Although not much heralded in the news media, the now-annual Christmas nativity scene was erected and blessed on Saturday morning in Chicago’s Daley Center Plaza. It is the only religious portrayal of the “reason for the season” in the area, but at least it is there. And today we observe the beginning of Advent, the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But with plastic and plaster nativity scenes now populating church gardens and suburban lawns, there’s not much left to anticipate. Santa Claus came to town early, too. Well, God knows we need a little cheer. Not by chance, Christmas decorations went on sale in big-box stores a week before Halloween.
It has been a dreadful year, for sure, despite welcome bright moments. The Covid-19 Crisis is, of course, on everyone’s mind, followed closely by the economic calamity that has followed and the most contentious presidential election in modern history. 2020 will linger in our lives and memories for months to come, if not years.
But I was particularly struck during the past week by stunning contrasts as the nation observed Thanksgiving Day. As the United States surpassed world records and even its own with Covid infections and deaths, tens of millions of citizens ignored pleas from the Centers for Disease Control and a multitude of government agencies to stay home then jammed airports and bus stations for trips home to celebrate feasts and frolic with family and friends. The medical community, already besieged with nearly intolerable efforts to save lives, has expressed grave concern that the inevitable surge in infection and death will cast a ghastly pall over the Christmas season and well into the new year.
But the most glaring contrast was the juxtaposition of scenes of millions of citizens lined up in cars and on foot to receive food packages to sustain their families during this desperate period of economic meltdown with images of food-laden tables and happy multitudes dining to capacity on turkey with all the trimmings. On the other hand, I was deeply impressed by the massive efforts by volunteer groups, many if not most, associated with food pantries and churches, to distribute care packages to the 26 million Americans unsure of where their next meal is coming from. One out of every six children in America now goes to bed at night hungry.
We have some work to do as we look forward to the coming of our Savior.
To begin with, we would do well to recall that Covid-19 is not the only threat to health, well-being, and economic stability. Next Tuesday, Dec. 1, has been designated as World AIDS Day, since 1988 an annual call to care and action ‘to call attention to the global HIV epidemic, to increase HIV awareness and knowledge, to speak out against HIV stigma, and to call for an increased response to move toward Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America.’ [On December 1st at 2:00 pm ET, join the Live with Leadership World AIDS Day Edition with federal and community speakers. Learn how submit questions in advance or during the conversation.]
HIV-AIDS is still a world-wide affliction threatening millions of people here and especially in poorer nations –worse than Covid-19, SARS, Zika, the Ebola virus, and the ‘flu.
Whether it’s AIDS or Covid-19, wildfires, earthquakes, drive-by shootings, terrorist attacks, or even bad weather (which we’ve had plenty of this year), we want protection and ultimately we want it from God. But we even hear Isaiah trying to lay the blame for such bad things on God…. “Why do you let us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” Please save us from ourselves…
But if we think for a bit, we begin to realize that the real question is not why God lets such awful things happen, but why and how we do. Something seems particularly wrong when senseless tragedies befall the innocent. Is it God’s fault that children are dying of hunger and disease in Yemen, Syria, and Bangladesh? Or that families are wiped out because of faulty gas pipes or improperly placed space heaters? Or terrorist attacks? Or the devastation of storms, wildfires, and earthquakes?
Isaiah seems to suggest that if God lets such things happen it is by way of saying that our thoughtless way of living brings such tragedies on ourselves and others, including the innocent. If God does not prevent it, that is not because God wants it that way. St. Paul simply tells us that God will strengthen us to the end, so that we can be blameless on the day of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not say that God will miraculously protect us from the consequences of our sins — or even the sins of others. God will strengthen us. That is what he promises.
That is why it is important to pay attention to the theme that links today’s readings – waiting on God. Waiting for God. “No ear has ever heard,” Isaiah says, “no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for you.” The word appears again in the second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Corinth, that wild Greek port town. “He says, “the witness I bore to Christ has been so confirmed among you that you lack no spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus.” The gospel passage from Mark does not mention waiting, but watching, although the connection here is important. What we do while we wait is watch. (When I looked up the word “wait,” I found that it comes from an Old German root, ‘wahta,’ which actually means “to watch.”) Watching means to look for someone, keeping vigilant, staying awake, which is one of Mark’s favorite ways of saying “waiting.”
All the gospels warn us that unless we watch, unless we stay awake, waiting for God, we will miss out. For the Christ comes like a thief in the night. Jesus is telling us to be mindful, to pay attention to the presence of God hidden in the events of our daily lives, whether minor exasperations or major crises and real tragedies, and then to act. That is how we will be prepared to meet our Lord.
Such waiting demands patience, stamina, and courage. We may tire of promoting justice, of making peace, of being merciful, of letting love guide our words and actions, but no matter how long the wait our task is clear. In Isaiah’s words, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in all our ways!”
And that is why we wait. And watch.
The liturgical year draws to a sad end this Sunday with the Solemn Feast of Christ the King of the Universe. Amid a worsening and even spreading pandemic, monumental political blundering, and economic crises, it may seem ironic as kingship seems at least irrelevant in the face of such global disasters. [See Ezek 34:11-12, 15-17, 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28, Mat 25:31-46]
Kings are, almost by definition, a sorry lot. Historically, most were rapacious, egotistical, power-hungry autocrats corrupted, even if they started out well, by that very power, as Lord Acton observed – “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The proto-prophet Samuel sternly warned the Israelites that in demanding a king to rule over them in the manner of the gentiles they were playing with a fire that would consume them [1 Sam 8:4-22]. And it largely did. Hardly any kings in Hebrew scripture come off as less than villainous. Even the best of them taken as a model, David, was capricious and bloody-minded, capable of adultery, murder, and deceit. (That is not to say that modern dictators and presidents are not equally capable and often expert at the task.)
In Christian scripture, the accusation that Jesus “made himself” king of the Jews was a false testimony that led to his execution. But by the time the epistles and gospels were written, what had been taken as a parabolic figure, if not ironic and subversive, was now accorded to Jesus as the “true king.” It is this figure of speech that animated the hopes of subject peoples down through modern history, hopes that were often dashed when the lure of absolute power succeeded in corrupting the royals.
When emergent democratic republics repudiated kings wholesale, the term became odious but managed to survive in folklore and fairy tales as the image of the “true king,” an Arthur or an Aragorn. In fact, modern monarchs are still a pretty sorry if more impotent lot. At best, the survivors are usually little more than expensive political decorations, nice folks kept in office and affection as one might a favorite Corgi.
Perhaps the title of “Christ the King” is a misnomer even apart from the diminished longing for a “true king.” The intention of Pope Pius XI when in 1925 he instituted the Feast of Christ the King for the whole Church was in some measure an effort to shore up what was inexorably becoming a lost cause, at least in Europe, following the First World War. Today there are fewer monarchies than ever – about 25, all told, including grand dukes, sovereign princes, and the like. Only about a dozen actual kings and queens hang on, many in Africa and Asia. Adding to that number several dozen emirs, sultans, an emperor or two, and the pope, the number rises just over 40.
Similarly, when in 1970 Pope Paul VI extended the royal title to the entire universe, cosmologists might well have wondered if that was a pontifical bridge too far, so to speak. The universe is a mighty big area and whether or not there are any intelligent beings out beyond the reach of present knowledge, it could well be doubted whether the claim of universal kingship of an Earthling would mean anything to them. (Only half our own world is nominally Christian today.)
Where this leaves us on this auspicious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, may be a little obscure to many. My suggestion is to once again consider the testimony of the ancient scripture and the gospel for the day. In Psalm 72, one of the “royal psalms,” we hear
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor [Ps 72:1-4].
And, a bit later,
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight [Ps 72:12-14].
The gospel reading chosen for today’s liturgy is perhaps the most telling of all, even though in his parable Jesus does not explicitly identify himself with the Son of Man or the King:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,
then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
All the nations will be gathered before him,
and he will separate people one from another
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand,
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.’
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.’ [Matt 25:31-36,40].
It has been another desperately challenging week, especially for healthcare workers who are struggling to keep up with the toll being taken increasingly on our citizens by the new coronavirus. That we, even more than other nations, were unprepared for such an event may be a serious understatement, for there were warning signs and clarion calls as long as five years ago that a new viral pandemic was likely to occur within a few years. The signs were all there, but we were still vastly unprepared when it arrived.
There is much to learned from this dreadful experience, if our leaders are wise enough to pay attention and look ahead. To take precautions. And that is what today’s readings are about. They continue last week’s theme. They are all about readiness, which figures strongly in many of Jesus’ parables and direct teaching. Clearly, it has not ceased to be timely.
The first reading from the Book of Proverbs extols the readiness of a wise and provident wife. I love this passage because it calls to mind the work and sacrifices of the women in my own family who in preceding eras had to improvise and often work hard alongside their husbands or even by themselves to make ends meet during the hard times of the pioneer western settlement, the Great Depression of 1929, and the challenges of facing critical shortages during the Secord World War. (I still treasure the Victory Garden apron that my parents preserved from the 1940s when home gardening and careful rationing were practical necessities.)
I chose this passage from the Book of Proverbs for my mother’s funeral, because it beautifully illustrates how a good wife and mother tries to be ready for just about any eventuality. It is an attitude St Paul encourages his readers to adopt in regard to Christ’s return at the end of days. Given both the frenzy and the paralysis some early Christians were experiencing, true readiness for Paul meant living each day as if it might be our last, but providing thoughtfully for the needs of the future as well. Jesus was clear about that, as we heard last week, for “no one knows the day or hour.” Look ahead! Be ready!
Several years ago, a former student invited me to visit Quantico, VA, where he was in training as a marine. There I learned that “Always Ready” is a slogan covering just about everything Marines are expected to do, but as I mentioned last Sunday, it is the official (Latin) motto of the U.S. Coast Guard — Semper Paratus – “always prepared.” Their marching anthem ends with a refrain that begins, prayerfully enough,
We’re always ready for the call,
We place our trust in Thee.
Through howling gale and shot and shell,
To win our victory.
“Semper Paratus” is our guide,
Our pledge, our motto, too.
We’re “Always Ready,” do or die!
As this year’s memory of Veteran’s Day recedes in the wake of the accelerating pandemic, natural disasters, and political intrigue, it is a call surely worth keeping in mind, as we honor those who were prepared to give everything, even to the cost of their lives. Shakespeare, that good Christian, knew his Scripture: “The readiness is all!” [Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2]
But Jesus had even a more urgent cause in mind than Shakespeare or the U.S. Marines and Coast Guard – the shortness of all human life and the approach of judgment. As we start winding up the Church year, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to what true readiness means before God.
At first glance, his parable seems like a very serious and even unfair story. It’s actually rather comical, although our world is so far removed from first-century values we fail to see the humor that would have been obvious to his listeners in a story about high finance gone very, very wrong.
To begin with, the amounts of money Jesus describes were astronomically high. He loved to exaggerate in order to get his point across. Today just five talents of silver would be worth about 2 million dollars. So while we might be able to understand why some timid soul might hide a small nest-egg in a coffee can and bury it or hide it under the mattress, but not two million dollars! No, the fellow who put a fortune in a hole in the ground was not only lazy, but stupid. You might say he got what he deserved. Or more accurately, lost it. Lost it all. But even that’s not the point of the story.
Jesus is not saying that God is like a banker who will foreclose the mortgage if you miss a single payment. And he pointedly does not say that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. But he is saying that we are all too much like timid investors. We don’t make adequate provision for the future — the future God has in mind for us, and the results can be catastrophic both for us and the world.
So what is his point here? Make adequate provision for the return of your Lord — he has high expectations of you, much more like those of the Coast Guard than the folks from Goldman-Sachs. Still, “cashing in” on the Coming of Christ requires facing risk and inevitable hardship. There are other parables about that. Here, Jesus is encouraging us to count the cost, look ahead, be smart, and not to be afraid to gamble a bit. Basically, don’t put off until tomorrow what we really should take care of today and just hope for the best. What that amounts to he carefully itemizes in next week’s gospel passage which follows directly on today’s. The care and caution required for admittance to the Kingdom has nothing to do with interest on a wise financial investment, but what we do with our resources, financial and otherwise, specifically in view of the desperate needs of the poor, the starving, the homeless, the sick and imprisoned. Be warned.
It has been a momentous week, not only because of the ongoing saga of the presidential election in the United States, but because of the startling figures that outline the grim march of the coronavirus across this land and much of the rest of the world. Here in the Land of Opportunity, we are experiencing the greatest casualty rate in the world – surpassing even India by double digits in the number of cases reported and fatalities. It is a challenging time to lead a normal life, as “Covid fatigue” impels more and more people to abandon precautions followed by unsurprising consequences. [https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/08/health/us-coronavirus-sunday/index.html]
As the liturgical year draws to a close and Advent appears on the horizon, the themes of the readings tend to turn to expectation and preparedness. The day of the Lord is coming and, to be sure, while here we have no abiding city [Heb 13:14], the need for vigilance and resolute precaution has never been so urgently needed. Not surprisingly, vigilance is the theme of today’s readings, beginning with the beautiful and poetic late Jewish Book of Wisdom, which so influenced the thought of early Christians: “one who is vigilant on [Wisdom’s] account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought” [Wis 6:15-16].
The gospel text contains one of the most famous parables Jesus created to encourage vigilance and attentiveness among his followers. Again, he compares the Reign of God to a wedding feast, one of his favorite images. This time, however, his focus is not on the guests and their attire, but on the attendants, young girls from the village who were awaiting the arrival of the groom. That’s a bit strange, but it’s very likely that Matthew left the bride out of the picture to underscore the coming of the groom, who was most likely to have been on his way to take the bride to his home. But the focus is really on the bridesmaids who get sleepy as the delay grows longer and longer. Night has now fallen. Ten of the girls came prepared for the long wait and ten did not.
When the shout is heard that the groom has arrived, there’s a scramble for their lamps [lampadas], not “torches” as in some translations. Lamps need oil to keep burning. So the story is really about having a enough oil to keep the lamps lit. The parable might seem a little heartless and even uncharitable, since the ten sensible maidens refuse to share their lamp oil with the foolish ones. But with parables, it is important to get the main point, which in this case is not about generosity, but about alertness and common sense. In short, we are to be ready at all times to welcome Christ as Lord not only of Death, but more especially of Life. Keep awake, Jesus tells us, and be prepared.
The image of Jesus as bridegroom is very ancient, and was traditionally used for his relationship to the people of God. The messianic banquet is, after all, a wedding feast, right to the end where in the Book of Revelation it is called “the wedding feast of the Lamb” [Rev. 19:9] in case there might be some doubt about the matter. Here, too, the watchword is vigilance – ‘semper paratus,’ as in the motto and marching song of the U.S. Coast Guard. Whether looking ahead to the Great Assize, as John Wesley described it, the preservation of liberty, or protection from the ravages of disease, the peril of falling asleep on the job is always a possibility. And the remedy is still eternal vigilance.
In this midst of what can only be called a calamitous year, and our nation prepares to elect a new president in just 48 hours, the Feast of All Saints appears to remind us of a different set of values, a different set of concerns, a different way of looking at life. Call it the long view. It anticipates the ultimate victory of justice over sin, the end of separation because of conflict, hunger, violence, and disease – those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who seem to have been galloping through the world with abandon this year. [See Rev 7:2-4,9-14, 1 Jn 3:1-3, Mt 5:1-12a.]
Sandwiched between (and overshadowed by) Halloween and The Day of the Dead, All Saints Day has receded from public regard in many respects, but it is nevertheless an occasion and a call to celebrate the lives of all those Servants of God whose names and accomplishments may or may not have been noticed in any official way but changed the world.
When recognition does occur, often by the official process of canonization in the Catholic Church, we are able to envision the whole, not only single examples. Many of the saints, no doubt most, are never in fact canonized, but nevertheless belong among that innumerable white-robed throng standing before the throne of God and the Lamb [Rev. 7:9].
This year, as so many of us were cut off from our loved ones, families, and friends by the coronavirus, this must be of some consolation. But it leaves our task unfinished. Today’s readings put that in perspective, and the reading from Matthew’s gospel especially presents the agenda in his compilation of the sayings of Jesus we know as “the Beatitudes.” It is by following the path of faithful witness, compassionate care, mercy, and forgiveness, that we are joined to that vast assembly. The road lies ahead, but today we acknowledge and learn from those who have gone before us and made the path at least a little wider, a little smoother.
One of the more recent candidates for official recognition, Dorothy Day, that cantankerous champion of peace and social justice, was wary of being elevated to that lofty position. “Don’t make me out to be a saint,” she said. “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oscar Romero, she won’t be much longer, but will soon, it is hoped, assume her place among those recognized by the Church as pioneers and trail blazers. But, as I said once before, “…it is not being recognized, being canonized, that makes people saints. It’s what they have done with their lives that earns them a place of honor on the only list that matters, the much, much greater list known only to God and the blessed saints in heaven. As Meister Eckhart said long ago, “It is not what we do that makes us holy, but we ought to make holy what we do.” [Talks of Instruction, 4] King, Romero, and Dorothy Day are saints not because they strove to be, but because they did what they felt compelled to do as followers of Jesus Christ.