Today marks the beginning of Advent, a joyful season of preparation before the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Here in the U.S., a kind of normalcy is struggling to return, despite a recent upsurge in Covid-19 infections. Holiday decorations have been on display in the big box stores for months, and in a possibly premature celebration of the slowing of the world pandemic, trees and houses again illuminate whole neighborhoods, and Christmas carols – or perhaps more accurately, commercial carols — are heard throughout the land. In-person shopping has returned with a vengeance, including a record number of “smash and grab” burglaries from high-end shops and big-box stores from coast to coast. Thanksgiving travel was almost back to pre-pandemic levels as over 50 million Americans took to the roads and skies to celebrate the holiday elsewhere. Anywhere.
But all is not well. Since the last cycle of liturgical readings began on this Sunday three years ago, the world seems to have lurched on its axis. A new administration finally grasped the reins of power in Washington, although for the first time in history an angry mob armed with bear-spray and clubs stormed the Capitol on January 6th attempting to overthrow the elected government. Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus continued to spread with terrible speed here and around the world, appearing most recently in a scary new variant. Ports are jammed with imports that can’t be moved, and there’s a shortage of Christmas trees and “goods.” Again this year, thousands of square miles of forest were incinerated in California, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest, as vast swathes of the tropical rainforests of the Amazon and Western Pacific were burned or cut down to make way for more cash crops. An upsurge of deadly tornadoes pounded the South and Midwest while flash floods devastated the east coast as the planet spirals toward a climate disaster despite the timid promises of global meetings such as COP 26.
In the U.S., consumer debt has reached an all-time high. According to a November CNN report, “Americans have never been in so much debt.” https://www.cnn.com/2021/11/09/economy/fed-household-debt-inflation/index.html
Despite a slight dip in total debt at the beginning the pandemic, the “economy” as we like to call it, is struggling valiantly to return at least to pre-pandemic levels. But that was not exactly what could be called “healthy.” U.S. households now owe more than $15 trillion dollars in total debt. Average personal debt has climbed to nearly $54,000, while average household credit card debt rose to $6270. The average American consumer has a credit card balance of about $6,375, up nearly 3 percent from last year. Total credit card debt has risen to over $800 billion.
All in all, not a lot to be joyful about. Right on cue, today’s gospel is about the end of the world – not as the Wall
Street Journal might see it, but surely a prediction of vast social and natural turmoil as the world staggers from disaster to disaster. Yet the intent is to strengthen the resolve of Jesus’ hearers to be on guard against mindless distractions and reckless indulgence. The first reading from the Book of Jeremiah holds out the promise of the advent of a truly just ruler. St. Paul, too, encourages his readers in the earliest of Christian documents, to let mutual love strengthen our hearts and guide our actions so as to be blameless before the final Advent.
These are not tidings of comfort and joy. Not yet, anyway. They are a call to prepare the way of the Lord.
In fact, neither Advent nor Christmas have anything to do with buying stuff or spending money. As I said those three long years ago and is no less true today, they have everything to do with ultimacies — getting ready, preparing ourselves to greet Our Lord when he comes in glory. And if I got my catechism right, when he gets here, he’s not going to ask us about consumer debt or our credit rating, but our credibility. Did we really believe what he said when he told us to be ready, watchful, prepared? To have our loins girt and oil in our lamps? To make friends with the Mammon of Iniquity, to assist the poor, and forgive our brothers and sisters while there is still time? To feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, and take in the stranger – the homeless and refugees [Mat 25:34-46].
The true health of a nation or a world cannot be measured in terms of consumer debt or Gross Domestic Product or how well or badly fiscal budgets are balanced. It consists, rather, in the degree to which love, mercy, and peace increase.
As Advent begins, it is a good time to take stock. How are we preparing to greet Our Lord when he comes? How will we as a people acquit ourselves in terms of the justice, peace, and compassion we are called to manifest to the world, especially to the weak, oppressed, and suffering? Will each of us be able to say that our values and attitudes were shaped more by the message of the gospel than the massage of the social media and the proclamations of our political leaders? After all, Advent is a time of joyful expectation, not of dread.
When Christmas finally rolls around, long after we are saturated with the plastic decorations, canned carols, animated cartoons about the early life of Santa Claus and Rudolf, and the endless accumulation of unneeded and often unwanted merchandise, what will we have in our hearts to offer the new-born King of the World? What does he really want from me and you? What gift is he asking us to bring to the manger?
Kings don’t amount to much these days. Elizabeth II has been much on people’s minds lately because of her longevity and ill health. She’s a good old thing, as the English might say. But she, like the great majority if not all monarchs in recent times, has no real power and authority. Royal influence, should we be so fortunate, is moral and sentimental. Constitutional royalpersons, as my students call them, must remain aloof from politics and serve largely as emblems of continuity with a fading and often inglorious past.
In fact, kings, and perhaps less so, queens, have been a sorry lot over the centuries. When the Israelites pressed Samuel to anoint a king for them like those who ruled over their pagan neighbors, he was unsparing in his warnings, not least of the moral depravity that follows the royal train like a starving hound.
“‘he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; … and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.’” And that was only for starters. Samuel finished by lamenting, “’in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’ But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No! but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles’” [1 Samuel 8:4-20].
Samuel was the first of the prophets to insist that Israel’s true and only king is God. They wound up with Saul, who died crazy, corrupt, and out of sorts with God. It didn’t get much better after that. The long and dismal history of kingship largely proved Samuel right. So why would Christians over the centuries be keen on calling Jesus a king, much less King of the Universe?
In 1925 Pope Pius XI elevated the Feast of Christ the King to a celebration of the universal church in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that launched the First World War and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and the royal family in 1918 during the Russian revolution. It is widely believed that the pope did so in order to shore up what was inexorably becoming a lost cause in the face of growing republicanism and with it the perceived threat of secularism and atheism.
But when in 1970 Pope Paul VI extended the royal title to the entire universe, that raised some serious questions about overreach. The universe is far more vast than scientists believed even in 1970. Would the notion of a planetary monarch on the outskirts of a respectable but otherwise insignificant galaxy in the trillions of galaxies “out there” have any meaning to the inhabitants of those faraway realms? It’s worth noting that only half our own world is nominally Christian today.
So today’s readings underscore the tensions inherent in calling Jesus a king in any meaningful way.
The first reading from the Book of Daniel ends with a prophecy concerning the coming of the Son of Man, who would receive dominion, glory, and kingship from God and rule all peoples and nations forever. The reading from the Book of Revelation similarly portrays Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth”[Rev 1:8]. One of the last images of Jesus in Scripture is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” [Rev. 17:14, 19:16], a title originally borne by the Emperor of Persia. Such accolades hang on the notion of the “true king,” the ultimate monarch reigning infinitely above the limited power, petty intrigues, and lethal plans of earthly kings.
But did Jesus think of himself as a king? After all, the Roman authorities executed him because he was accused of claiming to be “the King of the Jews.”
But if we look behind the poetic imagination and fervor of the early Christians, Jesus himself was not particularly impressed with the notion of being a king of anything, just as he had very different ideas about what being the Messiah really meant. For Jesus, only the kingdom of God mattered. Before Pilate, who demands to know whether Jesus claimed to be a king, he replies tellingly, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world: to bear witness to the truth” [John 18:37].
Up to then, Jesus simply rejected the idea of kingship, even hiding himself when the notion of proclaiming him king popped up among his followers [John 6:15]. The words “king” and “kingdom” do not appear at all in Mark’s gospel.
It is in Luke’s gospel that Jesus comes closest to accepting the title of king. But he does so by giving his kingdom to his followers: “You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” [Luke 22:28-30].
Like everything else in the social world of his time and since, Jesus turned the notions of kingship and kingdom on their head. ‘Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it’ [Luke 18:17]. He tells Pilate to take a good look at what his kingdom means. It is not of Rome’s world, not an earthly kingdom, not a rule of force, or of money, or even of reason: Jesus is neither a tycoon nor a philosopher king. And his followers are the poor in heart, not the high and mighty.
Jesus ultimately reveals his kingdom from the Cross — a kingdom of mercy and justice, a kingdom of grace and truth, a kingdom of peace and freedom. In the end, St. Paul tells us, Jesus even divests himself of his kingdom and hands it over to the One who sent him, having overcome every principality and power and authority hostile to God’s rule [1 Cor 15:24-25].
God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Christ, is foremost one in which those who rule in fact serve. Those to whom we must look to see the face of Christ the King are the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and homeless, the tramps and prostitutes that annoy us on the street, abused children and battered women, those on death row for crimes they did not commit… people who are denied their human and civil rights because of race, gender, or religion.
For to such belongs the kingdom of God, the realm of Jesus, true King of the Universe.
As autumn slowly gives way to winter, there is a touch of sadness in the air, despite the beauty here in the northern hemisphere where we revel in the colorful kaleidoscope of changing and falling leaves. It is a wistful and even sorrowful moment, as the Church year itself draws to a close. November is traditionally the month of remembrance, during which we call to mind our loved ones who have died but especially those who sacrificed their lives to defend the life and liberty of their fellow citizens.
Calamitous events such as the heart-breaking disaster at the Astroworld Concert in Houston on Friday added to the grief of many families. But I was also deeply touched by the sacrifice made by those attempting to protect and assist others – Danish Baig, who threw himself over the body of his fiancée to shield her, and Jacob (“Jake”) Jurinek, the nephew of a friend, who escaped the mayhem only to return to try to rescue others. The splendor of their sacrifice, like that of others and the members of the armed forces we honor this week, cannot diminish the sorrow felt by friends and family. But that will, with God’s grace, transform one day into grateful and even joyful remembrance. “Greater love has no one than to lay down their lives for their friends” [John 15:13].
If we listen carefully, today’s readings are not so much about calamity but of ultimate triumph.
The first reading introduces us to Michael the Archangel, not only the protector of Israel but also the angel of judgment, which is why he is usually pictured holding a set of scales. Here, in the Book of Daniel, he is the Great Prince — one of the seven great angels who stand in the presence of God. His promise is worth repeating: “…the wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness shall be like the stars forever” [Dan 12:3].
Today’s responsorial psalm underscores the hope that drives our faith in the justice and truth God expects of those who believe and follow the path laid out for us:
I set the Lord ever before me;
With God at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to the nether world
nor let your faithful one undergo corruption.
You show me the path of life,
fullness of joy in your presence,
delights in your right hand forevermore [Ps 16:5-11].
The Epistle to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken, extols the mission of Jesus, the great king and high priest of the world to come, where he has taken his place forever at the right hand of God. What is there to fear? When Christ appears in glory, we are reminded, he will triumph over the forces of sin and evil. Such as our hope, and our hope is to be counted among those at his right hand.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus advises his listeners to learn a lesson from the fig tree – not because its leaves are falling as winter approaches, but because in the springtime, its sap rises and its generous leaves begin to sprout. It is a harbinger of fulfilment, not disaster. The scary omens mentioned early in the reading are not merely signs of approaching doom, but the great burgeoning of life promised in the Book of Revelation following all the turmoil: “Behold I make all things new” [Rev 21:4]. Here again, flourishing trees are taken as a sign of the new and everlasting life granted by the Lamb of God, trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations [Rev 21:2]. St. Augustine, in his sermon on the end times, draws on Psalm 95: “All the trees of the forest shall exult before the face of the Lord, for he has come, and he will come again” [Discourse on the Psalms, 95].
Our grief and sorrow at the loss of our loved ones in this unparalleled time of disease, civil discord, and violence is not the final verdict. We shall be united with them forever in that realm of justice and truth where love shall eternally prevail. That is today’s message of hope.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
This week, I was ambushed by a juxtaposition of images broadcast on several news channels. The first revealed the desperate plight of the people of Madagascar, where unprecedented hunger and malnutrition threaten the lives of both children and adults. The second was a special on smashing pumpkins – many thousands of them, happily doomed to landfill and compost pits now that Hallowe’en is safely past. I found myself wondering how those wasted pumpkins could have affected world hunger, especially in hard to reach places such as Madagascar and Yemen.
Pumpkins are food, highly nutritious food at that, bursting (all too literally now) with low-calorie, healthy pulp, amazingly rich in fiber, the essential vitamins A and C, minerals, including important antioxidants such as beta-carotene, copper, and cryptoxanthins,. Pumpkin helps protect against age-related eye problems such as macular degeneration, reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes, and overall mortality, especially from prostate and colon cancer, helps avoid diabetes and heart disease, regulates blood pressure, promotes a healthy complexion and hair, and increases energy.
In short, pumpkin is a wonder food. Imagine what it could contribute toward alleviating starvation and malnutrition in Madagascar, Yemen, and parts of Central America. In fact, hunger is on the rise globally, affecting 10 percent of people throughout the world. Between 2019 and 2020 it is estimated that the number of those suffering from malnutrition also grew by up to 161 million, mainly because of conflict, climate change, especially drought and flood, and the COVID-19 pandemic. [https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics]
What has this to do with today’s readings? Quite a lot. The treatment of widows and orphans, like that of political
refugees and those afflicted with various diseases, especially preoccupied the ethics of ancient Judaism and Jesus’ own teaching and ministry. The point is simple: how we treat those desperately in need of aid is a measure of our standing in respect to the justice and love of God.
Again, today’s gospel begins where we left off last Sunday. Both Mark and Luke turn at this point to an event in Jesus’ life that occurred while he was teaching in the Temple. It focuses on one of these widows, a nameless old woman who offers everything she had to God because she, unlike the others tossing their coins into the treasure box, gave not out of her surplus, but out of her need. If the poor are proportionately more generous than the wealthy, it is probably because they know what it is to depend on God alone for help.
We are prepared for the gospel by the first reading about the prophet Elijah and the poor widow of Zarephath. Seeking refuge from his enemies, Elijah approaches the woman and asks for a scrap of food. She tells him that she has only a tiny amount, after which she and her son will starve. Elijah assures her that God will look after her. She believes him and gives him the last of her food supply. She is blessed with an abundance of flour and oil which last for a year.
In his gospel Luke relates that Jesus recalled the story of the widow of Zarephath in his first sermon, comparing her faith to the disbelief of his own townspeople. That turns the whole town against him, but he manages to escape their wrath [Luke 4:25-26].
Jesus knew, of course, that widows and orphans had a very difficult life. By then, his own mother may have been a widow. They had few rights and, apart from the charity of relatives and benefactors, no way of supporting themselves. Or even of repaying the kindness of strangers. For that reason, the welfare of widows and orphans, and for good measure, the resident political refugee, like that of the halt, blind, and lame, was taken to be an index of the spiritual health of the whole nation by the prophets and clearly by Jesus.
One of his greatest miracles, like that of Elijah, who restored the widow of Zarephath’s little boy to life, was performed for a poor widow of the town of Nain. As Luke recounts, “as he drew near to the gate of the city, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large crowd from the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ He came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. ‘Young man,’” he said simply, “‘I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother” [Luke 7:12-15. Also see Luke 18:1-8.].
The same concern runs throughout the whole of Scripture, from Exodus to the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, often, as we see in today’s gospel, as a warning to the avaricious: “…I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the resident stranger, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” [Mal. 3:5]. The message is clear.
Today, we too are called to consider the well-being of single mothers and fatherless and motherless children for signs of our spiritual and political health, for of all minorities they are still the most vulnerable, especially in this “richest nation on earth” if they are also people of color, Native Americans, or recent immigrants. “…learn to do good,” Isaiah tells us, “seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” [Isaiah 1:17]. For in the eyes of God, their welfare is our welfare.
Each year about forty percent of food produced in the United States is wasted. Worldwide, about one-third goes to waste. And yet widows, orphans, and refugees face starvation, even in rich countries where the wealthy and powerful look the other way. Surely, if we can get space tourists into orbit and send people to Mars, we can send unwanted pumpkins to the worlds poor. All it requires is the will to do so. [https://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/flw-data]
Then, as the widow of Zarephath said, people might say of us too one day, “Now I know that you are of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”