Sometimes I wonder why the Church year begins with Advent. Why not just begin with Christmas? Why do we have to wait around for four weeks?
Part of the answer is that Advent is about waiting. It’s about waiting for Christmas, certainly. But it’s also about waiting for the return of our Lord, for the coming of the Kingdom.
Sometimes, we look around at some of the terrible things going on in the world—wars, famine, disease. Or maybe we’re facing a personal crisis—an illness, the loss of a job, falling off the wagon, getting arrested. We ask “Why is this happening?” We want someone to come in and put things back together, someone who can make it right. We want a fresh start, a new beginning.
That’s what Isaiah is talking about today in our first reading:
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.
Like Isaiah, we want that fresh start. We want the Kingdom. But as we know from reading the papers and watching television, we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot. So we wait.
The problem with waiting is that we can get inpatient. We can start to lose interest. We can get very focused on the present moment and what our needs are right now. We need to listen to Jesus’ words in Mark’s gospel today:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.”
Jesus uses the story of the gatekeeper to emphasize that His return will take people by surprise. He exhorts us to be like that gatekeeper, a man who must be prepared at all times for the Master’s return. He wants us to be watchful, to be on guard, to be prepared. Like it could happen any minute.
But that’s not easy. The longer we have to wait, the harder it is not to lose our edge, hard not to lose that sense of expectation. It’s easy to get so focused with the cares of this world that we lose sight of the next. How do we learn how to wait?
I think that you men have lessons to teach the rest of us about waiting. Because if there is anything that a man learns in this place, it’s how to wait. You count the days until you can walk again as a free man. You sleep, you eat, you play cards, watch the tube, work in the shop. You pass the time as best you can. But you are always waiting. You are in jail, but you are not of the jail. You know that someday, you’ll be going home.
That’s the attitude we all need to have. In the world, but not of the world.
Now there are guys up in Vacaville who’ve been down for a long time—five, ten, twenty years. When you’re down for that long, it’s very easy to conform yourself to the institution, to its values, its way of doing things. That can make it very hard when it’s time to return to the community.
I think this is a pretty good illustration of the problem we face as Christians. It’s all too easy to conform ourselves to the world, to its values, its way of doing things. But all that will do is make it harder for us when it’s time to go home.
So what do we do? St. Paul tells us today to trust in the Lord.
“He will keep you firm to the end,
irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful,
and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Paul says that God will keep us firm to the end. God is in control. If he wants us to keep waiting, there must be a reason behind it. Maybe it’s because we’re not ready yet. Maybe we’ve got a little more work to do.
Here at this facility, there are things people do to get ready for life on the outside. Guys work in the carpentry shop, they get their GED, they try to prepare for economic life on the outside.
As Christians, we also need to be preparing for another kind of life than the life we are living right now. We need Advent because we’re not yet ready for Christmas. We’re not yet ready to go home.
So the Lord, in his love for us, has given us some more time to get ready, to prepare. We don’t know how long it will be, but it’s not going to be forever. We need to get ready as soon as we can. We need to be like that watchman, ready for the Master’s return.
So as we go through this week and through this season of Advent, let’s ask ourselves:
COMMUNION OF SAINTS:Fr. Ron Rolheiser has some comforting words this week about the "communion of saints," and what the existence of such a communion suggests for our ability to finish our unfinished business with the dead:
Many of us have had persons close to us die with whom we had unfinished business, a hurt that was never reconciled, an injustice that was never rectified, a bitterness that never softened. Death has now separated us and the unfinished business remains precisely unfinished and we are left saying: "If only there was another chance!"
Well, there is another chance. One of our wonderful, albeit neglected, Christian doctrines is our belief in the communion of the saints. It's a doctrine that's enshrined in the creed itself and it asks us to believe that we are still in vital communication with those who have died. Moreover, it tells us that the communication we now have with them is free from many of the tensions that colored our relationship with them while they were still alive.
Hence, to believe in the communion of saints is to believe that we can still tend to unfinished business in our relationships, even after death. Simply put, we can still talk to those who have died and we can, even now, say the words of love, forgiveness, gratitude and regret that ideally we should have spoken earlier.
So here’s the question – how can religious leaders and teachers walk the line, balancing the commitment to help the flock understand the totality of the faith commitment, yet avoid making statements on the minutiae of life that make them look at best silly and at worst, like frantic little totalitarians?
I wish I knew the answer to that one! If the Bishops keep their statements to the level of broad general principles, then you get to a point where very few people actually disagree. Who would argue that we shouldn't neglect the poor or protect the environment? The statements become almost useless.
But when we get into the policy details, it is quite easy for reasonable people acting in good faith to disagree about, for example, whether SUVs or welfare reform are, on balance, a good thing or a bad thing. Obviously, like the rest of us, the Bishops have to make the best decisions they can in the light of the information they have at their disposal.
Like Amy, I do believe the Bishops need to speak out on matters of urgent public concern. But I sometimes wonder about the resources that the Bishops put into public advocacy at a time when so many Catholics—particularly younger Catholics—lack a basic understanding of the essentials of their faith. That probably sounds like a cheap shot, and it isn’t meant to be.
If Catholics aren’t well formed in their faith, they probably aren’t going to be terribly interested in taking advice from the Bishops on policy issues. If they are well formed in their faith, one hopes that they would often come to similar conclusions without a lot of heavy-handed exhortation.
If the way that our community lives and shares its faith is working, then we will be a sign to the world even if the Bishops never utter a single word. And if it’s not working, all those statements aren’t going to make a lot of difference. We certainly can do both, but it’s the first task where we seem to be falling down on the job lately.
You can’t slam Christian churches for not doing enough in regard to whatever human rights issue you pick – including the Holocaust – and then demand that churches today shut up and mind their own business and stop commenting on matters beyond their ken.
I think it’s that last point that irritates me the most. It simply makes no sense to judge Christians in the past guilty for silence or inaction on what might be called political matters and then hold churches’ present-day efforts to do just that up for ridicule, a ridicule based not on the content of the efforts, but on their mere expression.
Some readers have expressed the view that the union website is biased toward the union, which doesn't surprise me that much. I'm probably a little biased as well since I used to work at the union in question here. There are, of course, two sides to every labor-management dispute. I encourage you to contact Yahoo and get theirs. If you like, you can use the link above and simply delete the union's pre-printed message and add your own. The union will be happy to forward your message to the CEO regardless of its content.
And as for what preening churchmen think we ought to drive, well, my sentiments are unprintable. And I think it's pretty lame that people who would never in a million years let some preacher tell them who to sleep with somehow think it's cool when preachers start telling people not to drive SUVs.
Given the notorious inability -- and unwillingness -- of the religious racket to police its own members' behavior lately, I have zero interest in their opinions on the war, the environment, "social justice," evolution, or any of the subjects on which they desire to opine, and about which they typically know nothing.
Now there are certainly some things I can agree with in this statement. Jesus himself tells us to remove the plank in our own eye before we try to remove the sawdust in the eyes of others. I think it is reasonable, given recent events, for bishops, priests and other religious leaders to approach the moral exhortation of others with a certain degree of humility. One would hope, of course, that they would always do so. One would hope that the majority of us who do not hold positions of leadership would do so as well.
It is also true that there is often a certain hypocrisy that exists among “liberal” and “conservative” camps in the churches. Some of those who argue for compassion and sensitivity with regard to the Church’s sexual teaching often want Father to show no mercy to SUV drivers. On the other side, there is a certain species of conservative that likes to go on and on about the authority of the magisterium but who tends to plead “prudential judgment” whenever that magisterium issues something that conflicts with the current platform of the Republican Party.
But it’s hard not to sense that something deeper is at work in Glenn’s statement. I suspect that even if all religious leaders were paragons of human virtue and all people of faith were free of hypocrisy, Glenn would not be particularly partial to hearing from them. Glenn is a libertarian and clearly feels that he is an adult and doesn’t require any instructions—divinely authorized or otherwise—on how to live his life.
This is a popular view these days. There even appear to be a large number of Christians who hold it. No one really likes being told what to do. We may enjoy the communal aspect of worship and the good feeling we get from contributing a turkey to charity at Thanksgiving. But when it comes to taking a hard look at our lives and at the choices we make—including our consumption choices—I think that most of us are like my son. We’d like God to “go away” because what we hear from Him makes us uncomfortable.
One cannot read the scriptures, one cannot hear the Gospel preached, and not be made uncomfortable. The distance between the way we live our lives and what we are called to be is just too great. We are called to change our lives. We are called to acknowledge our sins, our need for repentance and conversion. For myself, I know that I need to hear that call echoed by my pastor, my bishop and all the bishops. Whatever their other failings, I would hope that they would not falter in this as well.
CHANGING VIEWS: The Buffalo News has an interesting article on changing attitudes toward abortion (thanks to Amy Welborn for the link). More than one-fifth of those surveyed say that they are less in favor of abortion today than they were 10 years ago, about twice the number who say they have become more pro-choice during the same period. But about two-thirds of the sample say their views have not changed.
One interesting finding is that people lean more against abortion on a personal level than on a political level. Only 38.7 percent of respondents locally said their feelings against abortion affect the way they vote. But two-thirds said that if someone close to them were considering an abortion, they would advise against it.