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As we are now one week away from Christmas Day, this seemed a good time to share an excerpt from Dorothy Day’s 1945 Christmas Message.  The words offer a reminder as important today as they were when she wrote them 71 years ago.

It is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.

But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives that he gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ….

If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality for Christmas–or any other time, for that matter–to some man, woman or child, I am replaying the part of Lazarus or Martha or Mary and that my guest is Christ. There is nothing to show it, perhaps. There are no haloes already glowing round their heads–at least none that human eyes can see. …

If everyone were holy and handsome, with “alter Christus” shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed, as St. John says, with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head and the moon under her feet, then people would have fought to make room for her. But that was not God’s way for her nor is it Christ’s way for Himself now when He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.

To see how far one realizes this, it is a good thing to ask honestly what you would do, or have done, when a beggar asked at your house for food. Would you–or did you–give it on an old cracked plate, thinking that was good enough? Do you think that Martha and Mary thought that the old and chipped dish was good for their guest?…

We are not born too late.  It is never too late to be Christ to all me meet and to see Christ in all we meet.

You can read the entirety of Day’s 1945 Christmas message here.

I am finally getting a chance to sit down and read Pope Francis’ message for the 50th World Day of Peace 2017, which was released on December 8.  (It is traditional for the letter to be released on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.)  In it, the Pope calls for a renewed culture of nonviolence to inform global politics, asking us to cultivate nonviolence in “how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life.”  He expresses the hope that in both “local and ordinary situations” and “in the international order” nonviolence may become “the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms.”

Impossible, you may say.  How naive to suggest nonviolence as a response to the broken world in which we find ourselves today.

But Pope Francis reminds us in his message that Jesus himself lived in violent times, yet he taught love of enemy.  The Pope writes

To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence. As my predecessor Benedict XVI observed, that teaching “is realistic because it takes into account that in the world there is too much violence, too much injustice, and therefore that this situation cannot be overcome except by countering it with more love, with more goodness. This ‘more’comes from God.”  He went on to stress that: “For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behaviour but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone. Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution’”. The Gospel command to love your enemies (cf. Lk 6:27) “is rightly considered the magna carta of Christian nonviolence. It does not consist in succumbing to evil…, but in responding to evil with good (cf. Rom 12:17-21), and thereby breaking the chain of injustice”.

Nonviolence is a tall order.  It will require “political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives to apply the Beatitudes in the exercise of their respective responsibilities” and it will be a “challenge to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers.”  But we are called to choose solidarity and active nonviolence.

Let us pray for all of the actors involved, as well as playing our own part in “active and creative nonviolence.”  In the Pope’s words, “may we dedicate ourselves prayerfully and actively to banishing violence from our hearts, words, and deeds, and to becoming nonviolent people and to building nonviolent communities that care for our common home.”

Impossible?  The Pope ends his message by reminding us that nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer and that everyone can bean artisan of peace.

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians.  One commentator observed that “John has no peers when it comes to explaining and guiding others to a complete and total union with God in prayer through the mystical and contemplative life.”

One of John’s most persistent prayers was that God would enable him “to suffer and be despised,” a prayer his opponents in the Carmelite order helped answer. He was repeatedly kidnapped, imprisoned and even tortured. At one point, he was imprisoned for six months deep in the bowels of a Carmelite monastery. It was so cold he developed frostbite and he was given so little food that, in the words of one author, “anyone less accustomed to fasting might have given up in despair.”  At another time, he was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to renounce the Carmelite reforms he and Teresa of Avila were promoting.

John’s theology was in the category of apophatic or negative theology.  He believed that before we approach God, we must first own up to the fact that all our ideas and concepts about God may be completely erroneous and may actually hinder us from reaching him as he is. He insisted that only by going through a “dark night” process that could take “some years” would we be stripped of our false assumptions and natural predispositions, enabling us to encounter God in spirit and truth. John spoke of the need “to strip ourselves of everything that is not God, for God.” The idea is to stand before God “detached, stripped, pure and simple, with no way or manner of being.” This allows God to fill all that empty space with His love.

Although John is not always the easiest to read, he wrote some wonderful poetry, in addition to his longer works like Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel.  It might make some good reading during these last days of Advent.

Christian Hospitality

The topics of last night’s session of the monthly program Christine Luna Munger and I are co-presenting at St. Kate’s this year (our broad theme for the year is Christian Prayers and Practices) were Hospitality and Intercessory Prayer.  A good amount of our time was devoted to a wonderful talk on hospitality by Christine.

We tend to think of hospitality in terms of setting a beautiful table and serving a delicious meal to our friends and/or putting friends and family up for the night when they are passing through town.  But in the Hebrew scriptures, hospitality was consistently tied with welcoming the stranger.  (E.g., Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress an resident alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.”)  And in the New Testament, the consistent emphasis is upon taking care of the needs of the least among us, on inviting the poorest among us to the banquet.

The difference between  the classical Greco-Roman meaning of hospitality and the Judeo-Christian one is what Christine Pohl (in her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition) describes as the difference between “ambition hospitality” and “justice hospitality” or what Jacques Derrida describes as the difference between “pious contractual hospitality”  and “absolute hospitality.”  The former often resulted in providing hospitality based on a sense of the worth and goodness of the recipient – including the recipient’s ability to “pay-back” the hospitality, which obviously left out the poor and the marginalized.

We are called, not just to provide nice meals and fun times to our friends or those who can benefit us.  Rather the call – the moral imperative – is to create safe and inclusive space for all those who need one.   And to approach the stranger, not with suspicion and violence, but as a friend and ally.

Next month (January 9) I will be talking about Ignatian Contemplation and Re-membering.  If you are in the Twin Cities, you are welcome to join us, even if you have not attended any of the prior sessions.

Yesterday was the final day of the weekend Women’s Advent Retreat I gave at the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh.  There were fifty-seven women in attendance, and it was a wonderful, grace-filled weekend. I am filled with gratitude.

The final time I spoke to the group was when I delivered a reflection on the readings at our Mass on Sunday.  Yesterday’s Gospel was Matthew’s account of the imprisoned John the Baptist sending his disciples to Jesus to ask “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another.”  The following summarizes a part of what I shared.

When I listen to that Gospel, I ask myself: What was it like for John between the time he was arrested and the point at which he is beheaded?

John wasn’t sitting in some swanky minimum security prison being served three meals a day and getting exercise. He was likely in a dark and dank cell, perhaps chained, being served unappetizing and perhaps even rotten food. No toilet, no sink, guards perhaps jeering at him during periods when they were bored.

As he sat, day after day and week after week (we are not told how long John was imprisoned), he must have had questions and doubts.  And so he sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” suggesting at least some uncertainty.

I can picture John in his prison cell, worn and weary. Perhaps he knows that he will soon come to his death. I can imagine him asking himself: “Did my life and witness have meaning?….Am I in jail about to die for a good reason?”  I can imagine him wondering if his mission had been worth dying for…if it had all been for naught… if he had been abandoned by God.

But when his disciples question Jesus, seeking some assurance for John,  Jesus doesn’t provide quick and easy solace. How easy it would have been to console a dying man, for Jesus to instruct John’s disciples, “Tell John it’s all cool. He backed the right horse. Everything is copacetic.”

Instead, Jesus tells them “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”

In other words, draw your own conclusions. Don’t take it on my say-so. Don’t believe in me because of who I say I am. Rather, judge for yourself based on what you know of me and my work.

Speaking of this passage, Pope Benedict wrote

The task set before the Baptist as he lay in prison was to become blessed by this unquestioning acceptance of God’s obscure will; to reach the point of asking no further for external, visible, unequivocal clarity, but instead of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of his own life, and thus becoming profoundly blessed. John even in his prison cell had to respond once again and anew to his own call for metanoia or a change of mentality, in order that he might recognize God in the night in which all things earthly exist.

Most of us won’t be imprisoned for our preaching of the Gospel. But, we do each suffer dark moments, fearful moments, and, thus, face the same challenge “of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of [our] own [lives].”

And when we do that, we know (in the words of the first reading from Isaiah) that however bad things may look, “The desert and the parched land will exult” and we will see “the splendor of our God.” The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf cleared, the lame will leap and the tongue of the mute will sing. As the second reading says “The Coming of the Lord is at hand.”

 

I am presently at my “happy place” – the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh, where I am giving a Women’s Advent Retreat weekend on the theme titled above: Embracing the Suffering, Straining Toward the Light.  We began with dinner and our opening session last evening and will be here together through lunch on Sunday.

I introduced the theme last night by sharing that when I went to Catholic grade school in the 1960s, the running smart-aleck line in our religion class in fourth or fifth grade was one or another variant of: “If God can do anything, can God make a rock so big even God can’t lift it”?  The question was never, of course, intended as a serious question, but it came to my mind as I was reflecting one day about the decisions God made about the entry of Christ in the world. So, dropping the smart-alecky aspect and asking some more serious questions:

Since God can do anything, why didn’t God just have Jesus appear as a full-grown human rather than as a helpless baby?  Surely Jesus could have just beamed down and walked into Nazareth one day with his carpenter belt and started gathering folks around him. Instead, God comes as a helpless baby into a precarious situation where he could be killed.  Why as a baby?

For that matter: Since God can do anything, why did God wait 42 generations after the entry of sin into the world to send Jesus here to do something about it? Why force the Israelites to go through periods of anguish and longing before Jesus appears?  (In the book of Habakkuk the people cry out “How long, O Lord? I cry for help….Why do you gaze on the faithless in silence?”) Why so long a wait?

For that matter: Since God can do anything, why did God create us with the capacity to sin in the first place? He could have created us such that we were not capable of making bad decisions and we could all be living blissful lives in the Garden of Eden. Instead, like Paul, we have times when we lament, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate at do.”

Since God created the world ex nihilo – out of nothing – presumably God could have created it in any darn way God pleased.  I tend to work under the assumption that God does not do things for no reason. That there is a reason God created us and the world the way he did.

I shared with the retreatants several conclusions I draw from the fact that God created us with the capacity to sin, waited 43 generations for Jesus to appear and had him come as a baby:

First that darkness is an inherent part of our lives. That, despite our tendency to run away from darkness, we are meant to learn something from it.  In a real sense, not just during Advent, but for the entirety of our human existence, we live in a state of both darkness and light. And I don’t think we can accept the light without also making peace with the darkness. (If we were in Lent rather than Advent, we would be reminding ourselves: There is no resurrection without the cross.)

The second conclusion I shared, is that God thought we could learn something from this darkness that is an inherent part of our human lives. That our full union with God – coming on the other side of a life of darkness and light – would mean more than it would have if we had never had the opportunity to experience the darkness.

Advent offers us a wonderful opportunity to explore these themes, to reflect on the ways in which we are called to both embrace the darkness and strain toward the light. Our retreatants are doing that this weekend.  I hope you find some opportunity during these days to do the same.

This morning I gave an Advent morning of reflection for women in the Twin Cities, jointly sponsored by the League of Catholic Women and the Loyola Spirituality Center.  Almost 90 women were present for a morning that included talks, some individual reflection time and group sharing.

My theme for the program was Models of Advent.  In the first segment, I talked about Two Who Said Yes, focusing on Mary and Joseph.  In the second segment I talked about some Advent figures who model different qualities of discipleship, offering some thoughts about John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, and the Magi.

I ended the second segment by sharing the perspective offered by Raymond Brown, in his book A Coming Christ in Advent, on what it might mean for us to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus.

Talking about Mary and the Magnificat, Brown writes:

The first Christian disciple exemplifies the essential task of discipleship. After hearing the word of God and accepting it, we must share it with others, not by simply repeating it but by interpreting it so that they can see it truly as good news. As we look forward in Advent to the coming of Christ, let us ask ourselves how this year we are going to interpret for others what we believe happens at Christmas, so that they will be able to appreciate what the angel announced at the first Christmas (Luke 2:10-11). “I announce to you good news of a great joy which will be for the whole people: To you this day is born in the city of David a savior who is Messiah and Lord.”

Brown talks about the Magnificat as Mary’s interpretation of the Word – the way she shared the Gospel word with others. Mary had heard from Gabriel the identity of Jesus and in the Magnificat, Brown says that she “gives voice interpreting what she has heard.”

This time during which we prepare to welcome the Christ child into our hearts is a good time to consider the question Brown asks: how this year are we going to interpret for others what we believe happens at Christmas? How will we help them appreciate what the angel will announce on Christmas morning?

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