Advent and the Advent Conspiracy

Today is the beginning of Advent, the beginning of that special time each year when we are invited to prepare ourselves to welcome Christ into our hearts and homes at Christmas. To put it a different way, how will I help birth Christ into the world?

We can answer that question in many ways. The Advent Conspiracy gives one way to approach the season. As its website says, the concept behind the Advent Conspiracy is simple: Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. Love All. Underlying the concept is the belief that Christmas was meant to change the world…and that it still can. If you are not familiar with the Advent Conspiracy, take a look at their website for some concrete suggestions.

As to worshipping fully, on Friday I posted the links to this week’s prayer material and my introductory talk for the Advent Retreat in Daily Living I’m currently giving. Perhaps you will find something there you wish to incorporate into your prayer this Advent season. You can also find some suggestions for Advent prayer and reflection on the famvin website here.

This time of Advent is a gift. Don’t squander it.

Dorothy Day

Today is the anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day, a woman regarded by many as a saint during her lifetime (to which her brusque response was: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”). It was once remarked of her that “she did for her era what St. Francis of Assisi did for his: recall a complacent Christianity to its radical roots.” And that she did, founding the Catholic Worker movement and doing all she could to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

In an early reflection, she explained the motivation and the work of the Catholic Worker houses in very simple terms:

No one asked us to do this work. The mayor of the city did not come along and ask us to run a bread line or a hospice to supplement the municipal lodging house. Nor did the Bishop or Cardinal ask that we help out the Catholic Charities in their endeavor to help the poor. No one asked us to start an agency or an institution of any kind. On our responsibility, because we are our brother’s keeper, because of a sense of personal responsibility, we began to try to see Christ in each one that came to us. If a man came in hungry, there was always something in the ice box. If he needed a bed and were were crowded, there was always a quarter around to buy a bed on the Bowery. If he needed clothes, there were our friends to be appealed to, after we had taken the extra coat out of the closet first, of course. It might be someone else’s coat, but that was all right too.

We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper. We have a personal responsibility. Like one of the saints I most admire, St. Vincent de Paul, Dorothy Day took that responsibility seriously, managing to see Christ in each person she encountered. Inspired by that model, let us try to see Christ in each person we encounter, today and every day.

Advent Retreat in Daily Living

Advent, my favorite time in the liturgical calendar, begins on Sunday. I’m giving a four week Advent Retreat in Daily Living at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, which began this week. The participants commit to pray each day with material I provide them with and we meet weekly, during which meetings I give a brief talk that relates to the material they will be praying with that week. The participants are also given time during the weekly meeetings to share with each other in small groups their prayer experience from the prior week and we address any questions that have come up in the prayer.

Each week, I will post a link to the talk I give at the session as well as the prayer material for the week. This will allow you the opportunity to pray along with the retreatants during this Advent season as we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas.

During the first session, my talk consisted of an introduction to the retreat and some commetnary about the prophets, with a focus on Isaiah, as the prayer material for this week concerns the prophets of Advent and the prophets in our lives. You can find the talk here . The prayer material for this first week of the retreat, which I give some explanation of during the latter part of the talk, can be found here.

Thanksgiving Day

It is nothing new for me to be writing about gratitude, since giving thanks is a regular part of my prayer practice and I firmly believe that if we could replace an attitude of entitlement with one of thanksgiving and gratitude, the world would be an infinitely better place. But today is Thanksgiving Day, and it gives us a special opportunity to give thanks….for the big things and the little ones. And so this day I give thanks…

…that I wake up on these cold mornings in a bed in a heated home.

…that I have enough (indeed, more than enough) food to eat.

…that I have a job that pays me enough (indeed, more than enough) to meet the needs of my family.

…that I have friends who laugh with me in times of joy and who comfort me in times of grief and sadness, and who love me through it all.

…that my daughter delights me with her gift of song, and pretends I still am a help to her in her homework.

…that my husband supports me in all things.

And on this day I remember in a special way…

…those who will wake up on the cold street or who will go to sleep on an empty stomach.

…those who are jobless or who work two and three jobs and still can not make ends meet.

…those who do not experience the loving embrace and support of family and friends.

And I ask God on this Thankgiving Day to hold them – and all of us – in his loving embrace.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The End of the Liturgical Year

Last Sunday was the feast of Christ the King and this Sunday is the First Sunday in Advent, meaning we are in the last days of the current liturgical year. And so we’ve been reading from the Book of Revelation for the first mass reading and many recent Gospels have been concerned with the end times.

Although I’m not always sure what to make of some of the readings that accompany the end of the liturgical year, one thing is clear: There will be a judgment; there will be a reckoning. As I heard in a homily at mass one day last week, Christianity is not just a feel good, let’s sit around and be happy faith. As we profess when we recite the Creed, “Christ will come to judge the living and the dead.”

Although we do not know when the day of judgment will be, we do know that ultimately, we will be asked to account for ourselves. Whether one thinks of the question as “What did you do with the talents I gave you” (last Wednesday’s Gospel parable of the talents) or “How did you treat me when I appeared to you in the form of the least brothers of mine?” (last Sunday’s Gospel account of the final judgment), questions will be asked. Now is the time to be thinking of how we will answer when we stand before Christ.

Death Be Not Proud

Another death in a year of all too many deaths I’ve mourned. A friend. Another friend. A former dean. And now a beloved younger cousin. Each time I cry the tears of loss and grief. Each time the added pain that each of those I’ve mourned this year have seemed too young to die…none of these was the winding down of an old age (three from cancer and this latest in a fire.)

But each time, though it be sometimes hidden by the tears and the pain, I can find the solace of Resurrection. The security that exists in a place deeper than the grief that those I love are not gone, but live in Christ. So Death, be not proud. As John Donne put is so eloquently,

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

The Hand of God

I flew to New York on Thursday to attend a board meeting on Friday. I considered canceling the trip several times, thinking it was a bad time in the semester to be travelling given how busy I was, but ultimately felt, almost against my better judgment, that I should make the trip. Shortly after I arrived, I learned that my former dean had died; my being here for the meeting meant I was able to attend her wake. I thought at the time, guess that’s why God wanted me here in NY this weekend.

Yesterday morning, I was getting ready to fly back to Minneapolis when I received a call from my husband. He had just received calls from my brother and my cousin Joseph conveying the news that my cousin Bobby, a 46-year old New York City firefighter had been killed in a fire early that morning. At the beginnig of a holiday week, in which I would have had no guarantee of being able to get an immediate flight from Minneapolis to NY, my being already in New York meant it was only a matter of a couple of hours before I was with my family at my aunt’s house.

I deeply mourn the death of my cousin. But in the midst of the intense pain we are all experiencing, there is solace – for me and the rest of my family – that I am here to grieve with them and not half a continent away.

God works in strange ways.

The Criterion of Judgment

Today’s Gospel for this Solemnity of Christ the King is St. Matthew’s account of the last judgment. We are told that when the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goat, he will say to the sheep on his right:

Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

And those on his left are told they are condemned because they did none of these things. Now, both groups are confused by this. Those on the right say – well and good, happy to be saved and all that, but, tell us Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you or thirsty and give you something to drink. And when did we see you a stranger, naked, sick, in prison, because we don’t remember doing any of those things. And Jesus responds: “whatever you did for one of hte least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

And to those on the left who say, wait a minute, we never saw you and refused you love or help, we never would have passed you by if we saw you in need, He says: when you did not do it for the least of these you did not do it to me.

This is pretty staggering when you actually think about it. As Michael Himes observes in talking about the passage,

the criterion of judgment has nothing to do with any explicitly religious action. The criterion is not whether we were baptized, or prayed, or read Scripture, or received the Eucharist, or believed the correct doctrines, or belonged to the church. Not one of these – however important they may be – is raised as the principle of judgment. Only one criterion is given: Did you love your brothers and sisters?

Jesus gives us a clear statement of the criterion for judgment and it is worth spending some time contemplating this passage if it is not one you have taken to prayer lately. Ask yourself: How good a job am I doing in recognizing the Lord in the least of our brothers and sisters?

St. Cecelia

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Cecelia. The day would probably have passed me by except that my daughter (a singer and pianist) just picked Cecelia as her confirmation name, having learned that St. Ceceila is the patron saint of musicians. She is also one of only seven women (apart from Mary) commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.

I have heard two different explanations of Cecelia becoming the patron saint of musicians. One says that while the music of her forced wedding was being played (she vowed her virginity to God, but her parents married her off anyway), “Cecilia was singing in her heart a hymn of love for Jesus, her true spouse.” The other is that she was heard to sing songs of praise to God as she suffered her death as a martyr.

Apart from her connection to music, the most striking thing about Cecila for me is her name, which translated literally from Latin means, “The way for the blind.” So today I will pray to St. Cecelia, not only to watch over my musical daughter, but to help remove those things that blind us…to help show us the way toward deeper union with our God.

A Den of Thieves

In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus angrily drives out those who are selling things, telling them, “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”

It may be difficult for us to get a feel for the temple during the time of Christ. But to understand what Jesus is trying to convey by his act of driving the traders and moneychangers from the temple, we need to understand the difference between going to temple during the time of Jesus and our going to worship in church today. We dress up nicely and get in our cars and drive to church, arriving all neat and clean and we make our offerings by putting a check or some money in an envelope into the collection basket.

In Jesus’ time, people traveled for long periods, sometimes days, over miles of rough road, walking or riding donkeys, to get to the temple. Important to their worship was offering animal sacrifices in the temple. The animals sacrificed had to be unblemished in order to be fit for God – something impossible if the animals were driven or carried for days over miles of rough road. That meant that, as a practical matter, in order to make the necessary sacrifices of unblemished animals, people had to buy their sacrificial animals from people selling at the temple.

This is a reality that Jesus was well aware of, meaning he couldn’t have simply meant, when he drove everyone out of the temple and criticized them for making his Father’s house a “den of thieves, that people should stop doing what they were doing but also to continue to worship as usual. Worship as usual would have been impossible without the buying and selling that took place at the temple.

So Jesus is not calling for a change in how business as usual is conducted. Instead, Jesus is proposing something much more radical here. In driving out the traders and moneylenders, Jesus reveals that salvation is no longer to be found in offering animal sacrifices at the old temple. There is a new temple, a new place of God’s dwelling, and that temple is Jesus. Jesus’ own body replaces the temple as God’s dwelling. And, unlike the temple building – a temporal structure that can be destroyed, Jesus will die but will be raised up and live forever. No power on earth can destroy this temple.

What does it mean to call Jesus a temple? It means that Jesus is where we go to worship, Jesus is where we go for solace, Jesus is the source of our salvation. Once the Word becomes flesh, Jesus is the place where we encounter God and where we enjoy communion with God. Once we have Jesus, he is the focal point; it is through Him that we are saved. And he is not a passive temple, like the building in which animal sacrifices are made. Rather, he shows us the way.