to be offered repeatedly, Christ’s sacrifice has been made once for all. Similarly, might we not say that, if we were to focus only on praising and imitating the heroism of the widows, without also attending to and addressing the circumstances of their suffering, then won’t their sacrifices need to be offered again and again, if not by them specifically, then by others who will take their place? For better or for worse, won’t we always need heroes like them?

In contrast, attention to the heroism of Elijah and Jesus makes us see the importance of discerning the deeper reasons why people like those widows – people caught in difficult situations not of their own making – continue to have to suffer. More than simply looking out for heroes, Elijah and Jesus show us how, as grown-up Christians, called by God to be light of the world and salt of the earth, our vocation is not just to practice heroic virtue, but also to be heroes for the heroic.

Sisters and brothers, how grown-up are we as Christians? To whom are we called to be heroes today?