When Moses meets God in the burning bush, he asks his name. God responds, I AM WHO AM.
When John the Baptist sees that Jesus is the Messiah, he says I must decrease that He may increase.
Our use of the first person singular in our conversations may be a handy indicator of how much we are giving into the religion of egoism that this world worships.
If He is the great I AM, then I must not be. Can I live that in my daily life?
Brothers and Sisters, as we continue the season of Advent, a season of preparation for the coming of the Word as a baby born in a manger because nobody bothered to find a room for an expectant mother, we are reminded to discipline ourselves with patience. We need patience because we know not the hour. We need patience because “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.” We need patience because God is patient with us, giving us time to prepare for his coming at the end of time.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Church celebrated the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. We celebrated the end of time, when Christ will reign in Heaven with all those who are saved, and the Heavenly Banquet will be an eternal feast. We celebrated the Day of Judgment: that day when each of us will go before our Maker and be judged as sheep or goat, passing to the right or the left according to how we accepted the gift of salvation offered to us during our lives. When St. Peter says “the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar,” this is what he is describing.
We each receive our particular judgment at our death. When we die, we are headed to one of two destinations. One destination is very, very good: it is blessed communion with our eternal loving Father. The other is exactly the opposite: eternity separated from love.
St. Peter exhorts the Christians in the first century — and us in the 21st — to live our lives in such a way as to ensure we reach the destination we said at our Baptism we desire. We are to conduct ourselves in holiness and devotion.
The world we live in is not one of holiness and devotion. As we humbly prepare for the coming of the eternal King of the Universe as a defenseless baby born in irregular circumstances, the world races from mall to mall in desperate search of stuff to cram beneath the Christmas Tree in a pagan offering to the god of materialism. As we slow down in the season of Advent, the world accelerates in a climactic progression of Christmas parties at the office, at school, and at home. At precisely the moment when the world collapses in its easy chair, we proclaim Immanuel — the Anointed One of God With Us. As they sleep off the excesses of the shopping season, we celebrate twelve days of Christmas.
Our call to holiness, and our imperative for patience, applies in Advent toward those who know not that the day of the Lord will come like a thief. We must keep our low profile and our posture of humble obedience while the world competes for purchases like a fight in Filene’s Basement. And we must not judge those who do not see. In our observance of Advent, we may be the Bible for somebody who has never read it. In our patience and self-control, in our joyful waiting for the day of the Lord, we may bring somebody to Christ.
So, be patient, be holy, be loving — all in a spirit of joyful expectation for the coming of God in the flesh as a newborn at Christmas and as King of the Universe at the Final Judgment.
When we kiss a baby’s soft cheek, we are loving that baby.
Everybody can see that.
But love is more than one kind of expression.
When we wipe the meconium from our newborn’s bottom, we are loving that baby.
When we get up out of our warm bed and sit with the colicky baby in our arms because that is the only way he can fall asleep, we are loving that baby.
When we put the baby in his crib and shut the door and don’t go back in while he cries – sometimes bawls – himself to sleep, we are loving that baby.
Love is warm affection, but that’s not all love is.
Love is acts of service, but that’s not all love is.
Love is giving of ourselves to help another, but that’s not all love is.
Love is discipline when we need it even if we don’t like it, but that’s not all love is.
Love is infinite because God is infinite, and God is Love. The Infinite is coming soon to live with the finite. Love is on the way. The Baby arrives in four weeks.
We discussed in a recent class marriage and the Church’s explanation of its teachings on faith and morals in the area of sexuality, and it really hit me how different we approach these important cultural institutions. Fr. Tran explained that the three major teachings on sexuality in the 20th century were all responses to cultural milestones at the time: casti connubii was a response to the Anglican Lambeth Council that approved the use of artificial birth control by married couples, humanae vitae was a response to the Pill, and St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body teachings were a response to the cultural impact of the sexual revolution.
The Church understands the human person, the human body, and human relations so differently than does the broader culture. As men who might be asked to lead the faithful from time to time, we have to understand both perspectives. We all live in this broader secular culture, one that approves of promiscuity and sweeping away the consequences of it: broken marriages, sexual using and abuse, death from abortion or sexually transmitted dieseases. We feel broken and confused, yet we regularly resist the teaching of the best source for understanding, solace, and solution. As deacons, we will have to be deeply committed to the teachings of the Church – mouthing the words without embracing them will not suffice – while we are likewise deeply committed to the people in our parishes who reject in practice those teachings. While the bishop or pastor plays the role of shepherd, we men in formation and perhaps as deacons must play the role of sheepdog: running around the edges of the herd, yapping and nipping just enough to help the sheep return to the safety of the group and avoiding the dangers of being separated from it. This work is a work of love, even if it looks like barking and biting.
We have to become comfortable with discomfort.
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We used to drive from Atlanta to a lake house in Ontario Canada, which is a drive of 18 hours. There is a point during such a long drive that I would fully settle into the experience. I would cross the Ohio River at Cincinnati and realize I have already been driving for seven hours and I will spend four just in the state of Ohio before getting to Detroit for the crossing into Canada for the last six hours. The miles are clicking on by, but we still have a long way to go. I feel a bit like that at this point in the middle of year two as a Candidate in the formation program.
I have grown mentally and spiritually through this discernment and formation process. But the journey is only about half completed. My job is to take each day the Lord has given me and to use it as best as I can. Perhaps it is not a day but a particular class, or a project within a class. The variety of teachers and styles is rich and diverse. We have had one “repeat” in Fr. Tran, who taught us Logic as Aspirants and is now teaching us Moral and Sacramental Theology. It has been very interesting to interact with him as a Candidate/student, for he seems so much less intimidating than he did when I was an Aspirant. I don’t think he has changed; it has been me who has grown a bit more peaceful and letting the formation process do its work on me.
I have been working with Penny and Jose on how to work in a social justice ministry that is meaningful, for our social justice work should be more than hours in a log sheet. I find myself referring to so many phrases and themes that Deacon Gayle Peters employed during his JustFaith sessions. Like the complementarity of the male and female genders in a marriage relationship, I think I want a social justice ministry that focuses on the complementarity of the two major pillars of social justice: solidarity and subsidiarity. I’m very comfortable as a teacher, and there is such a need for multiple presentations of our social justice teaching, so that is certainly one outlet for me in this area. I also am looking for something that reinforces the core concept of solidarity: we may look different or have different cultural norms, but we are all ultimately the same because we are all God’s children. So I am reaching out to find groups in our diocese that are trying to promote solidarity. Somewhat connected with that, I realize I need to learn Spanish. In my own parish, we are so separated that it almost as though there are two parishes: the Anglo parish and the Latino parish. Maybe it is there that I am called to work on solidarity.
I have been talking with folks at the Chancery about the proper outlet for what my heart seeks in terms of a social justice ministry. Thanks to Ashley Morris and Leslye Colvin, I am being led to work on racial issues. I wonder how we can learn from the past in matters of institutional oppression of selected citizens so that Black Americans’ suffering in the past can have a redemptive quality. I realize that White Americans can be too quick to dismiss the issue as resolved now, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. At the same time, no Black American today endures anything like what they endured 60 years ago. So how do we joyfully combine the battle won without doing injustice to the difficulty of the battle? How do men and women of different races find solidarity that celebrates their cultural diversity? I think it is another mystery of Christ, and I think it is one I must enter into.
I reflect on the social justice component of our formation process because I see it as a type for my overall formation as a deacon. I thought I knew a thing or two about social justice. I thought I was an official “good guy” for a variety of reasons. I might just have had a bit of pride going on! But God works through my pride and has gently opened my eyes to things I admit now I did not see then. He is gentle but He is a determined teacher. I don’t think this refining process will be limited to one part of our formation. I think God will keep working on me, smoothing out the rough edges, so that I can be a better servant to His people. Each time He opens my eyes a bit more, I see how poorly I see things when I do not rely on Him. In the classroom, in the parish, in extra-parochial apostolates, I find I am learning how much I have yet to learn.
We have a lot of ground yet to cover, and I realize I need every minute of preparation if I am to serve God’s people as they deserve. I am settling into my seat, I am not rushing to cross the finish line, I am trying to learn to see Him more clearly and just let the miles click on by.
We had two classes where the instructor was unable to be present. In both cases, Deacon Jose came in and talked with us about things. It was a gift like that of an elder brother telling his younger brothers a few of the important truths that might not be covered in organized instruction. He listened to the various questions and concerns aired. He offered advice and facilitated our sharing of experiences. As men already identified in our parishes as something slightly different than regular lay volunteers, we are a bit nervous about being unprepared to serve well. One question was how to use “the book,” which meant the Roman Missal. While there is not a class for deacons in formation on “how to use the book,” Jose said that is something we will find a way to cover. He said we could use part of lunch time to go through it.
Later, he spent time in our Liturgy class because Fr. Berny was ill. Again, he talked about what we must do in terms of understanding the rights and responsibilities of each of the instituted orders and eventually the ordained role of deacon. He pointed out that we must exercize our offices and duties but never forget our call to obedience and service, so we must work with our pastors and the various entrenched lay leaders with great charity and joy. It was refreshing to hear acknowledgment of some of the pressures and stresses men in formation have expressed to each other but are not covered in a classroom setting. Deacon Jose spoke with love, so there was no judgment, but there was great encouragement in what he said and how he said it.
Our teachers are a mix of laymen, priests, deacons and religious, and each vocation brings to the classroom valuable perspective and experience. Jose’s sharing and leadership was something wonderful: unexpected, full of love, full of encouragement, challenging, and something we should emulate to those who come after us. I need to be encouraging and helpful to the men in formation behind me, and if I am finally ordained as a deacon in the future I must return to share with the men in formation. This is “tradition” in practice: the children of God handing on to the next group what was handed on to them. Thanks to Jose’s gift of time and energy, I have a graphic example of “tradition” implanted in my memory.
Every now and then comes along a news item that seems to justify Martin Luther’s conception of man as “snow-covered piles of dung.” To wit, British hospital trusts used dead babies’ bodies to heat their hospital buildings.
The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found. Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat.
Even in “beyond the pale” stories like this one, however, the internal human orientation toward the divine law can be revealed:
Last night the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice which health minister Dr Dan Poulter branded ‘totally unacceptable.’
One hopes Dr. Dan finds the practice totally unacceptable on the basis of morality rather than on the basis of being newsworthy. Western culture is so far gone, we cannot know for sure.
The full story is here.
It was necessary for the people of Israel to endure dispersion and exile before they fully embraced the exclusivity demanded by their God. At the head of the Ten Commandments received as part of the Covenant established on Mt. Sinai in the desert after the Passover and flight from Egypt was the statement that “You shall not have other gods besides me.” [Ex 20:3] This was followed by an explanation: “For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation.” [Ex 20:5]
It indeed took many generations for this understanding of exclusivity to be fully embraced by the people with whom the covenant had been established. We have read of the repeated patterns of embrace of Yahweh, admixture with local pagan worship, and decline into social and political disarray.
The difficulty in accepting the fullness of God was not unique to the Israelites. In my own life, I needed many blows before I understood that God was with me, and that He was the only thing on which I could really depend. My personal pagan admixture was alcohol, and my salvific exile was Alcoholics Anonymous.
My understanding of God was insufficiently developed as I lived the years of high school and college, grappling with all the social issues that accompany that stage of life. When I turned, as many do at that age, to alcohol to address my problems, my problems only increased. God was at that time something of a “Monday morning quarterback,” for his voice seemed limited to telling me what I should have done. He always seemed to speak in the past tense and with a tone of remonstration.
AA tries to avoid sectarian difficulties by speaking of a “higher power” instead of God, and this phrasing is often accompanied by a statement to the effect that one can have a doorknob be his higher power if that is what works for him. Given that blank canvas, I drew for myself a God who was with me on Saturday night when choices were being made instead of absent until Monday morning for the game of blame and consequences.
This higher power turned out to be the Triune God of Scripture and Tradition, who was, is, and ever will be with me. I could not see Him, however, without my own personal exile in the Babylon of bourbon and beer. Returning home, my relationship with Him has been ever-deepened and ever-expanded because I am no longer confused about what He looks like.
Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 10:38-42, in which we see Martha “who was distracted with all the serving and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself?'” We are often called to consider what Jesus meant in his replay, “It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.”
Jesus did not mean to prefer contemplative study over service work. He meant to convey that everything should be contemplative. Sweeping or sitting, we are in the presence of God. The connection we make with Him while we do whatever it is that we do is the purpose of our existence. We are made to be with Him. That is what Heaven is.
So do not fall into the either/or trap offered by a misreading of this vignette from Luke’s gospel. Be Mary while you are sweeping and be Martha while you are sitting. It is our hearts Jesus wants.