Making the House Ready for the Lord

pre-dawn

By Mary Oliver

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but

still nothing is as shining as it should be for you.

Under the sink, for example, is an

uproar of mice it is the season of their

many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves

and through the walls the squirrels

have gnawed their ragged entrances but it is the season

when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And

the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard

while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;

what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling

in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly

up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will

come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,

the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know

that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,

as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

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Mary Oliver, Making the House Ready for the Lord, from Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006). 13.

God is Faithful

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Every Wednesday, without fail, a thought-provoking reflection on the coming Sunday’s readings arrives in my inbox from the faculty of Catholic Theological Union (CTU). In September I shared the wisdom of CTU president, Fr. Mark Francis, CSV on what it means to remain despite “the impossibility of faith.” It is my privilege once again to share another timely piece, written by Fr. Stephen Bevans, SVD for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time whose words refresh and invigorate like the sweet and sonorous bell of mindfulness.  “What we know in faith is that God is the God of the living”.

By Fr. Stephen Bevans, SVD

Tucked into the middle of the second reading today is a phrase that might be the key to understanding what our readings today are pointing to: “the Lord is faithful.” This is the conviction that sustains the brothers in our rather grisly first reading from Second Maccabees. This is the conviction that prompts the psalmist to pray, “Keep me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shelter of your wings.” This is the point that Jesus makes in the gospel. God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

Through the years there has been a lot of speculation about what life after death and our resurrected bodies might be like. The Greeks, who basically didn’t like human bodies, saw death as an escape from what weighed us down in life. The medieval theologians sometimes thought that the resurrected body would be a return to the bodies we had at about the age of thirty. Resurrection would mean eternal youth. Homilies at funerals often try to console the deceased’s loved ones with images of parents, friends, and relatives happily receiving him or her on the other side. Indeed, several accounts of people who have had near death experiences talk about that experience in this same way — a grand reunion with friends and loved ones. Contemporary theologians sometimes speak of resurrected life as a new consciousness and unfettered unity with all peoples and all things. In this way, God is all in all.

The truth is, though, that we don’t really know. Our speculations about life beyond death may be just as primitive as the scene proposed to Jesus by the skeptical Sadducees. What we know in faith, however, is that God is faithful.  What we know in faith is that God is the God of the living, not of the dead. What we know in faith is that when we pass beyond this life, we pass into the arms of a loving God.

This is the kind of faith that gives people like the young men in our First Reading the courage to endure death rather than compromise on their principles. This is the kind of faith that offers us “everlasting encouragement and good hope,” so that we can live our lives in joy and contentment. This is the kind of faith that gave Oscar Romero the faith that, if he would be killed, he would rise in the Salvadoran people. This is the kind of faith that allowed a dying John XXIII to say simply: “My bags are packed and I’m ready to go.” This is the kind of faith that, in the words of poet Julia Esquivel, sees persecution as being “threatened with resurrection.”

November is the month when Catholics remember and pray for their loved ones who have “fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection,” and for all who have died in God’s mercy, as Eucharistic Prayer II expresses it. Parishes offer books where parishioners can write the names of those for whom the community will pray. Latino/as have the beautiful custom of constructing “altarcitos” with pictures and mementos of relatives and friends who have died — a custom that is being increasingly adopted by other cultures as well. On November 1, Filipinos clean the graves of relatives, leave food offerings on the graves and have them blessed. We might visit the cemetery and bring flowers as signs of love and respect. We do not know what happens after death, but we do believe that God is faithful. We do believe that God is not the God of the dead but of the living, and that all who have been born are alive to God.

Our readings today give us a chance to renew that faith. God is faithful.

Stephen Bevans, SVD
Professor Emeritus

Readings:
First Reading: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
Responsorial Psalm: 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15
Second Reading:  2 Thessalonians 2:16-35
Gospel: Luke 20:27-38

_______________________________________

© Copyright 2016 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Catholic Theological Union is a Roman Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry serving both vowed religious and lay women and men. The mission of Catholic Theological Union is to prepare effective leaders for the Church, ready to witness to Christ’s good news of justice, love, and peace.” —Catholic Theological Union Mission Statement

My relationship with Catholic Theological Union continues to be a source of intellectual, theological and spiritual inspiration, and for that I am grateful. To learn more about degree programs offered at CTU, visit www.ctu.edu.

Leave behind the winding roads and rough ways

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son Zechariah in the desert.”[Lk 3:1-3]

The gospel of Luke provides an historical context for the start of John the Baptist’s ministry. We are presented with seven names and five regions; some sound familiar, others not so much. But who cares? Why didn’t the writer save us the history lesson and just say “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”?

Luke was a brilliant writer who wanted his readers to grasp the theological significance of the Word of God coming not to the powerhouse of governors in Roman occupied Palestine or the appointed tetrarchs and high priests in their temples, but to a poor and humble man, a seeker of truth who lived in the desert and survived on locusts and honey [MT 3:4]

What else has Luke told us about John the Baptist up to this place in the gospel? We know he was the only child of a priest named Zechariah and a woman named Elizabeth who was thought to be barren. We know that his conception was announced by an angel named Gabriel to his incredulous father as he offered incense in the sanctuary of the Lord. Luke also tells us that Gabriel informed Zechariah that his son (who Gabriel said would be named John) would be great, and among other things, “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” [Lk 1:16-17]. We know that Elizabeth felt the unborn infant, John, leap in her womb when Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, greeted her. And we know, as today’s reading tells us, that the word of God came to John in the desert, after which his mission to fulfill the heraldic prophecy of Isaiah began.

A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” [Lk 3:4-6; Is 40:3–4]

In the first reading for the second Sunday of Advent, the Prophet Baruch envisions the long-suffering, exiled Israelites returning in glory from the East and the West to a restored and splendorous Jerusalem, rejoicing because “they are remembered by God” [Bar 5:1-9]. In the verse which inspired John the Baptist’s mission the Prophet Isaiah prophesied that the way to God would be made smooth and straight, free of obstacles and barriers. John understood his mission clearly: he was to prepare the way of the Lord so that all people could follow in the light of God’s glory. For him, the first requirement was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” [Lk 3:3]

Repentance. Who likes this word? Nobody, that’s who. But it is true that many of the rough and winding roads we traverse are of our own making, and it is true that we hurt others along the way. We do damage that separates us from God. Like John the Baptist, the task of every disciple is to prepare smooth and straight highways not just for one’s own spiritual journey, but for all people so it is accessible to anyone who wishes to come along.

We’re talking about forgiveness and reconciliation here.

The desert is a place of diminished distraction. It is a place we go to get away and clear our heads. In the desert our senses are enhanced; we are acutely aware of the vastness of space and our solitude. But for the hint of critters scuttling through the sand, the desert is silent. It can also be dangerous. A desert experience, whether it is literal or figurative, is similar to a spiritual retreat. Away from the metropolis, away from the hubbub we go inward to examine, renew and rebalance ourselves. Vulnerability is central to both desert experiences and retreats and this makes both risky; without distraction we come face to face with our hopes and fears, our dreams, our failures and our losses; and the clamor of our thoughts force us to acknowledge those things we need to repent.

Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.[Psalm 126:6]

Leave behind the winding roads and rough ways, permit yourself the freedom to change directions, to repent and forgive, and leave open a space into which the Word of God can enter. Advent offers us such an experience. Let’s take advantage of it.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

The Advent of Christ

A reflection on the First week of Advent, by Fr. Joel Fortier.

Hope and expectation are the notes of Advent. The advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, is a great cause for expectant faith and joyful hope! We look forward to the fullness of Christ in us. The mystery of Christ has already begun, we are in the time between the “yet” and the “not yet”. Christ has already come, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is already here, present with us, within us, and among us. And yet the fullness of the Presence is still to be revealed! 

Every moment is pregnant with grace waiting to be embraced and brought to birth in us. Every moment is an opportunity to grow in grace…in love, in Christ, to live in Christ, even as Christ lives in us…in love. The mystery of “Christ in you” is yet to be fully revealed; your true self, hidden with Christ in God is coming, we wait patiently for it to be revealed. The vision presses on, has its own time, it will not delay, it will surely come. Come Lord Jesus, come! No longer I but Christ living in me! Reveal yourself to me, my true self, hidden with you in God. Let it be revealed! 

Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel! 

Christ is coming, is already with us, Emmanuel, God-with-us, the God who was, who is, and who is to come! Christ comes into our lives in the form of people who evoke love in us; who cause us to love. Christ is the invitation to love. 

Advent is pregnant with hope and longing for the promise of Christmas, the Incarnation of love in us. We cover up that hope and longing with all the intensity of Christmas planning, shopping, gifts, decorations, parties, etc. but what is driving us underneath all that is the hope of what Christmas promises. We do want and long for that, the realization of love in our lives, and so we go about all the frenetic energy of pre-Christmas, looking for love in all the wrong places, but still…searching for love. And that is a good thing! We just need to understand what we are really searching for. 

We need to go underneath all our activity, to that place of deep longing in our hearts, to our desire for love, our hope; to wait on the Word of promise planted in our hearts,  and listen to it, to that deep longing. It is the true spirit of Christmas coming. We need to wait patiently, actively listening to the Love Word of God as Mary did; pondering these things of the heart. Then it will come to birth. Advent is a time of gestation. 

It is good to learn the discipline of waiting, of active listening. It is an old saying that “patience is the mother of all virtue.” It is good to be open to the possibilities of love, in an otherwise jaded, pessimistic, and impatient world. Love keeps hope alive. Allow love to live in your heart today. Wait, watch, look, listen, open your heart and mind to love. Love is coming! Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming, oh yes I know!! 

Freedom is Coming, by Gospelchor Wildschonau, from the Album “Theres a Meeting Here Tonight” on Spotify.com

____________________________

Born in1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

New Growth from Old Wood

just shoot1st Sunday of Advent (C)

In a town I once called home there grew for 250 years a tree, an historic tree, the largest Pepperidge tree in the Northeastern United States, in fact. “Old Peppy,” as it was called, was, for reasons not appreciated by me (and many other residents) girdled and cut down earlier this year.

Have you witnessed a tender shoot pushing its way through the gnarled bark of a tree stump? Or have you seen a sapling emerge from the ground where a great tree once stood? What an unlikely but meaningful sign of resilience it would be to see new shoots emerging from the soil beneath the enormous canopy Old Peppy once provided.

Root systems left untreated after a tree is cut down continue their subterranean existence, secretly absorbing water and nutrients as they await the right conditions to send up vigorous new growth. Nature’s exuberance for life is not always received with enthusiasm. If shoots emerged from the former site of a tree that you intentionally cut down, this restorative miracle of nature might not give you the same thrill as it does me. Still, it is difficult not to be impressed when new life emerges from what was thought to be dead, particularly from something of great or profound significance.

The biblical reference to a shoot being raised from a lifeless stump follows the “book of consolation” contained in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah [Jer 30-31]. This passage [Jer 33:14-16], is read on the first Sunday of Advent, Year C, and represents the promise of a righteous and just leader who will restore and reunite the house of Judah and Israel.

Christians hear in this reading the promise of Jesus, the Messiah. The just shoot grows, and the world is changed forever. God keeps God’s promises. Oh, come, oh come, Emmanuel! With Christmas, we celebrate not only the birth of Jesus but the restoration and reunification of the world which God-with-us has set in motion. We know Jesus has come, and this is cause for endless celebration.

Like a dormant root system awaiting the right conditions for growth, the season of Advent is a time for patience. It is an opportunity to work on our own spirituality—to allow the tender shoot to grow unhindered, to work its way through the hardened, splintered and frequently lifeless stump that we allow ourselves to become. Cut down by relentless negativity and fear, and deprived of living water, the restorative breath of the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ’s face, we forget to love, we forget how to really love. With Advent eyes, we watch, and we wait. We make room; we open up the hardened places and invite Jesus in. We open the door of our hearts to a loved one, a friend, a stranger, to the poor, the wealthy, the humble, the arrogant, to the enemy. With intentionality—in Advent and at all times—we strive to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” [1 Thes 3:12], for from love pours care, nourishment, light—all things that allow tender young shoots to grow and flourish.

Every year I vow, “This year I will attend to Advent properly.” I decide to begin each day with the chosen Scripture for the season and a reflection of a favorite Saint, mystic, or spiritual writer. I set out my Advent wreath with fresh candles and the intention of lighting it each night. I attempt to go about my daily activities with a contemplative spirit. I make this promise to myself so that when Christmas day arrives I will have prepared a dwelling place in my heart, ready to receive Jesus as if for the first time, and the meaning of Christmas will be made new.

I start out with these good intentions, just as many do, I suspect, but more often than not, my plans for a reflective and prayerful Advent get usurped by the shopping and baking and decorating for Christmas day. Not that these are necessarily bad things; Advent is a time of anticipation, and part of its joy is in the preparation that surrounds the celebration of Christmas.

This year, however, with the image of the tender shoot in mind, my vow becomes less structured and more organic. In addition to daily prayer. I will cultivate the growth of a tender shoot within myself by seeking and opening my heart to the emerging Christ child in whatever form he should take. This begins with love.

The new life that Advent promises is growing within us; it has the power to break through hardened and gnarled hearts. For within a fragile shoot there exists what, if nurtured and allowed to flourish, can grow mightier than the ancient stump from which it emerged.

The Growing Season

branches against sky3rd Sunday of Easter (B)

It is April. Thank the Lord. But it has taken an inordinately long time to feel like it. I loathe winter. Well, that’s not entirely true; snow is pretty, particularly between Christmas and New Year’s Day. But in all seriousness, it is the darkness that accompanies winter that is so depressing to me. I need sunlight.

With each lost second of daylight in the fall months I move a little slower and my world becomes a little bit bluer. And with the end of daylight savings time, I want to put my jammies on at 5pm. Plants exhibit a phenomenon in their daily cycles, called circadian rhythms; my circadian rhythm tells me that when it is dark it is time to shut it down and go to bed. I know I’m not alone in this.

Of course, what I and so many others experience in the winter has a name: Seasonal Affective Disorder, but for me, it is so much more than SAD. It is a period of neutrality and dormancy that yawns on for months. Yes, winter is a long, dark and colorless season. Trunks and limbs stand gray and forlorn against a slate sky; formerly exuberant prairie grasses, shorn of all but a few desperate stragglers, flop against ice tipped mulch; rhododendrons and azaleas, the glory of the summer garden, dehydrated and emaciated, shield their nakedness with curled leaves. For native plants, this is a protective state; if they did not go dormant in the winter, they would die. I am not a plant, but if I were, I wouldn’t make it. I’d be toast. prairie in winter

Clearly, complaining about the weather is a first world problem, and it is tiresome. Seasonal affective disorder, however, has the power to sap one’s energy, undermine creativity, and on some days, affect the ability to move forward. Like those suffering a great disappointment and perceived loss of purpose, I need reminding that this season will pass. I know it will, but I pace. Oh, my God, how much longer?

After Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples (those who had not deserted and run away) went into hiding. They were in darkness both literally and emotionally. They were deeply troubled and experienced doubts about the past and the future. Luke tells us the disciples had heard the claims of Jesus’ resurrection from the women who visited the tomb “but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.” [Luke 24:11]. Peter took it upon himself to run and see that Jesus’ tomb was empty. The text does not say if Peter shared what he saw with the others, but later that day two of the deserters returned to the group and spoke of their own amazing experience of seeing the risen Lord, and “while they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” [Luke 18:36].

The disciples became aware that Jesus was with them and they experienced his peace. I like to imagine that at this moment a beam of warm, life-giving sunlight flooded the room and forced the windows to fly open. Suddenly the disciples heard Jesus reminding them of what he had said about the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. Jesus was alive! They understood that from that day forward the proclamation and witness of all that Jesus had said and done would begin with them, starting in Jerusalem. With great clarity, each understood what Jesus commanded of them. They knew their mission. If not for this, the story might have stopped here. But it did not end. It never ends.

omg, tulips And then, like the end a long and difficult labor, the earth stirs, it thaws and heaves, and the dawn arrives bearing gifts of loamy, fragrant soil, of snow drops and crocuses, of the excited chatter of birds, and earthworms on the sidewalk, and it recalls an interior life once known and seen that now brightens limbs and bark and causes buds to swell and open. Every spring the miracle of its return, and the confidence with which trees and plants, birds and animals take up their duties stuns me. They just know what to do. I do too.

Thanks for the hard stuff, too

IMG_4130-0

Even St. Francis looks crabby.

This morning as I drank my third cup of coffee, I stared miserably out the window at day 4 of the 3rd month of mess of snow/slush/ice/yuck on my not-even-close to being plowed street, with cars parked haphazardly on the opposite side, and in particular at the big white Tahoe parked at an angle well into the street at the base of my ice-floe challenged driveway. And, what about the other moron behind him who shoveled all the snow off his car into the street. Nice. Very nice. Oh and great, daylight savings is this weekend, that means getting up in the dark again. How I hate this! When will spring come? Why do I live here instead of California? And so on for at least another ten minutes, or more. 

 

Deep sigh. I decided to say a quick prayer of gratitude. Thank you God for my sweet husband, my wonderful daughters, my healthy parents and loving siblings, my friends, my puppy, my drafty but lovely home, my neighbors, for all the places we have lived, and all the relationships we have formed, for blue sky and sunlight in my kitchen, for mountain hikes, for crossfit, for, for, for… I felt better, but a sliver of misery insisted on interrupting the flow of grateful thoughts.  I had to either end the prayer or acknowledge my bad mood and the utter grossness that awaited me outside. 

 

Thank you…for the hard stuff. Thank you…for messes, and irritations, and bad drivers, and frustrations that appear uninvited all the live-long-day. Thank you God, because after a while all these things force me to consider my response, to react slowly, thoughtfully, kindly (not always, but I’m trying. Really, I am), to try to see some beauty, some pattern, or combination of colors to transform my crabbiness into something smooth and resilient. I am grateful for that. So, Thank you, God.

 

Now, are we done with winter?