What may be taken as good news (if not exactly the gospel) is that, according to the National Retail Federation sales are expected to be up 3.6% from last year in one of the best Christmas shopping periods in recent years. We may presume then that all must be well. And there are only 387 shopping days before next Christmas. With that and the Christmas parades and the biggest shopping days of the year behind us, I suppose that we are getting used to what we now call the “holiday season.” Unless you’re already over it. The first decorations went on shelves at the local Costco shortly before Halloween this year.
But shopping is not why Christians gather on this day amid the violet hues of Advent, with its great themes of waiting, watching, and preparing for the day of the Lord. The actual Christmas season won’t begin for another three weeks. Much of the ancient sense of expectation and longing has of course been co-opted by the forces of economic exploitation. One of the great ironies of history is that the birth of a figure who was so poor he had neither a proper place to be born or buried and for most of his short adult life did not even have a place to lay his head, would be honored by the greatest commercial enterprise of all time.
But if we stop to think about it, the Christian celebration of Advent recalls us to the meaning not only of Christ’s birth two thousand years ago, but of his advent, his coming, today especially. Not in terms of increased consumption, but of greater compassion, peace, and justice.
“Advent” forms the first part of the word “adventure.” That’s something to ponder, too. This year, we begin to ponder Christ’s adventure among us by meditating on the Book of Isaiah, which is a collection of messianic prophecies composed between the middle of eighth century before Christ and the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrew people over a hundred years later. The great themes we find in Isaiah — the demand for justice, peace, and reliance on God — have made it one of the favorite books of the Bible. Christians from the earliest times have looked on it as a Fifth Gospel. It is cited in Christian scripture more than any other book with the exception of the Psalms.
Today’s reading centers on one of the most famous and characteristic statements in Hebrew scripture:
“God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” [2:4].
We are almost too familiar with the theme of Swords and Plowshares, which also appears in the writings of the much later prophets Joel and Micah, but in a surprisingly different way. Writing three hundred years after Isaiah, Joel advises:
Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.” Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down your warriors, O LORD. Let the nations stir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. [Joel 3:9-12]
Writing about the same time as Isaiah, Micah is closer to him in tone and spirit, foreseeing a time of peace and good will among the nations of the world:
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but everyone shall sit under their vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. In that day, says the LORD, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant; and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and for evermore” [4:3b-4, 6 – 7]
Joel is concerned with justice and judgment, Micah with the repatriation of the poor and the oppressed. Isaiah ends the passage more simply, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the Light of the Lord.” Light is the advent theme we focus on this year: specifically preparing for God’s rule by living justly and in love. But we will also find in these readings and those in weeks to come an echo of military preparedness, references to armor and weapons, rumors of the violence of thieves who come in the night when we least expect — both the thief who enters and robs, and the thief of souls.
This leads to the second great theme of the advent season and today’s liturgy of the Word, the metaphor of sleeping. Or, rather, of waking up. Paul writes to us, “Wake from sleep: cast off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” [Rom 13: 11-14]. All three themes in a nutshell, so to speak.
Sleeping is a major symbol of the winter season. That is, if the weather gets cold enough. Bears, raccoons, hedgehogs, and all sorts of animals hibernate…. Even people sleep more than they do in the summer. The rhythm is regulated by alterations of darkness and light. So, too, in the liturgy: the days are growing shorter, darkness is increasing. But, we are warned, the light will break on us suddenly. The long night of sin has already passed. Our temptation is to be lulled back into sleep by the lure of a world that can no longer recognize the presence of God.
So Paul pleads with us, “Make no provision for the desires of the flesh” — be careful what you set your heart on, what you long for. Because you might just get it. And Jesus warns us, “Stay awake: You cannot know the day your Lord is coming. Keep a watchful eye” [Matt 24: 37-44]. For the Son of Man is coming at the time you least expect, like a thief in the night, and he is the thief of souls and hearts. So be ready for him, be alert. Pay attention! There is no time now when Jesus is not present, but the fullness of that presence, the manifestation of Christ in glory, is yet to be. So it’s still possible to be looking the other way.
Now, our adventure means learning again how to wait and watch, not passively but actively, filling our time with expectation, anticipating the one who steals into our midst in the guise of the poor, the oppressed, the suffering, the outcast. We are awake, we are alert, and we are attentive when we see them, actually see them, when we no longer look away from them, through them, or around their squalor. In this life, we will not see Christ unless we see them first. To see them IS to see Christ.
Despite Alexander Hamilton’s misgivings, the United States of North America (excluding Canada and Mexico), repudiated the rule of kings, itemizing in the Declaration of Independence a low appraisal of royalty, notably George III. The colonists’ accusations were not unlike the tirade against regal monarchs delivered by the prophet Samuel when the Israelites demanded to have a king to rule over them like the those the pagans had. It’s an intriguing story (See 1 Samuel 8:4-20).
In the ancient world, kings were a pretty dismal lot – violent, avaricious, cruel, unjust, and generally pretty nasty in most respects. Today kings are hardly feared, seldom pitied, and only rarely strike a note of solemn majesty. They’re not even much assassinated. Writing at the turn of the century, Ambrose Bierce defined a king as “a male person commonly known in America as a ‘crowned head,’ although he never wears a crown and usually has no head to speak of.’
The tradition of king-bashing is not new. There are more than 2700 references to kings in the Hebrew scriptures — only about 20 refer to God. And, by and large, the human kings were considered a pretty vile lot. Not even David was very good at it. And for a couple of centuries now, royalty has been decreasing in stature as well as number. So you may wonder, what does it mean to celebrate the feast of Christ as King? And in recent times, King of the Universe? Especially in a country like ours, which was founded on the premise that in the main, kings were a royal pain?
The feast itself is not ancient — it was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI to counter what he perceived as growing secularism and atheism and possibly the anti-monarchism of the era which had recently seen the assassination of the Tsar and several other European monarchs. In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved the feast from the last Sunday of October to the last Sunday of the liturgical year and also added the phrase “King of the Universe.” That gave it a more eschatological tone in keeping with the readings at this time of the liturgical year and also removed it from competition with Reformation Sunday among our separated Lutheran brethren and sistren. Jews, on the other hand, have long since used the phrase “King of the Universe” in the blessings before solemn occasions involving the fulfilment of a commandment in reference to Almighty God.
That leaves the question, however, why Jesus Christ as king? He certainly avoided that designation during his life on earth, even though he was executed by the Romans for treason because he was accused of accepting it. He avoided it for good reason. And so when we come to King Jesus, we may well ask what kind of title is that for him? What did Jesus himself say about kings and kingship? And what did he do that resulted in his arrest, torture, condemnation, and execution as a pretender to the throne?
There are over 100 references to the kingdom of God in the gospels, and about 24 in the rest of the Christian scriptures. But Jesus himself never seems to have claimed to be a king except indirectly. In fact, he usually has some pretty harsh things to say about kings. Even in today’s gospel, Pilate says to him, “So you are a king?” And Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. But it was for this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”
In John’s gospel, the people acclaim Christ as their King when he enters Jerusalem: “…they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” It was this outcry that most likely led to his arrest and execution for sedition and treason. Jesus himself said nothing about it until before Pilate.
And Pilate had the inscription placed over his head, ‘This is the King of the Jews’ (Luke 23:38). Taunted by the soldiers, the leaders of the people, and even one of the criminals crucified with him, Jesus remained silent. But, as we read in today’s gospel, when the other criminal refused to mock Jesus and says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,’ Jesus gives him what he asks for: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).
In the end, if every gospel and virtually every shred of early Christian writing affirms that Jesus really was not a king, but THE king, we are still left wondering: What kind of king? And what kind of Kingdom does he rule?
Above all, God’s kingdom is a gift; and it is given to the poor, sick, and suffering, even thieves who hear the good news and keep it. For the kingdom of Jesus is a realm of mercy and grace and truth, a kingdom of real freedom. This kind of kingdom and this kind of king still strikes fear into the heads and hearts of tyrants everywhere. It was to such a kingdom that Pope John XXIII recalled us when, summoning the Second Vatican Council, he prayed: “Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to your Church that being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Savior, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace.”
If Jesus is King, he is king not of this world or as this world sees things, but of minds and hearts everywhere and always.
The end is nigh, the placards used to say. For many people, the end seems to have come last Tuesday. For many Americans, the results of last Tuesday’s election was about the last thing they wanted to experience. But it did come to pass and the Republic will have to contend with the consequences.
It’s also the season when the readings in the liturgy scare tend to hell out of us, or so it is to be hoped, with accounts of what we tend to think of as the end of the world. It’s a sure sign Advent is coming. This year things are a little different, because many people have already had the hell scared out of them, or into them, by the prospect of the environmental cataclysm threatening to befall the world. For some years now, many people, including God-fearing Christians, or at least fearful ones, have been squirreling away food and water supplies, converting their stocks and bonds into ready cash, and moving across the country to desert and mountain hideaways. Several Internet sites, including Christian ones, are still selling survival supplies.
All this is not just the impact of the most contentious election in American history, or global climate change or the wars in Syrian, Afghanistan and Iraq, or problems in Pakistan or the threat of an Al Qaeda attacks or the return of sub-prime mortgage rates – about all of which we heard very little in the election campaign, so focused as it was on emails and temperament. It’s all of them. Despite the sudden surge on Wall Street, even economists are worried, and that’s enough to scare anyone.
And perhaps we should be jittery, if only because of the huge mess humans have made of things over the last fifty years or more. Our learning curve is pretty flat. But that’s really not what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel from Luke, or that passage from the book of Malachi, which — not coincidentally — is the last book of the Old Testament. People have been jittery for a long time. If you don’t believe me, you can always catch up on the History Channel.
Jesus seems to have foreseen all that and actually warned us against getting too excited about rumors of the End Times, especially in Luke’s gospel. In today’s reading, for instance, he says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” (Luke 21: 8-9.) Not by a long shot.
St. Paul was no less opposed to the spiritual and social paralysis that comes in the wake of trying to pin-point the Parousia. He wrote to the fidgety folks in Thessalonica, many of whom had worked themselves into a stew expecting the Second Coming of Christ, that “we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living” [2 Thess 3:11-12].
So what are we supposed to do? Why does the Church schedule these readings every year just before Advent? By now, we have heard it all so often, you’d think we’d be numb to the message. But dismissing the age-old Christian belief in the end of the world as just another outmoded myth misses the point just as much as overreacting to always-erroneous predictions of the day and the hour.
It’s a mistake, first of all, to think that Jesus was simply talking about history, about space and time and the stock market or even the stones of the Fourth Temple. (The Wailing Wall is still standing, by the way, so you needn’t get panicky about Armageddon. Not yet, anyway.) What the prophet Malachi, Paul, and Jesus were all saying is that this world, with all its governments, social systems, wealth, credit cards, poverty, misery, and suffering is not ultimate, not finally decisive. Money, power, and success are not what life is all about, despite what you see on television or read on the Internet. Mighty nations still succeed one another, corporations rise and fall, one form of currency replaces another, stock markets crash, and hurricanes come in tandem. Stars fall out of the sky, or seem to. Wars and rumors of war continue. And will no doubt keep right on into the next Millennium. The world remains very much with us.
But the message we hear in today’s readings is that we are not to locate our hopes or our fears in the powers and structures of this present world, which are not only fallible, but will inevitably fail us. Hope rests secure in God alone. But, on the other hand, as St. Paul insists, we may not resign our commission as members of our communities, but must remain attentive to the very real needs of those around us and the living planet as a whole. For the world is the scene of our activity as Christians, not in order to create some sort of perfect super-state, and especially not to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Religious fanatics and political dictators have tried that many times in the past. And all they created in the long run were savage totalitarian regimes or doomed idealistic utopias that burned out or just faded into irrelevance.
Being a Christian is much simpler than that. We are called upon to build a human city, a humane habitat, a commonwealth of love and justice, of peace, truth and freedom. We are called to look to our neighbor in order to assist and protect, especially the poor, the oppressed, and defenseless. For all that, Jesus warns us, we should not count on being rewarded, honored, or even thanked. Expect, rather, to be misunderstood, opposed, and even persecuted. Simple does not mean easy.
It isn’t by chance that the word “justice” appears so strikingly in the first reading and the responsorial psalm. If you missed it, consider taking another look before you go to bed tonight. Even St. Paul is thinking about justice when he reminds his first small church that no one should impose on anyone else, but everyone should contribute to the extent they can to the welfare of all. If you won’t work, then don’t expect to share the supper.
Human beings may well be able to wreck the world, and it looks like we stand a good chance of doing so if we don’t change our way of living soon — especially in this rich nation. But we can’t really save the world. In the end, God bestows the New Heaven and the New Earth. It will be a gift, not a credit-card purchase or some kind of spiritual dividend. But we’re not just marking time here. We are being prepared. And so when we say we believe that Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, we really should lift up our hearts. For the old world is coming to an end, with all its injustice and suffering and destruction. It has been ending all along in fact, ever since Christ rose from the dead. A new world is coming, just as surely, but it will get here in God’s good time. In the meantime, we have some important work to do. In a word, inserting into this teetering planet a healthy dose of peace, love, justice, and freedom.
If we won’t work for a better world, how can we expect to have a Happy Thanksgiving? And we should have one. But when you count your blessings, don’t look back. Look ahead.
The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.
Donald J. Trump, 6 Nov. 2012.
The times they are a-changin.’ Or perhaps not.
Rarely has the American voting public had such a momentous choice to make from a roster of candidates for the highest office in the land, indeed as it has come to be called by many, the post of “leader of the free world.” We have come almost to the end of a campaign season mired in innuendo, vituperation, scandal (whether real or fabricated), international interference, hacked emails, and what is arguably the most vicious and highly personal attacks regarding character, honesty, and fitness for office that the country has ever known. And the centuries have seen some astonishing instances. But in almost every respect, the present campaign is unprecedented. Small wonder that so many people are dismayed, discouraged, and disgusted by the whole business.
But all that makes it even more imperative to vote. Not only to exercise the noble privilege of participation in what is probably still the oldest surviving democratic process on the planet, but to assure for the coming years and even coming generations the assurance that the better angels of our nature will continue to guide that process. Let us vote and vote well.
Among Catholic Christians, autumn is a particularly amazing season. And that’s not just because of the momentous challenge facing the American people on Tuesday. Traditionally, November has long been counted as the month of the dead. Even the octave of All Saints Day has been celebrated as a memorial. In many countries, it commemorates national saints and martyrs, and in various religious orders and congregations, including the Dominicans, we observe the anniversaries of all our deceased members, families, and friends.
Catholics seem to some outside observers to be preoccupied with death, and to some degree that is true. We pray for the dead, we pray for a happy death, we remind ourselves on Ash Wednesday — one of the most popular celebrations in the church year — that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Only now would all this seem odd or unhealthy. For we live in an era, as Dr. Ernest Becker eloquently reminded us a couple of decades ago, in which the denial of death has assumed major psychological and social proportions. But it is the denial of death, as dear old Sigmund Freud himself recognized, that is truly unhealthy. Worse yet, the more we deny death, the more it dominates our life and our culture. And if truth be told, the more death triumphs in so many ways from war to suicide. Catholic Christianity, on the other hand, like many other religious traditions, unflinchingly looks death in the face and thus robs it of its power to terrorize. For death is not the end of the story. It is only a prelude.
And so, today when we find the liturgy of the word dwelling on the mystery of death and resurrection, we should hardly be surprised, nor, especially, frightened or disappointed. For the message these readings bear is one of hope and glory.
The account from the second Book of the Maccabees tells of the heroic faith of seven brothers and their mother, who faced excruciating tortures rather than deny their faith. At this moment in late Jewish history, the family’s resolution was steadied by an unshakable confidence in the resurrection of the dead, in which God would vindicate those who had sacrificed everything to remain true: “…since it is for his laws that we die, the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.”
To the anxious Christians of Thessalonica, Paul, too, speaks of comfort and strength based on the love, grace, and hope that comes only from God. “May the Lord turn your hearts toward the love of God and the fortitude of Christ,” he prays, for, as with the Maccabean brothers and their mother, “God is faithful and will give you strength and guard you from the evil one…” Dark days lay ahead, and he knew it.
The Gospel passage resumes the theme of hope and confidence. It is not about marriage or Jesus’ attitude toward marriage. It is about the resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees denied. Behind the not-so-clever question they put to Jesus lies the Levirate Law, by which if a married man dies without producing offspring, his widow was required to marry his brother, her brother-in-law or levir. This was to perpetuate the brother’s name — his lineage, honor, and inheritance, according to Deuteronomy 25:5-10. But in the life to come, Jesus tells them, there will be no need for the Levirate Law because there will be no need to raise up descendants to replace those who die. Perpetuating the family name and inheritance will no longer matter. Such things belong to this world and pass away with it. There would be no need to impose such awful conditions on a widow.
But Jesus does not say there will be no friendship, no relationship between husbands and wives, or between children and parents, as a young married couple I know were led to fear by a well-meaning priest who used this passage to insist that marriage was for this life only. Jesus’ favorite image of the Life to Come is, after all, a great marriage feast.
Moreover, being like the angels does not mean being immaterial: Jesus, with the Pharisees whose teachings he shared, believed firmly in the resurrection of the body. Rather, just as angels cannot die, so, too, those who have been raised will never die again: “…being children of the resurrection, they are children of God.” God is not the King of Death, but the Lord and Giver of Life.
There are no dead people in the sight of God. All are alive, eternally. Every moment is now, and there is no elsewhere. Where the presence of God is felt, there, too, are all those who have preceded us into the light of glory, whose presence to God does not differ from our own. The only difference lies on our side, limited as we are by boundaries of space and time that also prevent us from being fully attentive to the that glorifying presence.
Why, then, do we remember the dead? Why do we pray for them? First of all, not lest they be forgotten. No one is forgotten in God’s sight. We remember those who have died because it is well for us the living to have their memory before us as a constant reminder of our hope and faith in God and as models of our own inevitable Passover and resurrection. They have gone before us; they are not part of the past.
We pray for the dead, secondly, so that they may be forgiven any sins that might hinder their entry into the living presence of God, as Judas Maccabeus said a century and a half before Christ. We pray for them, not to satisfy some debt or obligation, but to remember and strengthen our bonds with those we love in this life and the next, to recall and enact our solidarity with the whole people of God. We pray for them, so that they will pray for us, a holy exchange of care and concern that creates and unites the communion of saints. And we pray for those who have gone ahead in the hope that when we follow them, our loved ones, friends, and family will likewise remember us, as we will remember them.
So let us pray for those who have on ahead, so that living eternally in the presence of God, they will remember us when as children of the resurrection they shine like the stars among the all the holy ones. And that we may be found worthy to join them.