Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent: Examination of Conscience

+                                  2nd Sunday of Advent
                                 



Today's first reading comes from the prophet Isaiah. In fact, most of the Old Testament readings in Advent come from Isaiah. He along with John the Baptist are the voices of Advent. Today's reading from Isaiah has always been regarded as an introduction to the prophetic mission of John the Baptist.

             A voice cries out:
            In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!

Now we usually think of the prophets as foretelling the future, and it is true that Isaiah presents us with a picture of a new world to come. However, the special talent of the Old Testament prophets was their ability to describe with brutal accuracy the wrongs of their own day and call for a day when things would be set right.

As a critic of his own times, Isaiah gives us an introduction to the great New Testament prophet, John the Baptist. In today's gospel, St. Mark quotes Isaiah's famous lines that refer to John.

            Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
            He will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
            Prepare the way of the Lord,
            make straight his paths.

In fact Mark’s gospel which we will use throughout this liturgical year begins with the mission of John the Baptist. Unlike Luke and Matthew, Mark omits the story of the nativity and infancy of Jesus and begins with the outset of his public life. In Mark’s gospel John is portrayed as a very popular figure whose proclamation of a baptism of repentance was attracting people from the whole Judean countyside. Nevertheless, he is an unusual public figure in that he minimizes his own importance and deflects attention from himself. He proclaims:

One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

John is, of course, calling attention to Jesus. What he calls a baptism of repentance is a way for all of us to prepare for the coming of Jesus.

Repentance is about looking over our lives and taking stock of who we are and where we are going. Advent is a perfect time for us to do so. It is the beginning of a new year so to speak. For centuries the Church has advised us to  examine our conscience. In particular, such a review might examine a dominant fault and work on ways to correct it, or it might consider a particular strength or virtue and consider ways to increase it.

Even though the phrase, “examination of conscience”, may sound strange to us today, the idea is not outmoded. At the end of each year business people are advised to look back on the past year and consider what worked and what didn't work. They spend hours examining their strengths and weaknesses. For the upcoming year they are urged to prepare a business plan where they will work on developing their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses.

Athletes do the same thing. Every week coaches spend hours examining game films to see what they did right and what they did wrong. Whole practices are devoted to making the necessary corrections and incorporating them into next weeks game plan. Why do we spend so much time preparing for games but so little time preparing for the game of life?

When it comes to the most important things in our own lives we fail to examine our conscience? As the old saying goes, people don't plan to fail, they fail to plan. What did we do wrong last year? How did we hurt ourselves and our loved ones? Can we begin now to rid ourselves of bad or destructive habits?

On the positive side what strengths or virtues do we possess? What can we do to build spiritual muscle memory so that good behavior becomes easy and natural to us? The word virtue merely means a good habit, while a vice is a bad habit. Now is the time to kick the bad habits and concentrate on the good.

In today’s second reading, St. Peter asks, “what sort of persons ought you to be,” and urges us to “be eager to be found without spot or blemish.”


The biggest criticism against Christians today is that we are no different than anyone else. Rather than being a light to the nations, the darkness in our society seems to be overwhelming us. We don't have to go about wearing our religion on our sleeve but in our homes, our schools, and in our businesses we should be producing good fruit. We don't need laws and judges to bring Christ back into Christmas. All we need is for Christians to act like Christians.

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Reading 1. Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11
Reading II. 2 Peter 3: 8-14
Gospel. Mark 1: 1-8 (John the Baptist appeared)

Sunday, December 3, 2017

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 one 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. Many of us might feel today like the people in today’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It is a story of people who have turned their backs on God and have lost their way.

Why do you let us wander, O lord, from your ways,
And harden our hearts so that we fear you not?

The result is loneliness, isolation, and unhappiness.              

            We have all withered like leaves,
            And our guilt carries us away like the wind.

Despite the apparent joys of the Christmas season, it can be a very depressing time of year. Many of us will feel out of touch not just with God but also with friends and family; maybe even estranged from them. It doesn’t have to be that way. Even though it is a time of penitence the season of Advent is also a time of hope. Advent marks the beginning of a new year for the Church, and it can also mark a new beginning for all of us. Interestingly, today’s gospel reading does not come from the beginning of St. Mark’s account but almost from the end. The Evangelist repeats the words of Jesus right before He enters upon His Passion.

Jesus is talking to his disciples. We must remember that since Holy Scripture is the inspired word of God, whenever Jesus talks to His disciples, he is talking to each one of us. He tells them,

            Be watchful! Be alert!
            You do not know when the time will come.

What is He talking about? The next verse gives the clue. When He refers to the man who goes away, He is talking about Himself right before His death. We are the servants whom He places in charge, each with our own work to do. He is telling us to act as if everyday will be our last and not waste the time we have left.

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.

There is no better way to prepare 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 tranquility 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.

We will not be alone on our adventure. As St. Paul says,

            God is faithful,
            And by Him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
            Jesus Christ our Lord.


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Reading 1. Isaiah 63: 16b-17, 19b; 64: 2b-7 
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Gospel. Mark 13: 33-37 (Be watchful! Be alert!).

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Christ the King

            Our Lord Jesus Christ the King


 
The Lamb in the Midst of the Throne
Rose Window, Assumption Church
Fairfield, CT*

The 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. 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 re-emphasized 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 prophet Ezekiel compares the role of a leader to that of a shepherd. The reading makes clear that a true king exists to serve his people, and not to be served by them.

            Thus says the Lord God,
            I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
           
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. 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?

Today's gospel reading from the 25th chapter of St. Matthew is one of the most famous in all of scripture. Here we have the image of our Lord in His glory, surrounded by angels, and sitting on His throne at the final or last judgement. He says:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father,
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you
From the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
A stranger and you welcomed me,
Naked and you clothed me,
Ill and you cared for me,
In prison and you visited me.

We know the response. When the blessed ask when they did all these things, the King replies, “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” What a King! He does not ask us to sacrifice ourselves for Him but only to follow His example and give our lives for others. Continually in the gospels Jesus diverts our attention from Himself and tells us that we must care for others. We can only come into His kingdom if we see Him in our neighbor.

Today’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians seems to be all about death but it is really about life. St. Paul believed that originally we were not meant to die, that we had been created, every single one of us, to live forever in Paradise. But then sin entered the world and death followed sin. This is why St. Paul thought the Resurrection of our Lord was the central event in History. Our King has defeated death and because of that we can follow Him to everlasting life. We merely have to feed and cloth and visit all those who have been entrusted to our care.

The scene of the Last Judgement where the sheep are separated from the goats has been immortalized by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Even before that time innumerable churches had put this image high up in their beautiful west windows.  Usually in the back of the church, the west faced the setting sun which was identified with the end of the world or the final judgement. As they left the church the congregation could look up and see the Lamb of God in the center surrounded by Apostles and Prophets representing all the blessed. 

On this last Sunday of the Church year we can also look up at the Risen Lamb and think of the words from the Book of Revelation.

            The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them,
            And will guide them to the fountains of the waters of life,

            And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

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* Image by Melissa DeStefano. Click on image to enlarge.

Reading 1: Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17
Reading II: 1 Corinthians15: 20-26, 28
Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46 (Inherit the Kingdom).