Getting Christmas in a Real World

Questions“Christmas — who cares?”

“It’s for the kids; I’m too old for that nonsense.”

“Christians are all hypocrites anyway.”

“I used to be a Catholic; then I grew up.”

“It’s all about the money: the malls, the churches: all the same.”

xmas-homeless-jesus-12-24-12-copy“I just get so depressed at Christmas.  I’ve lost the innocence of youth and there’s no connection to family any more — and this just makes it all worse.”

“With all of the violence and craziness in the world, why the hell should I get involved with all this make-believe?

As we enter another Christmas Season (and remember that for Christians, Christmas Day is just the beginning of a whole season of “Christmas”!), perhaps we should reflect a bit on why we even care about it.  “Christmas” as an event has just become, for so many people, a civic holiday, a commercial opportunity, and mere Seinfeldian “festivus”.  Let’s face it: for many people,  “Christmas” is simply something to be endured and survived.

Why do Christians care about Christmas?  What does it — what should it — mean?  Are Christians who celebrate Christmas simply naive children who won’t grow up?

immanuel1 (2)In my Advent reflection yesterday on the Hebrew expression “Emmanuel” (God-with-us) I stressed the intimacy of this relationship with God.  No matter how we may feel at any given moment, the God we have given our hearts to (which is actually the root meaning of “I believe”) is with us through it all — even when we can’t or don’t recognize it.  Think of a child in her room playing.  Does she realize that her father out in the kitchen is thinking about her, listening for sounds that may mean that she needs his help, pondering her future?  Does she realize that her mother at work in her office is also thinking about her, loving her, and making plans for her future?  The love of parents for children is constant and goes beyond simply those times when they are physically present to each other.

God is like that, too.  Sometimes we feel God’s presence around us, sometimes we don’t.  From our perspective it might seem like God has left us — but God hasn’t.  That’s the beauty of “Emmanuel” and the great insight of the Jewish people which we Christians have inherited: regardless of what I may think or feel at any given moment, “God is with us.”

Christmas celebrates that reality.  But there’s more to it than that.  God isn’t with us as some kind of superhero god with a deep voice and stirring sound track like a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic.  God “thinks big and acts small” and comes to the world as a weak and helpless baby.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “God is in the manger.”  We’ll have more to say about that in a moment.  But for now, consider the mistake that many people make.  As we get older and set aside childish ways, some people assume that since God is in the manger as a baby, that this makes Christmas simply something for children.  How wrong they are!  The great scripture scholar, the late Raymond Brown, emphasized this point in his landmark study, “An Adult Christ at Christmas.”  If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend you do so: consider it a belated Christmas gift to yourself!

mary-joseph-jesus_thumb21The world into which Jesus was born was every bit as violent, abusive, and full of destructive intent as our own.  And yet, consider what Christians have maintained from the beginning.  God’s saving plan was not brought about through noble families, through the Jewish high priestly caste, or through the structures of the Roman empire.  It wasn’t engaged in Greek or Roman philosophies or religions.  Instead we find a young Jewish girl from an ordinary family, her slightly older betrothed (there is nothing in scripture that suggests that Joseph was an older man, so we might assume that he was in his late teens, not that much older than Mary), shepherds (who were largely considered outcasts in Jewish society), foreign astrologers avoiding the puppet Jewish king, and on and on.  What’s more, the savior of the world sent by God doesn’t show up on a white charger at the head of mighty army, but as a baby.

God enters the scene in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.  How will this “save” anyone?

God saves by so uniting himself with us (Emmanuel) that he takes on all of our struggles, joys, pains, and hopes.  The ancient hymn, quoted by that former and infamous persecutor of Christians, Saul-who-became-Paul, captures it well (Philippians 2: 5-11):

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

What should all of this nice poetry mean to us?  Paul is explicit.  Writing from prison himself, he tells the Philippians: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  This self-emptying is called kenosis in Greek, and the path of the Christian, following Christ, is first to empty ourselves if we hope later to rise with him.  

THIS IS THE VERY HEART OF CHRISTIANITY AND WHAT IT MEANS TO CALL OURSELVES DISCIPLES OF JESUS THE CHRIST: TO EMPTY OURSELVES IN IMITATION OF CHRIST.  IF WE’RE NOT DOING THAT WE DARE NOT CALL OURSELVES “CHRISTIANS”!

Many people have written about this in a variety of contexts.  Here are just a few random examples.

Empty yourself: “Suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return.”  John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, #93.

Empty yourself: “The gift to us of God’s ever faithful love must be answered by an authentic life of charity which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts.  We too must give our gift fully; that is, we must divest ourselves of ourselves in that same kenosis of love.” Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, 107.

Empty yourself: “Kenosis moves beyond simply giving up power.  It is an active emptying, not simply the acceptance of powerlessness.” William Ditewig, The Exercise of Governance by Deacons: A Theological and Canonical Study.

Empty yourself:  “It is precisely in the kenosis of Christ (and nowhere else) that the inner majesty of God’s love appears, of God who ‘is love’ (1 John 4:8) and a ‘trinity.’  Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone.

Empty yourself: “Satan fears the Trojan horse of an open human heart.” Johann Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit.

034077_29And so we return to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  This well-known German Lutheran theologian, pastor, and concentration camp martyr embodies the wedding of of the meaning of Christmas with the real world in which we live.  He devoted his life to study, to writing, to opposing injustice — especially the Nazi regime in Germany, ultimately giving the ultimate witness to Christ.  Christians like Bonhoeffer, whose best-known work is called The Cost of Discipleship, are not dreamy, wide-eyed innocents who do not connect with the world.  In fact, their witness shows us just the opposite.  The true Christian is one who — following Christ — engages the world in all of its joys, hopes, pains and suffering.  It is with Bonhoeffer, then, that we enter into Christmas 2015, with his wonderful reflection:

Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?  Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.

Bonhoeffer Kenosis Meme

MAY WE ALL “GET” CHRISTMAS THIS YEAR!  HOW WILL WE EMPTY OURSELVES FOR OTHERS?

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

“O Emmanuel”: God Who Walks With Us

“O Emmanuel”: O God-With-Us, our King and Giver of Law, the Longing of the Peoples and their Savior:
come to save us, Lord our God!

23 Dec O EmmanuelHere is the final antiphon, assigned to 23 December. While the original texts of most of the “O Antiphons” were in Latin, here’s one that’s even more ancient (although Latin appropriated it later!).  “Emmanuel” is a Hebrew word taken directly from the original text of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

When I left the seminary after college, the military draft was still in place, and I was due to be drafted.  Believing that I might have more control over matters if I simply enlisted before I could be drafted, I joined the Navy.  I was stunned and thrilled to find out that my first orders after boot camp were to go to Hebrew language school for a year; I was blessed to serve as a Hebrew linguist for the first couple of years in the Navy, largely on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean.immanuel1 (2)

In language school, all of our instructors were native-born Israelis, known as sabra.  They quickly got us chatting away in modern Hebrew, and one of the topics they would ask involved answering the question, “What did you study in school?” (“Ma lamadita bevet sefer?”)   When I responded that I had studied Philosophy, they asked why.  I answered that I had been studying to become a priest.  From that moment on, every afternoon for at least one full hour, we began reading Biblical Hebrew.  What a great joy it was to be able to read the Hebrew scriptures in their original language!  One particular text we read was the prophet Isaiah, including the verse given above.  “Im [“with”] + “anu” [“us”] + “El” [“God”]: God with us!  While word order is of differing significance in different languages, the fact that God is at the end of the phrase underscores the foundational importance of God to all that goes before.  We see the same thing in many Hebrew names: for example, Michael is “mi” [“who”] + “cha” [“like”] + “El” [“God”].  So, “Immanuel” becomes almost a cry of stunned realization: “With us, GOD!”

At the beginning of the third chapter of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis turns his attention to the nature of the Church. “The Church, as the agent of evangelization, is more than an organic and hierarchical institution; she is first and foremost a people advancing on its pilgrim way toward God.  She is certainly a mystery rooted in the Trinity, yet she exists concretely in history as a people of pilgrims and evangelizers, transcending any institutional expression, however necessary” (#111).  The relationship of the People with God always begins in God’s own initiative: “God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him” (#112).  So, the fact that we proclaim that God is with us flows from our realization that God has CHOSEN to be with us in every human condition and need.  We have not earned God’s presence, we have not somehow bargained God int it!  The covenant is always God’s initiative; as Love itself, God extends and provides for all creation.  “The salvation which God has wrought, and the Church joyfully proclaims, is for everyone.  God has found a way to unite himself to every human being in every age” (#113).

Francis-feet-drugs-poor-EPAThe implications of With-us-GOD are profound!  As we know, “possessing God” and then waiting for the rapture at the end of time are not Catholic concepts!  On the contrary, With-us-God “means that we are to be God’s leaven in the midst of humanity. . . .  The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (#114).

As Advent comes to a close, most of us will be singing — almost as a matter of routine — “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.  Some maintain that the verses have been prayed in one way or another since the 8th Century, although the tune is from the 19th Century.  In one sense it is unfortunate that it has become ubiquitous and taken for granted.  The full verses of the hymn, however, are actually a summary of all of the O Antiphons which we have considered over the last week.  Here, for your convenience, are the verses of the hymn.  May they serve as a reminder of our final days of preparation for the coming of the Lord!

1 O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

2 O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain

3 O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

4 O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain

5 O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain

6 O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light. Refrain

7 O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace. Refrain

ADVENT REFLECTION

One this final evening before the Vigil of Christmas, what is the practical, pastoral impact of the realization in our own lives that God has truly come to us and remains with us?  Am I, as an individual believer, and are we, as Church, a place where all people can find “mercy freely given”, universal welcome, love, forgiveness and encouragement?  Or, am I — are we — perceived as people of rules and judgments who tend to exclude rather than include?  This Christmas, as we celebrate the union and universal gift of God-for-all, may we re-dedicate ourselves to the liberating power of the joy of the Gospel!

4 Advent Candles

“O Rex Gentium”: The King They Desired

“O Rex Gentium”: O King of the Nations,
and the one they desired,
the keystone who makes both peoples one,
come and save mankind,
whom you shaped from the mud.

22 Dec O Rex Gentium

The Jewish people had always wanted a King, and in Isaiah, the prophet describes the coming Messiah as a King with a difference.  Consider:

  • “For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
  • “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Rex GentiumThe divine King of the Nations is not like any other monarch or political head of state.  I particularly love the line that our King is “desired by the people”; Kings were rarely determined by the desires of their subjects!  But our King is our Desire, our ultimate desire, a King that fills every longing, every need, every emptiness.  The King establishes a reign of peace, a world that no longer even LEARNS about war.  What a new way of thinking about things!  This “novus mentis habitus” had been sought by many recent church leaders, including all of our popes from John XXIII to Francis.  Pope Francis writes:

What is called for is an evangelization capable of shedding light on these new ways of relating to God, to others and to the world around us, and inspiring essential values.  It must reach the places where new narratives and paradigms are being formed, bringing the word of Jesus to the inmost soul of our cities (Evangelii Gaudium, #74).

As disciples of this new Messiah-King, we find ourselves in the midst of these new “narratives and paradigms.”  How can we best enter the story?

ADVENT REFLECTION

What new ways of relating to God am I being called to?  How are we nurturing that relationship?  Prayer, study, service?  What new ways of relating to others am I being called to?  And what new ways of relating to the world around us?  Where, specifically, in our communities, are these “new narratives and paradigms” being formed?  In our inner cities?  In agriculture, family farms and migrant worker camps?  On our campuses and businesses?  How do I share in forming those new narratives?

4 Advent Candles

“O Oriens”: Light out of Darkness

From Vespers, 21 December, the Winter Solstice:

21 Dec O OriensO Morning Star,
splendor of eternal light and sun of justice:
Come, and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

It is no coincidence that today’s Antiphon occurs on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice.  The “darkest” and shortest day, with the least sunlight of the entire year.  On this day, then, the Church remembers that Christ, the Morning Star extolled in the great Exultet on the Vigil of Easter, brings light back into the world.  The Latin root of the word “oriens” is “East”, the direction from which the sun “rises.”  This explains the various English translations attempting to capture that sense: “morning sun”, “dayspring”, “morning star,” “dawn” and so on.  The point is simple and based on Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined” (Is 9:2).

Pope Francis spends considerable time in Evangelii Gaudium speaking of the dangers facing “pastoral workers”: those clergy and laity who together attempt to serve the needs of others.  Among those challenges, he writes that “the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: ‘the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small mindedness.'” He is quoting then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from a speech given at a gathering the Presidents of the Latin American Episcopal Commissions for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996.  Pope Francis continues:

O Radiant DawnDisillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precisous of the devil’s potions.”  Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate.  For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization. . . . One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses” (#83, 85).

Although these words are focused on pastoral workers, they certainly apply to all people.  In today’s world, it is easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged.  As the pope reminds us, though, as followers of Christ and proclaimers of the Gospel, we are “called to radiate light” and only in our relationship with Christ and the relationships which flow from that primal relationship, can we truly carry that light into the world.  Pope St. John Paul II told deacons and wives in an audience in 2000 that, when they were discouraged they should “throw yourselves into the arms of Christ, and he will refresh you.”  In these final days of Advent, no better advice can be given!

ADVENT REFLECTION

Are we ourselves discouraged and overwhelmed at this time of year?  As Christ the Morning Star enters the world, may we too be illumined and strengthened to bear that light to others.  No sourpusses allowed!  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . .”: Are we, disciples of Christ and heralds of the Gospel, perpetuating the darkness, or sharing the Light?

AdventCandlesBokeh

“O Clavis David”: Keys to Open Doors

O Clavis David: O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

20 Dec O Clavis David

Today, 20 December, the “O” Antiphon is O Clavis David (O Key of David):

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead prisoners from the prison cell,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Today the Church, again using the language of the prophet Isaiah, refers to the Messiah as the Key of David. Consider the following passages from the prophet:

  • Isaiah 22:22: “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.”
  • Isaiah 42:6-7: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

The notion that the Messiah has the power of the key is further referenced in the New Testament when Christ gives the “power of the Francis washing feetkeys” to Peter.  While, of course, the Key can “shut, and no one can open,” the hope of the Antiphon is on the opening of dungeons and the liberation of people from bondage.  With Christ comes freedom.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis often uses the language of freedom and openness to all in their need.  Consider, at #63:

We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people.  In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization.

O-Key-of-David-1While the pope clearly criticizes certain cultural and societal shortcomings which devalue the human person and keep them “locked up” in various ways, he continues to level criticism as appropriate on the structures of the Church itself and the attitudes of some of its people.  For example, at #70:

It is also true that at times greater emphasis is placed on the outward expressions and traditions of some groups, or an alleged private revelations which would replace all else, than on the impulse of Christian piety.There is a kind of Christianity made up of devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life which does not in fact correspond to authentic “popular piety”.  Some people promote these expressions while not being in the least concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity, and in certain cases they do so in order to obtain economic benefits or some power over others. . . . It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition.  Growing numbers of parents do not bring their children for baptism or teach them how to pray.  There is also a certain exodus towards other faith communities.  The causes of this breakdown include: a lack of opportunity for dialogue in families, the influence of the communications media, a relativistic subjectivism, unbridled consumerism which feeds the market, lack of pastoral care among the poor, the failure of our institutions to be welcoming, and our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape.

This is quite a review!  So how does the “Key of David” open us up to address this general breakdown?  We believe that Christ, fulfilling those prophecies of Isaiah, IS the light to the nations, and he IS able to open the eyes of the blind, and to set those imprisoned free.  Since this is a blog dedicated to all things diaconal, we can ask specifically of all who are ordained to this service: How are we to “use” the Key of David in our ministries?  How might we address that rather bleak checklist of “prison cells” enumerated by the pope?  Each one of those items is, in fact, hampering the freedom of all, and we are called to help break down those barriers.  How can we improve family communication, use the power of the media in positive ways, preach the objective truth that God loves God’s creation and wants all to live in freedom, the use of resources for the common good of all, reach out with new energy to the poor and the marginalized, be a more welcoming parish community, and assist in developing a healthy Christian spirituality?  Christ is the Key, and he has called us all to participate in the use of that Key in the world today.

ADVENT REFLECTION

Take a look around the parish.  What structures, policies and practices can and must be reformed so that the Key (Christ) can be more effectively used?  Are there things keeping people “in their place” rather than setting them free? Now look beyond the parish?  What needs in the community are not being met at all?  How can we move outside parish and even Church boundaries to carry the Key to all of those imprisoned?  Do we use the Key to open or to close?

Advent-Christmas-candle-10

 

 

“O Radix Jesse”: Foundations

O Radix Jesse:  O Root of Jesse, who stands as a sign for the people, and before whom rulers are silent while the nations pray: come to save us and do not delay!

19 Dec O Radix JesseThe “O Antiphon” for 19 December begins “O Radix Jesse.”  While some translations use the word, “flower” for the Latin “radix,” I prefer the more literal “root” because it signals clearly the Mystery being invoked in this prayer.  The point of this ancient antiphon is to identify the coming Messiah as the very root and foundation of creation and covenant.  Our connection to Christ and to the world is not a superficial grafting onto a minor branch of the family tree, but to the very root itself.  We are grounded, connected and vitally linked to Christ.

9215a16915766b401885d0c1e9eed53bAs ministers of the Church’s charity, justice and mercy, we deacons (this is, after all, a blog focused on the diaconate!) must lead in our concern for those who find themselves cut off from society and church and perhaps even cut off from that very Root of Jesse.  Pope Francis, in Evangelium Gaudium condemns anything which contributes to such isolation of human beings.  Even concerning economies, for example, he condemns any “economy of exclusion and inequality. How can it be that it is not a news item when as elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock mart loses two points?  This is a case of exclusion.  Can we continue to stand by when food is thrwon away while people are starving?  This is a case of inequality” (#53).  We are to be a people of INCLUSION AND EQUALITY, not exclusion and inequality.

Inclusivity and encounter continue to be themes of the papacy of Pope Francis.  In his homily opening the Holy Door for the Extraordinary Year of Mercy on 8 December, he reminded us that he selected the date deliberately to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council.  Read this remarkable conclusion to his homily:

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Today, here in Rome and in all the dioceses of the world, as we pass through the Holy Door, we also want to remember another door, which fifty years ago the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council opened to the world.  This anniversary cannot be remembered only for the legacy of the Council’s documents, which testify to a great advance in faith.  Before all else, the Council was an encounter.  A genuine encounter between the Church and the men and women of our time.  An encounter marked by the power of the Spirit, who impelled the Church to emerge from the shoals which for years had kept her self-enclosed so as to set out once again, with enthusiasm, on her missionary journey.  It was the resumption of a journey of encountering people where they live: in their cities and homes, in their workplaces.  Wherever there are people, the Church is called to reach out to them and to bring the joy of the Gospel, and the mercy and forgiveness of God.  After these decades, we again take up this missionary drive with the same power and enthusiasm.  The Jubilee challenges us to this openness, and demands that we not neglect the spirit which emerged from Vatican II, the spirit of the Samaritan, as Blessed Paul VI expressed it at the conclusion of the Council.  May our passing through the Holy Door today commit us to making our own the mercy of the Good Samaritan.

good-sam-biddleThe pope’s message is quite clear and, when considered as part of our Advent reflection on “O Root of Jesse”, particularly on point.  As Christians we thrive when we are grafted to the Messiah, the source of life.  Our mission of mercy is to serve to graft others to the Messiah as well.  Our faith is not merely expressed in a text — no matter how vital those texts are in themselves — but in the concrete encounter of one person with another.  The pope even dares to use an expression often mocked by certain Catholics, the “spirit which emerged from Vatican II” and equates that spirit with the spirit that drove the Samaritan, the Samaritan who is our model for the mercy of God.

ADVENT REFLECTION

In my own life and ministry, do I keep the fundamental truth of the “Root of Jesse” in mind?  Do I seek to find ways to include all persons equally in the life of the church?  What structures and attitudes exist which are exclusionary and unequal and need to be changed?  Do I live in “the spirit of the Samaritan?”

 

“O Adonai”: Freedom through God’s Strength and Mercy

“O Adonai”: O Sacred Lord of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

18 Dec O AdonaiThe “O Antiphons” are titles to be associated with the Messiah, the Anointed One; on 18 December, the Messiah is linked to the Lord of Israel who saved Israel.  The connection continues through the allusion to Moses, called to lead the people to freedom in God’s name, and to whom God would give the Torah on Sinai.  Although in English we tend to interpret “law” in a sense of “rules”, that is not the way it is understood in Hebrew and the Jewish tradition.  Torah refers to instruction or teaching.  In the covenant relationship with God, these instructions describe the practical nature of how the covenant is to be lived.

adonai_10God’s part of the covenant is to rescue us.  When Pope Francis promulgated Misericordiae Vultus announcing the Extraordinary Year of Mercy, he chose to evoke this scene of the all-powerful God with Moses:

1. Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. The Father, “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4), after having revealed his name to Moses as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex34:6), has never ceased to show, in various ways throughout history, his divine nature.  . . .  Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God.

Pope Francis hears confession during penitential liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica at Vatican

Our relationship with God is not about law enforcement but about faithfulness and compassion in the relationship.  Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium #44) reminds pastors and others who serve in ministry that, “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur.”

I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.  A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.

handsThe Church, the pope reminds his readers, is always open because God is always open to all.  “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open” (#47).  In addressing the pastoral consequences of this radical openness, the pope tackles a current issue head on:

The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.  These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness.  Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators.  But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.

The pope concludes the chapter by recalling his frequent exhortation that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.  I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”  In his opening of the Holy Door at Saint Peter’s, he challenged us all to be mindful of the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Spirit of the Samaritan.

The God of Israel, Adonai, is the God of all.

ADVENT REFLECTION

In serving others, do we accept the challenge to be missionary, to be constantly reaching out to others rather than sitting in our churches waiting for people to come to us?  Do we act as “arbiters of grace” or “facilitators of grace”?  Are we guilty of treating the Eucharist as a “prize for the perfect” or do we understand Eucharist as Adonai reaching out to all in mercy?  Adonai, the Lord God of Israel, comes to set us all free, and we who serve in any way, are challenged to be instruments of that freedom.

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