Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent Adventure


                                    1st Sunday of Advent
                                  


A few years ago three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic story, "The Lord of the Rings," enjoyed enormous critical and popular success. Issued in three successive years around Christmas time, they were a box office smash. The third in the series, entitled, "The Return of the King," won the Academy award for "Best Picture." Most of us know by now that both the three volume book and the films tell the story of a great journey or adventure undertaken by a group of men, elves, dwarves, and the now famous hobbits.

The adventure begins however in a smaller book of Tolkien's called "The Hobbit." In that book this particular hobbit is woken out of a quiet peaceful afternoon nap by a violent knocking on his door. To his amazement he is told that he must rouse himself out of his comfort and complacency and embark on a dangerous adventure whose end is far from certain. In the course of the adventure he will find that there is more to life than he ever dreamed, and that there is more to himself than he ever dreamed.

Isn't it odd that the word "advent" is contained in the word, "adventure"? Advent is not just a time of preparation for Christmas, it is a time for all of us to consider how far we have progressed on the great adventure of life. Let's consider the first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah:

            The days are coming, says the Lord,
            When I will fulfill the promise
            I made to the house of Israel and Judah.

The prophet is speaking about a new age when everything will be different. .

This is the reason why Advent, the season which marks the beginning of the Church year, has traditionally begun with readings reminding us of the end of the world. In today's gospel from St. Luke, Jesus refers to the calamities that will occur at the passing of the old world. Nevertheless, he tells us not to fear but to stand erect and raise our heads for our redemption is at hand. Our Lord's advice whether it be the end of the whole world or just the end of our own little world is the same. "Be  vigilant at all times." When the time comes, we should be ready to face it. In particular, we should

            Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy,
            From corousing and drunkenness
            And the anxieties of daily life...

Advent has always been regarded as a season of preparation. Why is it that we prepare for everything in life but often fail to prepare for the most important thing in life? What football team would go into the weekend's big game without practicing all week? What will they practice? Why, the very same formations and plays that they expect to use when they are put to the test. During the week they will also be in the weight room preparing their bodies for the blows to come. On game day they will put on their protective gear or armor. Only a fool would go into such combat improperly equipped.

In business it's much the same thing. Salesmen practice their presentations before facing their customers. They learn how to anticipate and overcome every objection. In politics look how even the presidential candidates go through rigorous prepping and role play before debating their opponents.

How should we prepare for life's great adventure? Let's see if we can come up with a list of things to do this Advent season they will help us on our way. First, let's take St. Paul's advice.

            Increase and abound in love,
            For one another and for all…,
            So as to strengthen your hearts, 
            To be blameless in holiness….

Isn’t it sad to read in the papers about the arrests for drunkenness and other forms of lewd conduct. I know that television glamorizes this type of drinking but what is so glamorous about falling into an alcohol induced coma in a frat house or an office party?

We can all think of ways to "throw off the works of darkness," but St. Paul also urges us to "put on the armor of light." There is no better way to do so this season than by increasing our attendance at Mass. Certainly, in this season when we should all be looking forward to the coming of Christ, he comes to us in each and every Mass. Besides  Sunday Mass we will celebrate the great feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, a true Holy Day of Opportunity.

Finally, I can think of no better way to counter the stress and anxiety of this mad shopping season than to attend daily Mass during Advent. We will find a half hour of peace and tranquillity every day and encounter some of the most beautiful readings in the Missal. We will get an opportunity to reconcile ourselves with God and our neighbor when we recite the Kyrie Eleison, the Confiteor, the Our Father and the Agnus Dei. We can offer the kiss of peace to our friends and family. We can offer thanks to God for all the good things that have been given us, and then we can approach the altar to receive the true gift of Christmas, the gift of God's only Son.


Reading 1. Jeremiah 33: 14-16
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 3: 12—4:2
Gospel. Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36 (Be vigilant).


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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King

                                    Christ the King
                                   
 
The Lamb of God Enthroned
Assumption church, Fairfield CT


Today's feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church year. Although Christians have always believed in the Kingship of Christ, the feast is a relatively recent one dating only from 1925. Pope Pius IX instituted the new feast after a devastating world war which saw millions killed and empires fall. The Kaiser of defeated Germany was forced to abdicate his throne; the Tsar of Russia was deposed and executed by angry revolutionaries; the Austrian empire--the heir to the Holy Roman empire which had lasted for over a thousand years--was broken up into a number of small states; and the Turkish empire, which had ruled the Middle East for over 500 years, was also overthrown, an event which led to the anarchy in that area which persists even today. Even though the English monarchy survived the war, the mighty British empire was mortally wounded.

At a time when the very idea of Kingship was on the way out, the Pope chose to emphasize the Kingship of Christ. The Second Vatican Council reemphasized the importance of the feast when it moved it from the last Sunday in October to the very last Sunday of the church year. Naturally, the theme of today's readings is Kingship. The first reading from the Book of Daniel speaks of one who has received “dominion, glory, and kingship.”

            His dominion is an everlasting dominion
That shall not be taken away,
His kingdom shall not be destroyed.

In America we have never been partial to kings or the idea of Kingship. We pride ourselves on being a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people." It wasn't only that our founding fathers revolted against King George III of England but their aversion to kingship went even deeper.

Kings were supposed to be God's divinely appointed representatives on earth. Their coronations were religious ceremonies where the new king would be anointed with holy oils by a religious leader. Political philosophers spoke of the "divine right of kings" to justify their power. Ever since the time of King Henry the Eighth, the kings and queens of England had acted as head of the Church of England. Old traditions held that the King even possessed miraculous healing powers. It was believed that merely touching his cloak could cure many physical maladies.

By the time of our revolution it was clear that most kings were not what they were supposed to be. Many had come to their thrones not by divine right or election but through violence and usurpation. Many did not behave like representatives of God especially when it came to being good shepherds. A King was supposed to be the best and noblest man in the nation but often he seemed to be the worst. Even if they started out with good intentions, power corrupted them.

But what if there was a person whose teaching was both simpler and wiser than any of the world's great philosophers? What if this same teacher was able to calm storms at sea and even walk on the angry waters? What if there was a person who did indeed possess miraculous healing powers? -- if merely touching his cloak could cure both physical and spiritual ailments? What if there was a person who could feed the multitudes not only with bread for a day but with the bread of everlasting life? What if there was a person whose power was so great that he could even bring the dead back to life? Finally, what if there was a person who rather than being corrupted by power, surrendered his own life for his people? Shouldn't we call that person our King?

In today's gospel from St. Luke we see our King on this last Sunday of the Church year on trial before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. In this scene Pilate puts the question to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered:

You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

All year we have been reading St. Mark’s account of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem. We've followed Him on the journey, heard the famous parables, witnessed the miracles and the miraculous cures and healings. He asked us to take up our cross and follow Him and promised that if we would do so we would enter into His Kingdom. Actually, He said that His Kingdom would enter into us--that the Kingdom of God would be within us.

Let's end this Church year by visualizing the scene on the Cross. Let's imagine that we are one of the thieves being crucified along with Jesus and that our own journey through life is coming to an end. Wouldn't we want to hear the famous words in the gospel when the King turns to us and says,

            Amen, I say to you,

            today you will be with Me in Paradise.

Reading 1. Daniel 7: 13-14
Reading II. Revelations 1: 5-8
Gospel. John 18: 33b-37 (You say I am a king)

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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Feast of All Saints



                                    All Saints Day
                                   



The month of November is sometimes called the month of the dead. As we look around we see the leaves falling from the trees, the sun riding lower in the sky and setting earlier and earlier. Animals are preparing for the long cold winter. 

The Church year also follows the cycle of nature. We begin this month with the great feast of All Saints, and then remember all the departed on All Souls day. Throughout the month we will remember our beloved departed and at the end of the month we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King where we will come face to face with the end of the world and the Last Judgment.

This weekend’s two great feasts deal not with death, however, but with triumph over death. The first reading for All Saints day is taken from the Book of Revelation. In his vision John sees an angel who holds off the powers about to destroy the world.

Do not damage the land or the sea or the trees
Until we put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.

John numbers these servants as 144000 but who takes time in a vision to count. Twelve is the mystical number that signifies completeness and 12 times 12 equals 144, as if to say completeness squared. Multiply 144 times 1000 and we realize that the vision includes a multitude. John says as much in the next verse,

After this I had a vision of a great multitude,
Which no one could count,
From every nation, race, people, and tongue.

The gospel for All Saints is the account of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus identifies the Blessed who will inherit the Kingdom. The are the poor in spirit, they who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

The second reading for All Saints is from the first Letter of John. John identifies the saints not as marble or plaster statues but as the children of God. He says “we are God’s children,” and as such holds out the hope that we all can become like our Father in Heaven.

High up on the wall in the back of many churches, we can observe a great stained glass window that is often called a rose window because it is shaped like a flower with a central core with twelve petals surrounding the core. In the core there will be either the figure of the resurrected Jesus, or the symbolic Lamb of God. Symbols of each of the twelve Apostles will be found in the petals. There is that number 12 again signifying that the Apostles represent all the saints. Like the Apostles the saints were ordinary men and woman who by the grace of God were able to overcome their weaknesses, and become good and faithful servants.

Rose Window, Assumption Church
Fairfield CT


In a small chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome the great painter Caravaggio portrayed two of these ordinary men across from each other. He portrayed St. Peter about to be crucified at the end of his mission, and St, Paul at his conversion, the start of his mission. He portrayed them as ordinary human beings like us or our brothers and sisters being persecuted even today all over the world.





















Reading 1. Revelations 7: 2-4, 9-14
Reading II. 1 John 3: 1-3
Gospel. Matthew 5: 1-12a (Blessed are the…)

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