1st Reading – Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11
Some scholars suggest that this prophet may have delivered this uplifting message to his people while standing among the ruins that had once been Jerusalem. With these words of hope, they could begin to rebuild their city – and their lives. It was the ‘year of favor’ from the Lord. A ‘Year of Favor’, or a Jubilee Year, was a time of social reconciliation and economic restitution according to Leviticus 25: 9-19, 23-55. The land was to rest without planted crops. The poor could eat freely of whatever ‘wild crops’ grew. Property that had been once seized, borrowed, or rented was to be returned to its rightful owner. Slaves were to be set free. All debts were to either be remitted or forgiven. For such was the favor and forgiveness that Israel had experienced at God’s hand. (Celebration, December 15, 2002) When you experience and know this kind of joy, you want to DO something about it.
Henri Nouwen reflecting on joy in Here and Now:
Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away…Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety…Joy does not depend on the ups and downs of the circumstances of our lives. Joy is based on the spiritual knowledge that, while the world in which we live is shrouded in darkness, God has overcome the world…God’s light is more real than all the darkness.
2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24
As we wait with joy and hope for the many ways the Christ will come and does come, we are called to be faithful – and faith-filled – living with a trust in the amazing love of our God. Paul is trying to encourage three ways of living that are important: prayer-living, discerning-awareness, and wholesome-holiness. These three ways will help us to experience Christ in our lives no matter the circumstances. Let us not ‘quench the Spirit’ of Life and Love that is offered to us. This is a Christmas gift worth opening and using! (Celebration, December 15, 2002)
In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy…Love wholeheartedly, be surprised, give thanks and praise-then you will discover the fullness of your life. ~ Br. David Steindl-Rast
The Gospel – John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in. ~Leonard Cohen
Maybe John the Baptist saw the crack, and helps us see the light coming through it.
This gospel may seem out place with the other two readings. We have been prepared with joy and hope; we have been encouraged with positive words and messages. But John’s message in this gospel is filled with negations: “I am not the Messiah, not Elijah, nor the Prophet . . .” He knew himself to be the “voice of one crying in the desert.” Yet, in that solitary truth and task he found joy. There is comfort and assurance in knowing who we are and what our calling is. There is joy in knowing how to look for the “one who is to come.” John is incomplete by himself: so are we! Let us with John be expectant in the midst of a desert – looking for light in the midst of darkness. Even a tiny flicker of light can dispel the darkest gloom. Maybe then we will be free to discover the many and various ways the Lord Jesus Christ comes into our lives. (Living with Christ, December, 2011, p. 123)
The 1st Reading – Baruch 5: 1-9
This short, prophetic book was claimed to be from the hand of the famous secretary of Jeremiah, but theologians think it was more likely written later (between third and first century BC) as a work of encouragement to those Jews being forced to adopt Greek ways (Reading the Old Testament, Boadt, 502-503).
A mitre, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is a headdress worn by archbishops, bishops and abbots. It is also a joint between 2 pieces of wood to form a corner. A cornerstone, in particular, is a stone at the base that binds 2 walls. The cornerstone must be strong and secure for the integrity of the building. God is in your corner! Do you wear God like a mitre, to advance secure in God’s glory?
The Greek word for justice more closely means doing what is right. If we try to do what is right, we will display God’s glory and splendor. What does that mean to you? Think deeply about that question. Doing what we feel is right within us is what is right with God. This is what brings joy and mercy into the world. What wonderful thoughts to have this Advent!
The 2nd Reading — The Letter to the Philippians 1: 4-6, 8-11
Paul had established this church in about 50AD (the first Christian church on European soil). It was one of Paul’s favorite churches. Paul was in prison (probably in Rome) when Epaphroditus, an old friend from Philippi, arrived bearing more gifts from this church. Unfortunately, Epaphroditus became very sick. Later, he recovered and Paul was anxious for him to return home so that those who are worried about him will be relieved. Paul sent this letter with him. Despite the hardship and imprisonment, Paul’s letter is full of thanksgiving and joy, a very personal letter filled with strong emotions. (Serendipity, p. 375)
This is a love letter. Paul’s love for the people of Philippi is bursting in his words, and he wants that love he has for them to have an effect. Love is powerful! It moves people. It changes us. It makes us want goodness. And since God is love, of course it makes sense that love transcends and transforms all that is. When has someone’s love transformed you? When has it opened your eyes to something? How does love make a difference?
The Gospel – Luke 3: 1-6
Have you ever celebrated the sacrament of reconciliation privately? Most people admit that they are nervous on arrival but relieved afterwards…like a weight has been lifted. There is a freedom in knowing that God comes to us where we are. God takes us “AS IS”. Sometimes you may see items on sale “AS IS” and that usually means they are damaged goods or less than adequate. God makes us ready for to be full price again! And God’s love is the same no matter what condition we are in. We are beloved, which is what John the Baptist proclaimed LOUDLY!
From Living Liturgy, 2004: Salvation – the fullness of life that our God wishes to offer us – is revealed – or shows forth – in our repentance. To repent means to change one’s mind – one’s life. Our work of repentance is about turning ourselves toward God who wishes to embrace us in mercy, forgiveness, and love. Sometimes, mountains of work, or paths of indecision, or valleys of doubt and fear keep us from the Lord’s embrace – the Way of the Lord. It is a reading that seems more like a civil engineer’s road plans. But it is only this God who can give sure direction to our lives. Let God re-engineer our lives. This Advent may we take the time to rest in the security of God’s nearness. (p.6). Then our ‘tense hearts’ can be eased opened to receive Jesus, the true Good News.
Luke takes great care to situate the ministry of John the Baptist and thus Jesus in
the midst of human history. He mentions both secular leaders (Tiberius, Pilate, Herod etc.) and religious authorities (Annas and Caiphas). It is sort of like a “chronological drumroll.” He also chooses to include all of Isaiah’s directives (Isaiah 40:3-5) leading to the universal cry of “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (God’s universal and pastoral care for all peoples is a major theme of Luke’s gospel and his Acts of the Apostles.) When we dare to try to put someone or some group outside of God’s saving concern, we should remember this theme. This Good News of Jesus Christ is intended to disrupt and disturb us until it enlarges our hearts, enlightens our minds, and unclenches our fists to welcome the truth of God’s love for all human flesh. (Celebration, Dec.10, 2000)
God breaks into human history through the birth of Jesus. By the incarnation of the Word, God enters human life, history, the world. But the Incarnation also makes it possible for us to enter the very life of God. Through the Incarnation, God became part of our eating and drinking, our sickness, our joy, our delight, our passion, our dying, our death. But all this is for the purpose of drawing us out of ourselves, away from our own self-preoccupation, self-absorbtion, self-fixation, so as to participate in the divine life (Altogether Gift, Michael Downey, p. 79).
Philippians: Overview and Chapter 1
Let us pray…
Glorious Saint Paul, most zealous apostle,
Martyr for the love of Christ,
Give us a deep faith, a steadfast hope,
A burning love for our Lord,
So that we can proclaim with you,
“It is no longer I who live,
But Christ who lives in me.”
Help us to become apostles,
Serving the Church with a pure heart,
Witnesses to her truth and beauty
Amidst the darkness of our days.
With you we praise God our Father:
“To him be the glory, in the Church
And in Christ, now and forever.” Amen
Philippians is undoubtedly a letter that Paul actually wrote. It was on his second missionary journey, about the year 52AD. He had been urged by the vision of a man in Macedonia to come and help, so he sailed from Alexandrian Troas in Asia Minor.
The story of Paul’s stay in Philippi is told in Acts 16. Paul is illegally imprisoned because of an encounter with a slave girl with an oracular spirit. He has to leave the city, but a bond of friendship develops between him and the Philippian community unlike any other (Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, p. 4-6).
- A prominent town in the Roman province of Macedonia
- The Via Egnatia is the road constructed by the Romans in 2nd Century BC. Paul would have used this road when leaving Philippi to Thessalonica.
- Agricultural plains and gold mines nearby. On those plains Oct 42 BC Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius (slayers of Julius Caesar). Octavian made Philippi a Roman colony
- Mimicked Rome in having forums, theaters and coinage inscriptions.
- Strategic site in all of Europe. There is a range of hills which divides Europe from Asia, east from west and just at Philippi there is a dip into a pass. That city commands the road (Barclay, p.3)
- First “church” on European soil, birthplace of Western Christianity (Powell, Introducing the New Testament, p. 346).
- 100 years later, Polycarp speaks of the firmly rooted faith of the Philippians (Brown, An Intro to the New Testament, p. 484).
Structure of Letter
- Prison letter, possibly from when he was in Rome
- Divided in 4 parts
- Epaphroditus: The Philippians sent him to be a personal servant to Paul, but he got sick and had to go back. Paul wanted to be sure they knew he wasn’t a quitter and praised him for his work (while in prison himself!).
- Appeal for Unity
- At 3:2 there is an extraordinary break in the letter, suggesting the possibility of it being 2 separate letters (some say 3). This may be because of fresh news in Philippi, or simply that it’s a personal letter and those are never logically ordered (Barclay, p. 7).
- An upbeat letter, could have been an early Christian hymn. Topics range from friendship, contentment, thanksgiving, peace, joy, unity, spiritual growth, perseverance and the certainty of answered prayer (Powell, p. 343). This community must have been great consolation to Paul to bring up all of these reflections while in prison.
Greeting and Thanksgiving
In other Pauline letters, Paul has to explain why he is writing or the right he has in writing to them. Not so with the Philippians because of how well they know each other. How wonderful to have close spiritual friends! Do you have any, and what joy do they bring to you?
What of the term slave? Paul (and Timothy) are bound to Christ Jesus.
Note that Paul calls all of them saints, or holy ones WITH the overseers and ministers. The Greek for overseer is episkopos, which later came to be a bishop. The Greek word for minister is diakonoi, which later would be a deacon. But ALL are holy and called to serve the Lord.
Paul speaks of joy. The whole point of the letter is I rejoice…do you? Ask yourself what brings you joy in your faith. Prayer? Mass? Being with others in belief? Working towards a mission? Doing what is right? The person of Jesus? The free gift of it? All of this is described in this letter (Barclay, p. 13-15).
Progress of the Gospel
In Paul’s eyes, all publicity is good publicity! Whether Christ is preached with bad motives or not, Christ is proclaimed and that is the mission. The only mission for Paul. He willingly devotes his life to this man he has never met, except in the risen encounter. It is the singularity of Paul’s purpose in life that gives him so much passion, hope, courage and strength. We can learn so much from Paul’s example!
He completely believes and spreads the news of the resurrection. You can hear his inner conflict that he is at peace with dying because he wants to be in the fullness of God; but, he is happy to stay and help his friends in faith too. He knows he will help them on the other side of life too. His conviction is so strong considering how soon this is after Jesus’ death.
Instructions for the Community
In Paul’s mind, oneness in spirit is what holds us strong in our faith. Paul knows that there will be struggle, but there is also hope in the Lord! What does this oneness mean? Richard Rohr uses the term “Oneing,” which he got from Julian of Norwich. She used this term to describe what was happening between her soul and God, “By myself I am nothing at all, but in general, I AM in the oneing of love. For it is in this oneing that the life of all people exists,” (Oneing Vol I No I, p. 12). This oneing can overcome all divisions, dichotomies and dualisms in the world at every level: personal, relational, social, political, cultural, in inter-religious dialogue and spirituality. Richard Rohr says it is the unique and central job of healthy religion (re-ligio = to re-ligament!). What would this oneness look like in your life? How might it help in your struggles?
The Joy of Community: My Visit (and a half) to the Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Americas by Marni Gillard
At St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, I am taking an elective called American Catholicism that requires me to visit a mass culturally different from Kateri parish. My first visit to the noon Spanish Mass at the ShrineChurch in Albany (Lark and Central) will forever linger in memory because I stepped into a sidewalk “imperfection” and fell right in front of the church, fracturing my left fibula. I found myself laughing that my prayers to the Blessed Mother to help me “slow down” have definitely been answered. Less than 10 minutes before, I’d been at a free-dancing class and left with a feeling of perfect inner and outer balance. Dance is prayer for me, a deep connection with the divine and a chance to “hang with” my beloved dead ones. Like song and story, dance lifts me into fantasy and a clearer reality all at once. I connect to my grandmother whose limbs hardly moved from rheumatoid arthritis. I invite her now-freed spirit to dance with me and she does.
I think that day in Albany, Mother Mary offered me a chance to “cross the border” into my grandmother’s disability, just as I was crossing into a different faith community. My fall introduced me instantly to fellow mass-goers with kind faces and strong hands. I didn’t dare stand until the pain subsided. I felt tears come but retreat instantly, an old habit. Eventually with both hands planted on the cement, I got up and then others’ arms supported me up the church steps. At a Welcoming Table, I met more friendship and received a sturdy bag of ice for my now-ballooning left ankle. After many muchas gracias, I asked for names and offered my own. I didn’t like feeling needy and “different” in a sea of Latin faces, but Mary’s compassion, through her beloved ones, flooded me.
I hobbled into the worship space, securing an ice bag to my elevated leg along the pew. Should I stay at all? An older man teased as he sat near me, “Well, you won’t be dancing much for a while I think.” I smiled at this “cultural” friendliness. Our suburban parishioners are friendly, but they don’t often mix flirtation with kindness. My dad, a real Maurice Chevalier, taught me not to disdain men’s playful attentions. I thought, “Yes, I’ll stay. I’ve got ICE!” But when I texted my husband, I knew he’d disapprove of my lingering for the whole mass. The phone’s “ding” showed “CALL ME!” but Mass had started. I texted, “Soon?”
Blessing the parish’s children was fun, watching families with big smiles send little ones toward the sanctuary. Clearly a weekly ritual. A parish member fluent in Spanish lovingly explained the purpose of their leaving for Word-liturgy. The elderly white pastor looked grateful for this lay assistant. The priest got through the mass in Spanish, but clearly it was not his first language. Mine either. A Spanish/English hymnal helped me with the Kyrie and Gloria. Then I stumbled through “Let your mercy be on us, O God, as we place our trust in You,” which I’d sung in English the previous day as Union St.’s psalmist. By the gospel, my ballooning foot warned me to get home. So as others stood, I awkwardly excused myself, using each pew as a crutch. My ice-bag dripped all the way, and white privilege reminded me I find treatment soon, thanks to insurance. That might not be true for those I was leaving.
I returned the next week in a clunky boot, moving slowly. I spotted faces that remembered me. My favorite moment was the congregation’s enthusiastic singing (in Spanish) of the “Our Father” (to the tune of “Sounds of Silence”?) I couldn’t stop smiling, and sure enough found an English version online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHxEkeBiFyc. Everyone also spoke Padre Nuestro, holding hands. My friendly teenage pew-mate this week reached for mine and hugged me wholeheartedly at the passing of La Paz. Suburban teens don’t so easily hug strange adults. I felt too shy to walk around the church as my young pew-mate did, hugging everyone she knew! I enjoyed watching all the families and friends sharing paz and take pleasure in traveling the church. I noticed a festive feel. Some parents kept little ones close, but others allowed children to run off to hug cousins and playmates. Parenting styles vary both within and across cultures I guess. Seeing teen boys hug their elders, as well as pretty peers, made me smile too. I’m a hugger by upbringing, and I liked this ritual which I’ve also experienced at the Black Catholic Church in Menands where I was once a member. Our big parish doesn’t seem to lend itself to such traveling and hugging. And I must admit, after years at St. Helen’s/Kateri, I still don’t know more than a small percentage of parishioners. I enjoy seeing our priest and deacons walk the church for peace-passing. I wonder if we could push through our reserve and try peace-hugging. Hmmm. It does lengthen the service a little.
I did OK on Spanish responses (printed in the book) and liked following readings, though I realized too late we were mid-Apostles Creed, not the Nicene one. I also followed the Spanish Eucharistic Prayer III pretty well and sang Santo Santo Santo and Cordero de Dios (Lamb of God) pretty well. I started to feel at home! Catholic ritual can be a blessing when you are in unfamiliar territory. Both Eucharistic ministers smiled broadly and I noticed how people sing familiar music easily at communion or other times. But unless invited, they just give unfamiliar tunes a try. That’s true everywhere. It takes time for a choir director or psalmist to teach congregants a new song, but in the end, it’s a bonding experience, especially if we can laugh a little. This entire parish applauded wholeheartedly for two teen girls who sang acapella after Communion was over. I like when people clap or laugh in church. That seems to unite us. Those girls looked so pleased. And I noticed a nearby woman quietly singing along with them, perhaps recalling being such a girl.
I didn’t really get the Spanish homily, but having heard all the readings earlier, I sensed the pastor calling us to God’s friendship through His commandments to love. My heart went out to him and to his listeners. Both seemed present to each other across the hurdle of the priest’s effort.
I missed a level of joy I expected to find. It’s something I look for at any Mass. My big Irish family loved Mass for the singing. I can enter joy alone; I learned that at First Communion and deepened my understanding in 4th grade when I first sang morning Mass in Latin. Cantoring once again, in recent months, I’ve tried to send my joy out to others. Sometimes I can feel it connect, like when I story-tell to listeners. Before and after this Shrine Mass, I did see the joy of community as people greeted each other, entering and exiting. But during parts of the Mass I saw a too-familiar mix of boredom and weariness. I guess Mass is where we get to let it all hang out. I do love watching Fr. Bob begin Mass so enthusiastically, then preach with a deep connection to his flock and toss the “napkin” basketball to grinning servers, then hold the host as if he really IS Jesus speaking to his apostles. I can’t help thinking we Catholics who sit in the pews – or wherever we gather – need to work on our joy. God’s love asks it of us, and in our parish we have so much to be grateful for.
At one moment during this second visit to the Shrine Church, I did find a Fr. Bob kind of exuberance in a girl of about 4 or 5. She caught my eye the moment she and her mother arrived. They were fashionably dressed and the tiny girl exuded a Latina Shirley Temple zest. I remembered being such a child once, happy to be in my church dress, watching for family and neighbors to arrive and sit in their “usual” pews. I communed during Mass with my favorite statues of Mary, Jesus and St. Therese to keep away the boredom of grownups doing something I didn’t really get. This little girl was a strong cultural connection for me, as was the teen girl who unhesitatingly hugged me her Paz. Our Lady of the Americas gave them both to me, undoubtedly sweetening my week-ago fall into grace.
The snow hit last night, so 8:30 AM Mass was a difficult service to make. I’m glad I did wake one hour after Adam had cleared the driveway and walkways of snow. We just made it to Mass to join about 20 other brave drivers… and Al was the sole altar server for Mass. It was the only period of time today where I felt successful as a parent and relaxed enough to enjoy some time for reflection… until now?
Before the snow hit hard, we all enjoyed Jade’s school production of Willy Wonka. The kids went to bed late; yet still, perhaps, “all snug in their beds with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.” After church, I ran late running Jade to her matinee performance in the school musical. I lost my patience with attempting to write my annual Christmas letter (due to Alejandro’s constant demands to download more Apps and videos). He got shipped to work with Dad at the rink, and I could escape my guilt of using “screens” as a babysitter again. My nightly visions “dancing in my head” are predominantly only of “what I needed to do!” and “ways I was falling short!” Every year it seems those lists grow exponentially. I hope it is just nostalgia that makes me think it was so much easier to put on Christmas when the kids were tots.
Like many others, financial stresses seem to grow these days rather than subside despite the fact that I went back to work once the kids started school. Will I stop questioning my decision to NOT teach but work as an hourly-paid aide so I can be present for my kids after school rather than grading English class compositions? (I’ve always justified this decision as a balance between still wanting to work with kids and Adam’s around-the-clock demands of managing the athletic facilities at Union College, sitting on the Youth Hockey Board, coaching youth and women’s club hockey, working as a referee, staying tuned to ESPN updates, and all the phone calls, texts, emails… With the stress of budgeting bills instead of just paying them off each month, nostalgia for the heedless bliss of two incomes and no kids has regretfully also come into existence.
Then there’s that nagging trait of thinking it’s not good enough, so I just have to strive harder toward perfection. I get home–sometimes bruised or bitten–from working with kindergarteners with social/emotional needs, nearly always emotionally drained. I pride myself in gaining more empathy (rather than disdain or blaming them) for their life situations and reactions to them. Yet, when I arrive home, I’m physically exhausted. Why can’t I find it thrilling to attempt explaining multiplying and dividing mixed numbers with my son? Why is driving across town to take Jade to hockey and walking the dog outside the rink during her practice not filling me with serenity? Why can’t I take pride in buying the precooked meal deal and timing my arrival home with a rare break in Adam’s work schedule so we can all sit together? Since returning to work, I find myself having to predominantly act reactively to what is thrown at me rather than having the time to be proactive. (I took pride in being proactive when I was teaching). I wasn’t the hockey goalie growing up—reactive is not my forté! I was going to live like Thoreau; write a Great American novel or one good poem.
I understand that even in the days of Leave it to Beaver or even The Brady Bunch, working class people couldn’t relate to how rewarding domestic life was supposed to be. Still, there’s this side of me that wants desperately to live like June Cleaver. I know life back then wasn’t so rosy for even the upwardly mobile middle-class; that is, it was closer to Betty Draper from Mad Men… and I am certainly glad to live without all the sexism, infidelity, and alcohol abuse portrayed in that setting. (I think I’d like the clothes though!). But I guess being upset that life isn’t what it’s supposed to be is the whole problem.
Hence, why I wish it was more Advent than Christmas time. Advent is a more reflective time. It’s not getting caught up in “Christmas”, but taking time to reflect on what Christmas should mean… in the abstract not material sense. So the kids are going to be disappointed that they don’t get all the THINGS they want. I’m upset that my house isn’t sparkling clean and orderly as well as decorated to the nines… looking like a gingerbread creation. We can’t get a new car—yet—and we won’t pay the bills off until the tax refund. (Yeah, that instead of the Disney vacation or new furniture.) Adam being upset that the Cardinals didn’t win the World Series is just as trivial as the rest of my supposedly grave concerns.
This is as good as it gets, and maybe that’s pretty good! Being a perfect parent isn’t being perfect. I can’t explain fractions no matter how I try. I couldn’t make better lasagna than Stouffers anyway. We still have a home. I got to see most of my family this year, and we all will see Adam’s side over Christmas. What more could one want for Christmas? Even if my kids don’t get many new clothes or electronics, they are healthy and growing into better people every day. I make a difference in my job… even if it’s not getting kindergarteners to pass a common core test; but rather, they feel better about themselves by learning to deal with disappointment, self-regulate their behavior issues, and become more disciplined students. Adam’s hard work heats the house and puts food on the table. Really, isn’t life about wanting what you have instead of getting what you want? I think if we all just take time to reflect on what makes us truly happy, we won’t get caught up in achieving Christmas before we’ve honestly taken time for Advent.
The meaning of Advent comes from the Latin words, advenire (to come to) & adventus (an arrival), and refers to Christ’s coming into this world. My prayer is for all of us to come to an understanding of what “Christ in the world” means. It means allowing Christ to arrive into our hearts and find the gratitude in what we have. For me, I think making it to Mass this morning helped me reconnect with that concept, especially in seeing the Advent wreath. The first purple candle means: hope. The second purple candle means: faith. The third pink candle means: joy. The fourth and final purple candle means: peace. I hope 2014 finds us striving for hope, faith, joy and peace, no matter what our circumstances or expectations. A Blessed Advent to all!