The Oldest Advent Hymn

Today’s Gospel from Luke is the song Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “the oldest Advent hymn” – the Magnificat. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” Mary cries out, going on to express her confidence that God is at work in the midst of a world of struggle and pain. However bleak things might look, God has “remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”

The Magnificat sings of a future of justice and peace brought about through the mercy of God. The Mary who sings this song, says Bonhoeffer, “is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

I’ve written more than once in recent weeks about hope. I have done so for the same reason we need to listen to the Magnificat: we need to hear over and over again the message that God is still at work, even in the midst of terrorism, poverty, war, suffering and heartache. In the midst of the things that tempt us to hopelessness, we affirm that changes can and will happen through the grace of God. This is the central message of Advent.

Believe Beyond Believing

My friend Bill included in his Christmas greetings some words from the advent hymn Each Winter As the Year Grows Older. I had not been familiar with the hymn and the excerpt he shared touched me deeply in light of our world today.

When race and class cry out for treason,
When sirens call for war,
They overshout the voice of reason
And scream till we ignore
All we held dear before.

Yet I believe beyond believing,
That life can spring from death:
That growth can flower from our grieving;
That we can catch our breath
And turn transfixed by faith.

O Child of ecstasy and sorrows,
O Prince of peace and pain,
Brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s,
Renew our lives again;
Lord Jesus, come and reign!

You can listen to the whole song here:

Believe beyond believing!

Hope and Being Part of Hope

Prompted by an e-mail exchange with a Facebook friend of mine, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope during this past week.

As I’ve been sitting in the transition from the end time readings during the last few days of the liturgical year just ended to the Isaiah readings we hear in these days of Advent, I realize anew (and ever more deeply) that I both have hope and I am part of realizing that which I have hope for. And I jotted down in my journal the other morning three related points regarding the relationship between those two. First that hope without working on behalf of its fulfillment is mere wishful thinking. Second, that as hope grows, there is more energy to play my part in its realization. And finally, that the more I play my part, the more my hope grows and the more I help others have hope.

Although I drafted my contribution to the University of St. Thomas Advent and Christmas Meditations two weeks ago, when I re-read it yesterday morning (when it was published), I realized it fit perfectly with my current reflections on hope. Let me share here both my contribution and a comment I received from one of my colleagues.

Today’s first Mass reading includes one of my favorite passages in the Book of Isaiah – Isaiah’s compelling vision that
“the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. The calf and the young lion shall browse together…. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors…. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.”

A wolf the guest of a lamb? Calves browsing with lions? A baby playing in a cobra’s den? Crazy stuff! Impossible, our rational mind insists.

Yet, if I can’t imagine the “Peaceable Kingdom,” it will never exist. The first step toward a better future is imagining it, believing that that the unthinkable is attainable. Who knows what would be possible if we were able to imagine the future described by Isaiah! Palestinians as guests of Israelis. Boko Haram and Christians in Nigeria sharing a meal. Warring ethnic groups in the Sudan living as neighbors.

It is far simpler to dismiss Isaiah’s vision as impossible than to try to make it a reality. But as Pope Francis wrote in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, our challenge is precisely “to discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds” (neither of which is any less outlandish than a lion hanging out with a lamb or a child playing in a cobra’s den.)

So reflect on Isaiah’s vision for the world. And then recognize that in each moment, you have the ability to be a force for unity or a force for discord. To promote peace or to act against peace. To stir love or hatred. And ask yourself, what can I do to further the beautiful vision of Isaiah?

In response, my friend and colleague Mariana shared with me the following Mayan Proverb:

El que cree crea;
El que crea hace;
El que hace se transforma a sí mismo y a la sociedad en la que vive.

The one that believes creates;
The one that creates acts;
The one that acts transforms him or herself and the society in which he or she lives.

So have hope. And be part of the realization of that hope. Maybe it is by performing some random acts of kindness this Advent. Maybe it is by sharing your hope in song (as my friend who prompted my reflections on hope does). It could be in a million different ways. But don’t just have hope. Work on behalf of hope. Be hope.

Fear or Hope?

When I opened the New York Times this morning (yes, we still get it delivered every day even though we’ve lived in the Twin Cities for eight years now) I was struck by the fact that two of the headlines had the word “fear” in them (and there were several other “fears” sprinkled throughout the rest of news section of the paper).

It seems to me there is a lot of fear going around on all sorts of political and social issues.  What particular individuals fear varies, but the fear is a constant.

What I see less of in our news and other social commentary – including that by Christians – is mention of hope.  And that is unfortunate.  I think Timothy Radcliffe, in his book What is the Point of Being Christian, is absolutely correct that hope is the central gift we, as Christians, bring to the world. If Christianity makes any difference in how we live and how we die, it has to include how we convey hope to the world, how we point to what is not yet present.

To be sure, hope is not an invitation to sit back and do nothing.  I read an article a year or so ago in America Magazine by Robert Maloney, C.M., former superior general of the Congregation of the Mission.  In the article Maloney cited a quote attributable to Augustine of Hippo: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” Expounding on the quote, Maloney writes

Anger, Hope’s first daughter, reacts spontaneously in the face of evil, refusing to accept unjust social and economic structures that deprive the poor of life: unjust laws, power-based economic relationships, inequitable treaties, artificial boundaries, oppressive or corrupt governments and numerous other subtle obstacles to harmonious societal relationships. Then Hope’s second daughter, Courage, standing at Anger’s side and singing out persistently, searches for ways “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,” as Tennyson put it.

The union of the two is important. Too often, we see one daughter – Anger – unaccompanied by the second – Courage. After all, the anger part is a lot easier. It doesn’t take much effort to sit around and talk about how angry things make us. But anger without the courage (and energy) to act is unproductive.

Our call is not to sit in fear.  It is a call to spread hope.  And we spread hope not by sitting back and simply hoping all will be better, but  by letting our anger at injustice spur us to find ways to address that injustice.

 

The Weary World Rejoices

At Christmas Eve Mass last evening we listened to St. Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus and to the words of O Holy Night: A thrill of hope. The weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Today we celebrate the audacious claim that through the love of God, the Word became flesh. That God’s longing for us is so great God became human to bring us to wholeness. God becomes human and shares our lives in the deepest, most intimate possible way.

And that is something that demands a response from us. So as we kneel before the creche this morning, we might want to reflect on what that response is.

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Hope’s Children

Robert Maloney, C.M., former superior general of the Congregation of the Mission has a piece in the current issue of America Magazine on hope.

In it, he cites a quote attributable to Augustine of Hippo: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” Expounding on the quote, Maloney writes

Anger, Hope’s first daughter, reacts spontaneously in the face of evil, refusing to accept unjust social and economic structures that deprive the poor of life: unjust laws, power-based economic relationships, inequitable treaties, artificial boundaries, oppressive or corrupt governments and numerous other subtle obstacles to harmonious societal relationships. Then Hope’s second daughter, Courage, standing at Anger’s side and singing out persistently, searches for ways “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,” as Tennyson put it.

The union of the two is important. Too often, we see one daughter – Anger – unaccompanied by the second – Courage. After all, the anger part is a lot easier. It doesn’t take much effort to sit around and talk about how angry things make us. But anger without the courage (and energy) to act is unproductive.

By all means, be angry at the injustice in the world. But then ask yourself: what can I do to help address it?

A Wolf As a Guest of a Lamb?

One of the things I love about Advent is that the first Mass reading each day comes from the Book of Isaiah. Today’s first Mass reading is the lovely vision of Isaiah that

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.

Huh? A wolf the guest of a lamb? A calf browsing with a lion? A baby playing in a cobra’s den? Crazy stuff! That can’t happen, our rational mind says.

As I sat with that passage this morning, one of the lines that came to mind was the that used by Senator Robert F. Kennedy as a theme of his 1968 campaign for the U.S. presidential nomination: “Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”

The first step toward a better future is imagining that it can exist. To believe that that the unthinkable is possible. If our starting point is that it is impossible, it will be impossible. Who knows what would be possible if we were able to imagine a future where Isaiah’s prophesy was true!

Perhaps we should be more willing to sit with Isaiah’s vision without dismissing it as impossible. Or to frame it as Pope Francis did in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, “Our faith is challenged to discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds.” (Neither of which seems a whole lot less outlandish than a lion hanging out with a lamb.) As the Pope said, “that we are more realistic must not mean that we are any less trusting in the Spirit…Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents.”

Hope and the Lengthening of Days

I sometimes joke that my discernment around God’s invitation to move to the Twin Cities took an extra week as I kept asking God, “Are you serious? Minneapolis? I hate the cold; you know that! Are you sure you don’t mean someplace a tad bit warmer?” (And I can almost hear God chuckling.)

I freely admit that I am no fan of winter. Although I did ski a little in my twenties, and ice skated when I was a teen, I get cold very easily and during the winters here I sometimes feel like nothing I go can do will defrost the ice in my veins. I don’t like to hike in the cold; even the walk from the garage to the mailbox sometimes seems too daunting. I really don’t like the cold at all.

As we sit here in the early days of March, it is still cold, BUT BUT BUT, not as cold as even 10 days ago, AND the days are getting longer. A couple of weeks ago I was driving to work in the dark. Now, when I get up at 5:30a.m. and go downstairs to my prayer space, it is no longer completely dark outside. When I drive home at the end of the day, dusk still has not set in.

The days are getting longer, signaling that spring is coming. Oh, not tomorrow or the next day. We still have some time of cold weather ahead of us. But somehow they are easier to take now. The lengthening of the days is a sign of hope. We know that we can wait in hope for the coming of the season of awakening and birthing.

As long as we have hope, we can handle whatever we are faced with.

If It’s Not All Right…

Several weeks ago, we saw the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with some friends, a thoroughly enjoyable film. I have seen many people since then repeat the constant refrain of Sunny, the young hotel proprietor: “Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, then trust me, it’s not the end.” The line came to mind during my prayer yesterday.

I’ve been using Paul’s letter to the Romans for my daily prayer. Yesterday I prayed with the first part of Chapter 5 of Romans. Paul writes that “we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that afflictions produce endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Hope does not disappoint. This is not hope as in “I hope the Mets win tomorrow,” recognizing that they could just as easily lose, or “I hope I win the lottery,” knowing there is very little chance I will. This is hope in the sense of certain expectation. Hope with confidence. Hope that knows we will not be disappointed.

Things may not go well for us at one or more times (or many) times during our lives. We will suffer. We will experience heartache and loss. But we also know that in the end it will be all right because the love of God has been poured into our hearts.

If is not all right, trust me, it’s not the end.

I Beg To Differ

I love Margaret Silf, and I came across a quote the other day from her most recent book, A Book of Grace-Filled Days. Silf writes

A first-century philosopher observed: ‘When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness: “I beg to differ.”’ As we light our Christmas candles, we, too, say to the darkness in our world and in our own hearts, ‘You have no final power over us, for the first and final word is eternal light.’

Wonderful words to reflect on.

The event that we just celebrated two days ago is not simply about birth. It is, rather, the beginning of God-with-us that proceeds through Death, Resurrection, Ascension and the Coming of the Spirit. It is about the coming into the human world of the Word, and, as the reading from John we heard proclaimed on Christmas Day put it so beautifully, “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Our task, in this Christmas season and always, is to proclaim the reality of this light. To move through a world in which there is suffering, a world in which things sometimes look so very bleak, and say to the darkness (in the world and in our hearts), “I beg to differ. Victory has been won and you have no final power over us.”