Five Advent Reflections

The Following are “Five Advent Reflections”  I have prepared. If these interest you I have prepared them also in PDF format which you can get by clicking here: The Season of Advent

1. Advent is Witnessed by Creation  – Autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. The warmth of summer and vacations seem distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the child-like excitement a winter storm can cause. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, of longing and of expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreathes and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our on-going commitment to come out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. (cf 1 Peter 2:9). A Gospel Song says:  Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.

2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so the cry from Israel went up:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:1-7)

In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come yet we know that sin and injustice still have their terrible effects in our lives and in our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to daily set us free. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us, now we long for him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of his glory and this brings us to the second important meaning of Advent. .

3. Waiting  for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This truth flows directly from Scripture which teaches clearly two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second we cannot know the day or the hour that he will return. In fact, though some signs will precede his coming, the emphasis of Scripture falls upon the suddenness of the event:

  1. He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27),
  2. with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth (1 Th. 5:3)
  3. in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet (1 Cor 15:52).
  4. It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44),
  5. Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security!” (1 Th. 5:3).

Since this is to be the case we must live lives of readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect of the necessity of our readiness. Here too an Old Gospel Song sasy, Ready!? Are you ready? For the coming of the Lord? Likewise, a spiritual counsels, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!

4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgement and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider for example this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).

Some of the imagery used here reminds us of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heavens and a new earth” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American Spiritual summarized the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter by these classic lines, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Here too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses this, God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days Alleluia! For the slaves, the Day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, a day of vindication and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is be living faithfully, holding to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this we have not only have nothing to fear about the Last Day, we eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come and that he has called us to the obedience of faith and promised he will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. And we rehearse for his second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom he finds watchful and ready. In a sense every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every mass the following prayer is said, Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for his glorious return. Only he can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only he can give us joy and make us holy. We have but to yield to his saving work.

And this brings us back to where we started, longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for him is to know how much we need him. To long for him is to constantly seek his face and call upon his name.  Therefore cry out with the Church, “Come Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)

What does Heaven Cost? A Meditation on the "Curse" of Affluence

Heaven costs everything. This is made plain by the parable spoken by the Lord in today’s Gospel:

The Kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides  again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it. (Matt. 13:44-46)

The most common interpretation of this parable is that we have to be willing to forsake everything to obtain heaven. But more radically, the parable isn’t saying we have to be willing to forsake everything, but that we WILL forsake, or at least lose, everything. The question is, will we do this willingly and even with a kind of joy, or will be do so resentfully and die with a hardened heart?

The truth is, there is absolutely nothing that you now have that you will not be required at some point to give up. No thing you think you own is really yours. It is God’s and you and I will give it back. There is no person you love whom you will not have to give back to God.

It has been my experience that I spent most of the first 25 years of my life acquiring but ever since I have been giving back. I have given back my youthful energy, much of the hair on my head, my slender figure, my almost perfect health. Little by little my eyesight and hearing are diminishing. I have had to say goodbye to my grandparents, then I buried my parents. My sister too I have given back to the Lord.

Now the question for me is, do I do this resentfully or with gratitude and acceptance? We live in a time where loss and difficulty in this life is not easily accepted. Loss has never been easy to accept but I am convinced we are especially challenged by the notion of loss and decline. This is because we have obtained a level of comfort and ease unknown to even our most recent ancestors. Electricity, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, endless labor saving devices and abundant consumer products, cheap and widely available, have all brought forth an expectation from most of us moderns that life is supposed to be pleasant and easy. When it is not we are quickly resentful and sometimes even threaten lawsuits. We live so comfortably today that it is rare to hear people in the general population speak of a longing for heaven.

The Older View – Our most recent ancestors often spoke of life as a valley of tears, as an exile. The Salve Regina says, “The thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee we do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears…..after this our exile show unto to us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  This prayer, and others like it were written out the the experience that this life was often unpredictable, filled with sudden turns and sorrows; life could be brutal and short until very recently. In many parts of the world today it still is. This climate produces a much deeper longing for heaven and a sober understanding that this world is not all that fabulous. Even in the affluent West we have to admit, if we sober up for a moment, that life is difficult and that the party we are so “privileged” to be in will end.

Prosperity Gospel? – An old spiritual  says, “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, going home to live with God.” But most people today in the affluent West, even committed Christians, inebriated with the world’s comforts,  speak little of heaven. Often when we pray it is generally some prayer that God make this world a better place: Please Lord, fix my finances, fix my health, get me a better job. It is not wrong to pray for this but when that is all we pray for it is almost as if we were saying to God, “Give me enough comfort, health, and resources and I’ll just stay here forever.” We’ve all been a little infected with the “prosperity gospel.” But when in our prayer do we long for God and to be with him in heaven? When do we ask  him to make us holy and prepare us to meet him? It is natural to have a fear of death but in the end, if we are faithful, death is also to be a longed-for moment that we prepare for with both sobriety and longing,  for it is then that we go to meet God, our heart’s truest longing.

In this sense our comfort and affluence have not blessed us, they have cursed us and made us much harder to save. The Lord remarked how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven (cf Luke  18:24). And we in the affluent and modern west are very rich. Even the poorest among us live like royalty compared to the poor elsewhere. We are much harder to save for we are stubbornly attached to this world and most of us are exceedingly unwilling to sell everything we have for the Kingdom of God. We enjoy our creature comforts far too much to be willing to easily part with them. Paradoxically our losses and suffering can be blessings for us in that they can begin to loose this world’s strong attraction and restore in us a greater longing for heaven and a willingness to leave this inferior kingdom for the greater one. It is strong medicine to be sure and we are not asked to like it but we must learn to accept it.

And acceptance is the key for the medicine to work. That we accept it does not mean we have to like it. Loss is always painful, giving back is hard. But accepting that, in the end, we will one day give back everything we have to God brings a paradoxical serenity. God has something better for us, but it means we have to trust Him and leave here, having given everything back.  It is the refusal to accept this that brings a bitterness, a resentfulness that hardens our heart and makes us very hard to save.

The fact is, the Lord must root from us every attachment and vestige of the world before we can obtain heaven or even want it sufficiently. In the end we will get what we want: heaven at the price of all this, or eternal separation from the God we have grown to resent because we consider the price too high. But the choice is ours. The Kingdom of GOD is like a man who found it and out of JOY goes and sells all that he has. Pray for detachment and a serene acceptance. The price is high, but God has something far better than this valley of tears.

Here is a sermon I preached on this this morning: http://frpope.com/audio/17%20Wed.mp3

The”Look”of Jesus

I have a large Icon of Christ in my room (see right). What icons from the Eastern tradition do best is to capture “the Look.” No matter where I move in the room Christ is looking right at me. His look is intense, though not severe. In the Eastern spirituality Icons are windows into heaven. Hence this icon is no mere portrait that reminds one of Christ, it is an image which mediates his presence. When I look upon him, I experience that he knows me. It is a knowing look and a comprehensive look.

The Book of Hebrews says of Jesus, No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account. (Heb 4:13). But his look in the Icon is not fearsome, it is serene and confident. Hence the text from Hebrews goes on to say, Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. (Heb 4:14-16)          

Particularly in Mark’s Gospel there is great emphasis on the eyes and the look of Jesus. A frequent expression in that Gospel is “And looking at them He said….”  Such a phrase or version like it occurs over 25 times in Mark’s Gospel referring to Jesus. Looking on Christ, and allowing him to look on you is a powerful moment of conversion. Jesus himself said, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (Jn 6:40) and the First Letter of John says, What we shall later be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed  we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is(1 Jn 3:2).

Keep looking to the Lord in this Easter season, especially in the Most Blessed Sacrament and also in the art that most moves you. Look at him and let him look at you.

This video is a wonderful collection of  many of the looks of Jesus and the reaction of the people that follows that look. Pay special attention to it. The video also features a lot of “looks” that come from us. Notice how people look upon Jesus, and how they as human beings react as they look on Jesus. Look for the “looks” in this video. The final looks are especially moving.

I am not’giving up’anything for Lent.

Lent is rightfully associated with sacrifice and self-denial. It is intended to remind us of the sacrifice Christ made for us and for our sins. It is a time for us as Christians to repent and reconcile ourselves with God. Part of that tradition is to deny ourselves a convenience or two in the hope of growing closer to God.

What are you ‘giving up’ for Lent?

I will do exactly that for the next few weeks. However, when someone asks, “What are you giving up for lent?” I proudly respond – “Nothing! I am letting go of a thing or two but, I am not giving up anything. Rather, I am gaining faith and growing closer to God!”

Gaining spiritual fulfillment

The point of letting go of a favorite food, hobby or other material indulgence is to remind us that we can be plenty happy without those things. Letting go of such things leaves room for spiritual fulfillment. And spiritual fulfillment can be much longer lasting.

When I eliminate watching TV during dinner (my personal Lenten ‘sacrifice’), I gain the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with my wife. And such a conversation is spiritually fulfilling. When I let go of a favorite dessert, I gain an appetite for something healthy. When I let go of almost any extraneous material desire, the void is filled with a greater love for Christ.

Letting go

Lent is a wonderful time of the year. I don’t have to “give up” a thing. Rather, I “let go” of some things and what I gain in return is a Divine bargain. I would love to hear what you are “letting go” and what you hope to gain in return. Happy Lent everyone!

Good Grief

As a priest I walk with a lot of people in their grief. It’s a regular part of priesthood but lately it’s been hard and heavy:

  • A parishioner lost her 4 year old nephew when, climbing on a dresser, it fell over on him and he was killed
  • Another parishioner lost her 25 year old son, know well to us all, when he was shot to death.
  • Our beloved receptionist at the parish went home last Friday, apparently healthy,  and died in her sleep.
  • The mother of our previous pastor, known and loved by all in this parish died last week after a long illness.

Grief is one of the most painful and terrible emotions we can experience. It can crush us like a ton of bricks or loom over us like a dark cloud. Sometimes in sudden loss we just go numb only to discover that numbness is not a lack of feeling at all. It is a feeling, a kind of general malaise lurking in us like a low grade depression. Grief sometimes comes in cycles. One day we think we are finally getting better and suddenly we’re back in the soup, for no particular reason we can discern and we wonder what we did wrong.

Grief just has a life of its own. I often tell people that you can’t get around grief you just have to go through it and experience it to its top. It seldom lets us off the hook. It has something to say to us, something to give us.

I have often thought the gift that grief gives us is love. Many years ago Simon and Garfunkel sang the song “I am a Rock, I am an Island.” The song celebrated a loveless solitude and declared “If I never loved I never would have cried.” The final line of the song said, “And a rock feels no pain, and an Island never cries.”  Perhaps they do not. But we who love do cry and grieve. And it is precisely the grief that can deepen our love.

Many years ago (1990) my sister died in a fire. She had been mentally ill all her life and I struggled to relate to her. In many ways I feared her. When I first got news she had died in the fire I just went numb. We in the family wondered if we might be able to view her body or not. The funeral director told us we could view her privately but since her skin has been singed in the fire it was too delicate to touch her. Further, because of this,  he had not been able to adjust her face in any way. Nevertheless he thought she was presentable enough for the family to have a private viewing. We I looked upon my sister and saw her face it was very clear that she was crying when she died. For the first time in my life I wept for my sister and lamented the awful mental illness that had caused her such hardship. For the first time I understood her dignity. I guess I am sorry that it took her death for me to come to that appreciation and love of her. But that was the gift that my grief gave me, it intensified my love for my sister. I still cry from time to time when I think of that moment. It was painful but it was a gift and it remains so.

If we let it, our grief will bring us gifts in strange packages. Because of it our love and respect for those we have lost is intensified. Our longing for union with them one day again is deepened and our memories of them become more precious. It is true that the intensity of grief may lessen over the years but most of us know it never completely departs. Why should it? If we love there should always be a part of us that cannot bear to be apart from those we love. We grieve because we love and thank God we love, thank God we love.

Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try and find anything. We must simply hold out and win through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but keeps it empty so that our communion with each other may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain. Dietrich Bonhoeffer  – Letters from Prison

Here is a video that depicts grief. I hope you’ll listen closely to the words of the song for they eloquently describe grief. The video portion shows a young woman lamenting the loss of her boyfriend. She struggles to be free of her grief even to the point of tearing up one of his letters. But the problem is not on the paper, it is in her heart. The only way to respect her grief and be free of its strongest shakles is to accept the gift it brings, love undying.

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.

U2, Doubt, and Faith

In honor of  U2’s phenomenal show last night at FedEx Field (“Cardinal McCarrick is in the house!” -Bono) I’d like to discuss the themes in their hit “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.  In 1987, the song was performed during their Rattle & Hum celebration tour at Madison Square Garden featuring the gospel choir, New Voices of Freedom. It is a powerful arrangement, and today I found the original video on YouTube.

You would think, by the joyful praising of the choir, that they are singing about faith, but the song clearly states that this person has considered the Jesus thing but still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. When asked by Rolling Stone about the meaning of the song, Bono himself said it was an “anthem of doubt more than faith”.

How can someone say “You broke the bonds and You loosed ths chains” and yet doubt? How can someone say “You know I believe it” and yet still be searching?  Interestingly, there is a line in the new U2 song Crazy that says, “How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?”

I think the answer comes down to a person’s daily life experience. When I am having a philosophical or theological argument with someone about some specific topic, I always end up wanting to ask the questions, What in your life would have to change if you changed your view? Would you have to create a new relationship with your mother? Would you have to stop sleeping with your significant other? Would you have to make time in your schedule to serve? Would you have to start taking better care of your body?

We all know people who seem to be very stubborn in their lack of faith. Conversation after conversation, they still won’t budge. But I would suggest being a little more curious about their daily life experience. What are they holding on to? What are they scared of on the other side of of the doubt/faith decision? Far more than any rational argument, your curiosity, love, and personal concern may be what they are looking for. And may be the reason they stop looking, and believe.

What are You Longing For? Guess What? It’s God!

Just below is a wonderful new reflection from Fr. Robert Barron. In it he ponders the growing secularism of the day. In many ways, especially in Europe, faith has been almost completely kicked to the curb. Questions about who is God…Who am I in relationship to him….what is the meaning and destiny of my life…..Questions like these have been suppressed; dismissed as irrelevant.

But here’s the problem: We are wired for God! We have within us an infinite longing, an unlimited desire for completion and fulfillment. God has written his name on our hearts and we simply cannot be happy without his ultimate presence and place in our heart. Oh, I know, many claim they can, but in the end we all know its a lie. This world simply does not satisfy us. It is limited and our desire is unlimited. Sooner or later we confront the absurdity of the world’s claim to be cure for what ails us. Go ahead, get it all: power money, sex, popularity, possessions, even people. I promise you it won’t be enough. And even if you do get it all, then you die, end of story.

In the end, we are made for God. The modern world may have kicked God to the curb but the absurdity of that becomes more and more evident as we descend further into addiction, lust, unhappiness, stress, suicide, you name it. You may say “We have always had these.”  Yes, but the doses are so much higher today. For all our creature comforts, (and we have many), we seem less happy, less content, less fulfilled, more stressed out more suicidal, more addicted, more divorced or never married, more  than those who went before us without all the comforts we “enjoy.”

Living without God is painful. We are wired for God. All those longings, yearnings, the sighing with you? It’s about God:

  • Our hearts were made for thee Oh Lord and they will not rest till they rest in thee.”  (St. Augustine Confessions Book 1 Chapter 1)
  • Come,” says my heart, “seek God’s face”; your face, LORD, do I seek! (Ps 27:8)

Maybe It’s God!

All of us face many trials and difficulties in this world that serve to remind us that we are really in a foreign land, far from home. The world can bewilder us, and beguile us, disappoint us and demand of us. But what if our dissatisfaction with this world was not merely a selfishness, or a lack of gratitude for what we have? What if this dissatisfaction is supposed to be there? If your desire is infinite and insatiable, unlimited and unremitting, maybe its about God. Why should this world satisfy you? It is puny and passing compared to your heart’s truest longing. Maybe it’s God you are really longing for!

This video is entitled “Come to Jesus.” It was  produced for young people but if you still have any of that “young at heart” in you you’ll enjoy this beautiful invitation.