The scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent (Nov 29, 2015) are identical to those from 2012.Preparations are almost done and family celebration begins at 4:30 PM. Since the lectionary repeats Sunday scripture readings every three years. I'm recycling my refections from 2012.
Happy New (liturgical) Year. The year begins on the First Sunday of Advent (December 2nd). It starts a new cycle of scripture readings. This year the gospel readings will be drawn primarily from Luke.
This Sunday we will hear scriptures looking in two directions. We prepare to celebrate an event which took place in the past - the Birth of Christ. At the same time, we look forward to a second coming. Jeremiah (33:14-16) Promises that
"In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety."
The gospel reading is from Luke 21. Scripture scholars tell us this was written in the context of the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The language is apocalyptic and frightening - as indeed the destruction was.
While the second coming may not happen in this precise context, we can be sure that it will be dramatic and a surprise. The message for this Sunday is: be awake, prepared, hopeful and a little nervous.
The liturgical year ends with scriptures about Christ as the king and the nature of the coming kingdom. Since the lectionary follows a three year cycle, I’m providing links to what I wrote in 2014, 2013 and 2012. These are three different looks at the same question. I’d love to hear your comments. (Go here for the readings for this Sunday (Nov. 22, 2015)
It (the feast) was placed on the calendar in 1931 by Pope Pius the 11th. He wanted to counter the tendency of many people to see their political parties as identical or superior to God’s Kingdom. This tendency is still with us, especially among political progressives and Tea Party members. We need to remember John 18:36-38
From C.S. Lewis: “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.
The scripture readings for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Nov.15, 2015) call to mind our modern concerns about living in a hostile culture. Stories of Starbucks coffee cups and the "Christmas wars" fill social media as evidence of a cultural hostility to Christians. IMO, Christian displays of indignation at media portrayals is self-defeating. We need a different attitude towards the culture in which we find ourselves. Three years ago we had the same readings for the 33rd Sunday I suggested a different attitude. Here is my reflection from November 18, 2012
Not There Yet, What Now?
November 18, 2012
We come to the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Nov 18). Next Sunday will end the liturgical year on the Feast of Christ the King. This week the readings focus on end times, a subject that brings forth extensive discussion among scholars and theologians. I will leave this alone, instead offering some words to my many friends who are convinced that the past election was a disaster for our country. We have all heard the complaints: 1) the culture is degraded - it is - 2) fiscal disaster awaits our country; 3) we are in a hostile world. Christian conservatives have much reason to be worried. They ask: How are we to live when we are in Enemy-occupied territory, as C.S. Lewis, put it.
Scripture scholars tell us that the earliest Christians lived - and wrote - in the expectation that the end times would come within their lifetime. As time went by, they began to ask how they were to live if the end times would be far in the future. In short: "No, we are not there yet. What do we do now?"
Rather that exploring Lewis, I'd like to focus on another metaphor: living in exile. In 587 the Babylonians conquered Israel and deported many to live in Babylon as slaves under an alien god. Their entire identity and way of worship lost, the Jews wondered: "What now? How are we to live in exile? They got an answer in a letter from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 29:4-13):
"4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
It is time to set aside the animosities of the political campaign. Some of those helped conservatives delude themselves into believing that the election was close, even when Romney never had a better than 40% chance of winning. If, as Jeremiah advised, we can pray for the country to prosper, we too will prosper. Yes, we do need to resist the "prophets and diviners" who will promise prosperity but lead us to chasing prosperity as an idol. But before that we need to pray for our country and work for its well being. We need to do this with all our hearts.
We reflect on this as we listen to an appeal from the Catholic Diocese of Richmond $65 million fund drive and balance this appeal with our other responsibilities and desires.
We hear this gospel on the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. Here is my post of November 13, 2006 (the lectionary repeats the gospels in a three year cycle). The story should give us pause - not for reasons of money. I've repeated the post here and added a few comments at the end.
In Sunday’s gospel reading (Mk 12:38-44 ) we hear three contrasting positions on the use of money:
The scribes – glory seeking religious leaders of the day – rapaciously consume the savings of poverty stricken widows.
Rich people who put large sums in the temple treasury
A widow who gave the last of her meager savings to the temple – “all she had, her whole livelihood."
Through the years, I’ve heard this gospel interpreted as a criticism of the rich for failing to contribute even larger sums. The meaning is different and in many ways more challenging than a surface appeal for more funds. To get to the meaning, it helps to compare this story with the advice of St. Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, (Chapters 8 and 9.)
This gospel passage led to extensive discussion among my friends at lunch on Friday and at home over the weekend. Here are some observations:
In the gospel Jesus offers a criticism of the scribes,
Jesus recognizes – but does not criticize – the rich for contributing large sums, and
He contrasts the behavior of both with the widow.
The behavior of the three reveals a spiritual reality about wealth. The possession of wealth can be poison, making one so grasping that it leads to power and glory-seeking as well as a willingness to defraud the poor. Wealth can lead to contributions of large sums – presumably on-going behavior on the part of the rich people. The widow’s willingness to “contribute all she had, her whole livelihood” is also a reflection of psychological and spiritual reality. Most of us are willing “to turn over our lives and wills to the care of God” only after we have been through a dark night and learned that our wealth cannot save us. One wonders what led the rich people to be so generous.
These observations led to a set of questions:
How should any of us decide how generous we should be with our funds?
Assuming that the “rich people” know that the scribes were mis-spending funds“ on honor and glory, even to the point devouring the houses of widows,” what was their responsibility?
How do we choose among contributions to the temple or to other worth-while charities?
What happens if we interpret the phrase “all that she had” to mean more than just finances?
We get some help on the first question from 2 Corinthians 8. (Note that this letter is Christianity’s first direct mail solicitation of funds!) Paul praises the Macedonians who gave
“according to their means, I can testify, and beyond their means, ..”(2 Cor. 8:6)
Then he gives the people of Corinth some different advice on how much to give:
"For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have; not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your surplus at the present time should supply their needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality."
This advice doesn’t let the Corinthians off the hook. While they need not impoverish themselves, they – and the rest of us – still need to determine how much is surplus.
2 Cor. 9:6-7 offers more advice on how to how to discern how we should contribute, and on where we should make our contributions:
"Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."
First, there is the matter of trust. We are reminded that if we sow generously we will reap generously. Recall, that in the gospel, the “rich people” put “large sums” into the temple treasury. Second, we can’t evade personal responsibility by acceding to the requests of the scribes. Each of must give what (and to whom) we have “decided in (our) own heart” is the appropriate. We are not to yield to compulsion or be reluctant. Third, what are we to do if we are reluctant or not cheerful about the amount we are asked to give?
Acknowledge to ourselves and to God that our gift is not cheerful.
Reflect on our reasons for being reluctant. The rich people should have been reluctant. If they realized that the scribes were merely using their contributions so that they could “go around in long robes” and “accept places of honor.”
If we are reluctant because we sense that our contributions are being misspent, we should speak up to the temple authorities – as Jesus often did.
If, after speaking up, we find that the scribes are continuing to misspend funds, “devour the houses of widows” (or, not to put too sharp a point on it, the innocence of young children,) we are not excused from our obligation to contribute. We are decide in our own hearts where and how much to give. The rich people might have given generously to the widows instead of the scribes. The scribes might have paid attention.
If, after all of that, we are still not cheerful, we should give less and ask God for more guidance. There will be further opportunities to give.
Lastly, what happens if we broaden the question beyond finances? What if we interpret the widow’s “all that she had” to apply to our time and talents, as well as our treasures?
My wife is a teacher. There are many days when she gives all that she has, in terms of professional skills and caring, to her students. Three of our four children are working for universities. The fourth is a teacher. Each of them could do much better financially in another occupation, yet they are giving all of their professional skills as educators. One of my confirmation sponsees, is now managing a grocery store. He can give all that he has of his professional skills so that customers can purchase food a fair price and his employees can earn fair wages.
Saturday we watched The Longest Day in honor of Veteran's day and of my wife’s uncle Raymond who was in the invasion at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. The men who died there gave all that they had, or as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, “the last full measure of devotion.”
Don’t let the preachers fool you. The story about the widow’s mite represents an challenge much greater than just fattening the collection basket.
Comment added on November 8, 2012: We don't know if the "rich people" of Jesus' time recognized that scribes were "devouring the homes of widows." Had they recognized it, the should have spoken up, instead of showering the temple with large sums. Today we do know that the Bishops are collectively looking the other way while a few priests devour the innocence of children. We need to speak up. A contribution to Voice of the Faithful is a way to start.
In the Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence would acknowledge his shortcomings and mistakes by saying to God, “If You don’t help me, I will probably do it again.” This was spiritual poverty, acknowledging the need for grace, even in small things.
George Marshall, with his iron sense of propriety, is another example. He grew up in poverty, barely gained admission to the Virginia Military Institute,was a poor student and outstanding cadet. He served with absolute dedication to fulfill the duties of each position. His strong sense of propriety meant that he never asked for any special honor or recognition. This may not have been humility but it was a code that he kept. He was Chief of Staff during WWII, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, father of the Marshall Plan and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. He left these instructions for his funeral:
“Bury me simply, like any ordinary officer of the U.S. Army who has served his country honorably. No fuss. No elaborate ceremonies. Keep the service short, confine the guest-list to the family. And above everything, do it quietly.”
As we look at the scriptures for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 27, 2015) we see leaders afraid to share their gifts and privileges. Prophecy and the power to drive away evil, is not to be shared. In the first reading (NM 11:25-29) the seventy elders go to Moses asking him to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying. Moses answers:
"Are you jealous for my sake?
Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!
Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!"
Then in the gospel (Mk (:38-48), we hear John objecting that someone is “driving out demons in your name.” Like the elders of Moses, the disciples have begun to hoard their power to do good. They do not want it shared. Jesus gives this answer:
Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward. (italics added)
The disciples were having a natural reaction, one that many of us experience. We do this when get involved in a spiritual program or church movement. (Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, Contemplative Outreach, Secular orders are examples.) We may become deeply involved in a particular parish or approach to social activism. These causes are fruitful and meaningful to us. Then one day we see someone else involved in the same effort and they are not doing it the way we were taught. Our natural response to oppose this new way of doing things. We need to step back and wish, with Moses, that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all - in whatever way the Lord choses.
We can learn to distinguish false and true leadership through the scriptures for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 20, 2015). In the gospel (Mk 9:30-37) we will hear that the disciples were arguing while on their way to Capernaum. Once there Jesus
…began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.
They got this lesson in leadership:
“If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. This desire, in one of its forms, has indeed had ample justice done to it in literature. I mean, in the form of snobbery. Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society.
Often the desire conceals itself so well that we hardly recognize the pleasures of fruition. Men tell not only their wives but themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office or the school on some bit of important extra work which they have been let in for because they and So-and-so and the two others are the only people left in the place who really know how things are run.
Lewis recognized that the inner ring is necessary and even useful - but we need to ask ourselves what we will do in order to gain entry and remain “on the inside.”
Potomac Fever (n): A disease peculiar to the greater Washington, DC, metropolitan area that presents chiefly as an intense desire in the infected to be associated with the power and prestige of the United States Federal Government, particularly the Executive Branch. Associated symptoms include acts of extreme obsequiousness to those in power or likely to be in power; asserting as fact things one knows or suspects not to be true and; a burning desire to do more work for less pay.
I knew and felt that fever. Early in my career as an intelligence analyst I was given entry to specially guarded doors. These doors, I suspected were named after the song “Green Door.” Much of our work was painstakingly detailed and mundane. Yet in the process we got to read and analyze highly restricted documents concerning the 1983 war scare and Ryszard Kuklinski. He was a heroic and influential Polish Colonel whose role in the end of the cold war is, IMO, under-appreciated.
While all of this was satisfying, and we treasure the hope that our analysis may have contributed to the end of the cold war, I’m reminded that gospel based leadership is very different.
Pope Francis understands Mk 9:30-37. Can anyone suggest political, academic, business or church leaders who do? Do we?
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”
Thomas Keating’s explanation of this saying is set forth very clearly here. Repentance is much less a matter of voluntary acceptance of physical suffering through fasting, sackcloth or other methods. Rather it means to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness.
We have been searching in directions learned from our youth. We busy ourselves executing behavioral “programs for happiness.” At some point we discover that they don’t work - but they have become what Keating calls our false self. When we are told that we will have to give it up, we will feel like we are being asked to give up our life. In the end we will live better without this false self. Having lost what we thought was our life, we will save our life, just as the gospel says.
The person most surprised at Donald Trump’s political success (so far) is - Mr. Trump. While I can only guess at his motives for getting into the race, he was frustrated at the inability of government to get things done. Perhaps it was out of resentment, maybe out of plain frustration, but when he declared he thought h himself a doer. Now he finds himself a popular politician and, like Robert Redford, at the end of The Candidate, he has to ask “What do we do now?”
This week’s thought on Mr. Trump: The shrewdest words on him from another candidate were Chris Christie’s observation a month ago that Mr. Trump will be as good a candidate as he wants to be, which implied that others would not bring him down, but he could bring himself down. My thought, which is really a question, is that candidates for president, while natural competitors, sometimes get to the point where they think they are going to win, and it messes with their heads. Maybe they fear, deep down, that they’re not quite up to the office—their skills don’t match its demands, their psychological makeup can’t withstand its burdens. They start to think: A guy like me shouldn’t be president! At that point they begin to undermine themselves with poor decisions and statements. I’ve wondered about what Mr. Trumps’s inner workings might tell him in this area. Sooner or later we’ll find out if he has any taste for self-sabotage.
That of course would only happen if in his mind the White House, the office of the presidency, holds a certain mystique, certain historic vibrations: “Lincoln walked here.” “ FDR found out about Pearl Harbor in this room.” I’m not sure everyone has those feelings anymore. They used to. Poor Nixon wouldn’t put his shoes up on a hassock unless he covered it with a towel, because it was White House furniture.
I understand that Trump has raised the hopes of many who are frustrated with politicians and the inability of government to change. I’m surprised at the number of people who support him when it seems to me that they should not. To me, Trump should go back and read Mt. 5:21-24:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
Evangelical voters, it seems to me, should be opposed to Trump on this basis alone -even if untroubled by his three marriages. Yet many favor him. Go here for Richard Ostling’s discussion of this phenomenon.
My hope is that Mr. Trump will look at his base, highly vocal and many of them angry. He will look at the potential of arousing anger and hate-filled attitude and wonder: “Can I control this? What will happen if I don’t.” Then, out of patriotism, he will change tactics. This is a hope, not an analysis. I have no idea of what those tactics would be.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.
In Mark (7:31-37) Jesus takes a deaf man who has a speech impediment, touches his ears and tongue and says “Ephphatha” be opened. In Mark we find a hope that the promise of Isaiah is being made real.
Yet when we look a James 2:1-5, we find that it is not just our eyes and ears that must be open. Our hearts must be open as well. James tells us that we are to “show no partiality” towards the people we welcome to the assembly. The rich, poor, respected and disreputable should all be welcome.
“As Pope Francis has written of St. Francis of Assisi in “Laudato Si’,” “He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace” (No. 10). They are not odd pieces of a puzzle that will not fit together but integral pieces that are all necessary for the puzzle to come together.”
If all things are connected as part of God’s creation we will find that favoring one cause (such as environmental or pro-life) over another can make us ideologically blind and deaf. We can test the extent to which our political beliefs have clouded our vision by reflecting on this extract from Pope Francis’ Laudato Si
A correct relationship with the created world demands that we not weaken this social dimension of openness to others, much less the transcendent dimension of our openness to the “Thou” of God. Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence.
120. Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”.
121. We need to develop a new synthesis capable of overcoming the false arguments of recent centuries.
If this extract makes us uncomfortable, we need to ask if our political and social beliefs have closed our eyes, ears and hearts.