Although garlands if not acres of colored lights still wink and glitter on trees, shrubs, and window frames, and inflatable snowpersons and reindeer graze on frosty lawns, the radio waves began purging Christmas carols on the Feast of St. Stephen, AKA Boxing Day on the east side of the Atlantic: December 26th. Liturgically, for those in the Catholic tradition, the Christmas season began on Christmas eve and lasts until evening prayer on January 12th this year, the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. Most decorations will be packed away by Twelfth Night, however, the Feast of the Epiphany, or the evening before. (If you’re unlucky, you might look out and find twelve drummers drumming on the front lawn, not to mention 352 assorted partridges, milk maids, leaping lords, and the rest. One for each day of the year, it seems.)
This Sunday, however, while out of step with the times (except perhaps late Christmas sales), Christmas Time is barely five days old and celebrates the Holy Family – traditionally Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus, not merely having arrived safely in Egypt (according to Matthew’s gospel), where they lived in exile as refugees for several years, but after their return to Nazareth up to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, when apparently he left the family home never to return. If we follow Luke’s gospel here, he wasn’t welcome back in his home town anyway.
Later, Jesus had some harsh words to say about family divisions that would arise because of him, much as Simeon had predicted years before:
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” [Luke 12: 51-53. See also Matthew 10:34-37]. Hint for the yet unwary: it’s perilous to discuss religion and politics at the dinner table.
Today, however, the readings focus on family unity and amity. And in today’s world, where family life is in so many cases fragmented and
fractured, we would do well to listen.
Hebrew scripture is filled with injunctions about family respect, harmony, and loyalty, perhaps none so moving as today’s reading from the Book of Sirach. It reflects the decalogue, the ancient charter of faithful living: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” [Exodus 20:12. See also Deut. 5:16]. The passage from the Letter to the Colossians spells out the early Christian vision in greater detail, some of which grates on contemporary nerve endings. It is easy and perhaps tempting to read such texts in a literal fashion tinged with supposed severity and patriarchal domination. While the passage allows for such an interpretation, and heaven knows has been used to justify abuses, the point is again that concord and love should prevail in the family home. Hint: the letter can be lethal, but the spirit enlivens. Work it out.
The gospel reading describes one of the very few episodes in the early life of Jesus. It extols the care and wisdom of Joseph in protecting Mary and the infant Jesus, but pointedly in the context of their hurried flight from Bethlehem to evade violence and murder as refugees seeking safety in a foreign country. That should give Americans in particular, but not solely, pause for reflection as we witness refused entry and the forced separation of thousands of families of refugees seeking safety from oppression and violence, even murder, in their native villages and towns. The massacre of innocents did not cease when Herod’s militia left Bethlehem. It is present reality.
So as the Christmas season eases us, hopefully, into a new Year in which peace and compassion can flourish with good will toward all, especially refugee children, we would do well also to recall the words of Sirach: “Those who honor their father atone for sins, and those who respect their mother are like those who lay up treasure.” As for the kids,
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’
He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’” [Matthew 18:1-5].
Today the sun rides low over the Wicklow hills on this shortest day of the year. Hopeful throngs were disappointed when fog and clouds prevented the rising sun from glancing down the long channel in the great Newgrange tumulus. But here in the “sunny southeast,” the day remained dry and clear, unperturbed by the turmoil that seems to be roiling the greater world beyond these tranquil hills.
As Christian peoples mark the final days of Advent, looking forward to the fulfilment of the great promise of peace and goodwill that accompanied the birth of Jesus, it remains impossible to ignore the seemingly inescapable poverty, homelessness, political oppression, violence, and now increasing climate disruption that, with the exception of the latter, also prevailed when Jesus was born. But the message of hope endures.
Our hope does not lie in prosperity and political calm, or even serene weather. The scripture readings appointed for today remind us that the promise of God-with-us does not point to any earthly regime or condition, although we long for and work for greater and more far-reaching justice, peace, and a stable environment. Nor does salvation mean economic stability and ever-increasing wealth, even while we labor for a more equitable sharing of the goods of the natural and social world.
Beyond the spurious claims of an over-heated economy and materialistic way of life, what hope does the coming celebration of Christmas offer the waiting world?
The promise extends back well over two thousand years. This Sunday, we first recall the prediction given by the prophet to Ahaz, not the
worst of the kings of Judah, but faltering in his reliance on God in the face of battle. Timidly, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign that the Lord would be with him when one is offered to him, so Isaiah delivers it anyway, a sign later extended to all humankind in the light of the birth of Jesus.
A young girl – almah, in Hebrew — was already with a child who would in turn be a sign of God’s presence and favor in the coming years. A pregnant girl, the birth of a child in poverty and exile. What a strange kind of sign. Who she was, we do not know. We know who the mother of Jesus was, however. Matthew and Luke are particularly intent on this, and Matthew specifically recalls the prophecy of Isaiah in her regard. And her child’s.
Perhaps it was the angel’s initial message that made the difference — not only to Joseph, but also to Mary herself, Luke tells us, and to the shepherds, and later to the women at the tomb, to Peter and to all of us – do not be afraid. There is good news, hope to believe in while still struggling in a world of sadness and strife, facing what may seem like hopeless odds. Like Joseph, the bewildered young betrothed, if our hearts are clear of clutter, of the selfishness, greed and bitterness that beget the world’s pain, we will hear the angel’s word in our own hearts. Do not be afraid. And like the young women chosen to be a sign, we can conceive the Word of God in our hearts and give birth in our lives to Immanuel — God with us.
If we take our clues from social media and news broadcasts, we might be tempted to conclude that we live in very cruel times, with rising crime rates, homelessness, hunger, war, violence, and disease. That isn’t in fact true, but in today’s world, as Marshall McLuhan once said, bad news is good news. On the other hand, things could be better. They should be. But we have much to be thankful for, despite the hardship still very much the lot of far too many people.
This third Sunday of Advent used to be called ‘Gaudete Sunday,’ from the first word in the entrance verse, which was taken from St. Paul’s letter to Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5). That was when Latin was still used in the liturgy, of course. Calling it “Rejoice Sunday” somehow lacks a certain elegance. But that is the message. Traditionally, the violet vestments of Advent were lightened to rose, as well. Sometimes they still are. Colors aside, why should we have to be told to rejoice? That, if anything, should come naturally, especially to those of us who live in what so many people in the world still regard as the Land of Promise.
Nevertheless, there it is. We are ordered to rejoice. And, as you might have guessed by now, there is a reason. We have cause to recall
what it means to rejoice, perhaps especially on a day like this. The first reading, from Isaiah 61, repeats the injunction several times, first in the imagery of a desert suddenly blossoming with wildflowers after a long drought. The message then shifts to one of encouragement to those who are weak, frightened, and oppressed by disease and economic or political hardship — the blind, the deaf, the lame, and enslaved. The word of joy and gladness is given to those in sorrow and mourning. It’s easy to miss that.
According to Luke’s Gospel, in Jesus’ inaugural sermon he expands upon today’s reading from Isaiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’
Then he observes, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” [Luke 4:18-21].
Now, as then, the proper response to such a message should be joy. It was not the response of Jesus’ townsfolk, however. They tried to throw him down a hill. Not everyone receives the good news in the same way!
Jesus’ appearance, life, and ministry inaugurated God’s reign first as comfort to the poor and afflicted, freedom to the oppressed, hope to the desperate, and joy to the sorrowing. It was not very good news to the oppressive, powerful, vengeful, avaricious, and proud. Not then, and not today.
Not surprisingly, in the responsorial psalm appointed to be sung today, we find ourselves again confronted by the oppressed, the hungry, captives, the blind, strangers, orphans, and widows. The word “joy” is not found, but securing justice and thwarting the wicked are very much in the psalmist’s mind. Then the Letter from James talks about patience, hardship, and suffering. “Don’t grumble at each other,” he says. “Steady your hearts” is not quite the same as “rejoice!” but important, especially for people who have every reason to grumble. And finally, the gospel tells us that Jesus’ response to John the Baptist’s question about his identity is simply this: “the blind recover their sight, cripples walk, lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and, above all, the poor have the good news preached to them” [Matt 11:4-5]. John couldn’t have missed the point. But Jesus adds, most likely for the benefit of the messengers, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
And by now, we should have gotten the point as well. Hearing good news really means something to people who are used to hearing mostly bad news. And so our models in faith are the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering, including the prophets themselves as James points out. Their joy is rooted in their deepest longing. They know what they need.
Imagine, if you will, what good news might mean to those who are homeless on the streets of our great cities and small towns this Christmas. In years past, “homeless” might mean one of those chronically poor men and “bag ladies” who sleep at night shivering in cardboard boxes or wrapped in old coats and blankets on the steps of churches, doorways of municipal buildings, beneath underpasses, and sometimes in tents along expressways. Today, their number includes veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and families who have lost their homes to financial institutions — people who are often just out of work, out of money, and out of luck. Or perhaps just out of prison. (It might also be helpful at this time of year to recall that our nation has the highest proportion of imprisoned citizens in the entire world, including the greatest number of women. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm )
All want to hear some good news. And need to.
In his letter, James tells to steady our hearts because help is coming. Not just assistance, not just loose change, but salvation — a promise of hope, and a counsel of something more. “Patience” or “endurance” is how it is usually translated, but the word James uses means something more like “great-heartedness.” Hang in there, he says, continue to look ahead to a better day. The Lord IS coming. And that’s the good news, especially if you are poor, desperate, out of work, old, and sick. What Jesus tells John in his prison cell is that “the reign of God has begun. Look around you.”
Let’s grant that those rich in worldly goods often no longer know what their deepest heart’s desire is. So what God is telling us in these readings is that if we really want to hear good news, we must first own up to the bad news — which may just be a failure to look around and see real need, both in ourselves and in others. To become rich in Christ, to know what true joy is, we must face our poverty, our suffering, our oppression, and illness. Lacking real treasure, we have to learn again to long.
That is why Jesus’ appearance, life, and ministry inaugurated God’s reign as comfort to the poor and afflicted, freedom to the oppressed, hope to the desperate, and joy to the sorrowing. And why, amid all the material bounty of this land, to hear God’s good news requires continuous conversion — changing our way of thinking by putting on the mind of Christ; and repentance — changing our way of living by loving and aiding our neighbor as Christ loved and aided us. Healed and forgiven, we’ll truly have something to rejoice about.
Life today, perhaps more than ever, seems filled with waiting. We wait for the train or bus or plane to arrive, or the taxi or ride-share to show up. We wait for storms to pass. Children wait excitedly for the moment they can open their gifts or the new puppy appears. Prisoners wait for release, sometimes for many years. We wait for news about our loved ones who are sick or gone missing or serving abroad. Claimants wait for judicial decisions. Expectant parents wait for the birth of a child. The aged and weary wait to die.
Some wait in joyful hope, others in dreadful anticipation. And our readings today, this second Sunday of the Advent Season, the time of waiting, concern both. The
reading from Isaiah looks ahead to a glorious recreation of the peaceful garden that was God’s first gift to humankind and to the whole world, not only a place but also a time of harmony, gentleness, and joy. His vision of God’s holy mountain echoes and expands the promise found first in the prophet Hosea 2:18: “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.”
But there is the other side of waiting, the dread anticipation that sums up many of the warnings of John the Baptist, the central figure in today’s gospel reading. John calls for a serious change of heart, “metanoia” (which literally means “changed mind”). Like Isaiah, whom he closely resembles, John looks to actual conduct, not just good intentions or lame promises. And for him, time is short. The wait is almost over.
And yet, here we are, almost two thousand years later, still waiting, still hoping, still trying to get it right. Fortunately for us, God’s patience has not run out, Nor should ours.
In the reading from Romans, St. Paul twice mentions patience, the virtue of trusting endurance that figures strikingly in the Book of Revelation, where it is mentioned seven times, the author’s pattern of significance. I am reminded here of the title of a classic book published some thirty-five years ago by an English spiritual writer, William H. Vanstone, titled The Stature of Waiting, which can still be found in used bookshops and on-line. Although the book focuses on the final period of Jesus’ life, as he waits for and patiently endures judgment and execution, it bears greatly on this ever-more-prominent feature of life in the present world, especially in regard to the sick and suffering, the homeless and hungry, refugees, and the victims of oppression and misfortune who long for safety, peace, and justice.
It isn’t surprising, then, that our Advent readings are all about waiting and yearning and longing. Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew all look ahead to the coming, the Advent, of the Kingdom of God — an era of peace, and even prosperity, but above all, of justice. What John especially is telling us, and this urgent message will be repeated often in the days to come, is to prepare ourselves, not by hoarding up presents for ourselves (which seems increasingly encouraged by advertisers) or even for others, much less by retreating from the struggle, but by actively and patiently restoring the natural and social world we have so mauled and battered. It can be done.
Christ asks us to put our money where our hearts should be — to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, support peacemakers, assist the poor, especially those who are aged and ill. Restoring the integrity of Creation, healing the earth itself, restoring our bond with “the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground,” must now be a part of that mission also, as Pope Francis has reminded us. But helping to close the terrible and still-growing economic chasm between the very rich and the very poor will especially foster the surpassing harmony among humankind that Isaiah and Paul so longed for. Cultivating that kind of generosity and care will make Christmas truly matter. And then we can give gifts with a full heart and receive them with grace, not to redeem the economy, but to express the joy of salvation. In Paul’s language, “May God, the source of all patience and encouragement, enable you to live in perfect harmony with one another according to the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”
The joyful season of Advent, traditionally for Christians a time of waiting, longing and hope, begins this year between Black Friday (and Saturday) and Cyber Monday, the greatest shopping days of the year. If there is much joy, waiting, longing, and hope in evidence, it seems to be mainly on-line and in malls. With Thanksgiving Day increasingly given over to shopping for early sales, it’s likely that Christmas Day itself will be handed over to last-minute buying sprees. If there’s any truth to the claim that religion is on the decline in the United States, as it has been for some time in Europe, all this should come as no surprise. It has been coming for some time. It’s indelibly here. Consumerism is all the rage. Frequently, to some appearances. Even with guns.
But perhaps the commercial trumpeting of the news channels and social media has over-hyped the situation. Amid the din of the malls and shopping districts, there can still be heard the tinkling of bells, as the Salvation Army collects loose change for the poor, and the occasional Nativity Scene can be glimpsed in the small grassy area in front of churches. Even recorded Christmas carols float over the air, including those that haven’t been perverted into advertisements for new cars, giant TV monitors, computer games, and the latest generation of vacuum cleaners.
Advent, however, seems to be in serious decline. The Christmas season already arrived last week with huge parades on the main streets of America, heralded by Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Olaf, Big Bird, Frosty the Snowman, Ronald McDonald, and the jolly old elf himself. Small wonder that the liturgies of this time of year seem so quaint and out-of-step. All the more reason, perhaps, to consider the great themes they bear of waiting, watching, and preparing for the day of the Lord. All of them.
Advent calls us to ponder the meaning not only of Jesus’ birth two thousand years ago, but of his coming, today especially. Not in terms of increased consumption, but of greater compassion, peace, and justice, the hidden coming cited by St. Cyril, the Patriarch of Jerusalem back in the fourth century, like the dew appearing on the morning fleece. But we also anticipate the final coming of the Son of Man, the Just Judge.
This year, we first begin to ponder Jesus’ historical appearance among us, his daily hidden appearance, and his future coming in glory by meditating on the Book of
Isaiah, a collection of messianic prophecies composed between the middle of eighth century before the Common Era 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 – long ago earned it the accolade “the Fifth Gospel.” Isaiah is cited in Christian scripture more than any other book in the Bible except 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, with images of the war-blade being hammered into the cutting edge, the “share” or “shear” of an agricultural tool – a symbol of peace. But there is a powerful but perhaps forgotten representation of this passage in the garden of the United Nations in New York, a gift of the Soviet government on the 4th of December exactly sixty years ago. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl…. Hopefully it will come to be recognized again as the symbol of the reconciliation and cooperation the world still so desperately longs for.
Isaiah ends this passage simply, “O house of Jacob, come, Let us walk in the Light of the Lord.” Light is the principle advent symbol in the readings this year: preparing for God’s rule by living according to the divine mandate — 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 it — both the thief who enters and robs, and the thief of souls.
These lead 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, “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. The long dark night of sin has passed. Our temptation is to be lulled back into sleep by the lure of a world that fails to 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, just watching the parade pass by.
Our advent journey invites us to learn 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 and desperation. In this life, we will not see Christ unless we see them first. In Isaiah’s language,
“cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. …though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” [Isaiah 1:16-18].