Advent III Reflection: Confronting the Imperfect Herald

December 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

St. John the Baptist by El Greco, 1579

St. John the Baptist by El Greco, 1579

Imagine the perfect herald for Christ and his ministry. How would the herald dress? Where would the herald go? Which of Christ’s themes would the herald emphasize?In my own mind, she or he would dress unobtrusively, travel to those who cannot travel, and share Christ’s profound, unconditional love for humanity.

But I must have a limited imagination, because the first person to announce Christ’s ministry was John the Baptist: dressed most obtrusively in camel skins, waiting in an inconvenient location for the people to make the pilgrimage to him, and then calling those pilgrims a brood of vipers and describing Christ using terms appropriate for a pyromaniacal Grim Reaper.

Advent III focuses on preparation for Christ’s coming, and yet the man charged with leading that preparation, John the Baptist, seems to me profoundly unsympathetic: dogmatic, arrogant, comfortless; precursor to the fiercest fire and brimstone Christianity. Exactly the belief system from which I try to separate myself: “those people seem to have no concept of a loving God” or, “they shouldn’t even call themselves Christians.”

Yet the Christ who preached the Sermon on the Mount, one of civilization’s most enduring expressions of divine grace, mercy, and love, is also the Christ who came to John the Baptist as He prepared to begin His own ministry: He was willing to engage first with a man who located God’s power not in love and mercy but in retribution and damnation.

Perhaps the lesson is that respectfully confronting that fire and brimstone rhetoric is key to preparing the way for Christ: that to share the good news, we sometimes need to listen first to the “bad news” and understand why it resonates so strongly with some people. Hopefully, dialogue from a place of understanding will allow messages about God’s love to get through more easily than from a place of confrontation.

So as I prepare for the Second Coming, I feel called to engage in a more thoughtful way with fellow Christians whose understanding of God seems more connected to John the Baptist’s than mine. We can prepare together, and while I can’t force my understanding of God on them, I can be open to understanding their conception of God and why their own spiritual journeys have led them to that conception. We’re all imperfect heralds for Christ, and if He was willing to let John the Baptist lead the preparations for the First Coming, then I can be respectful of those who echo John’s rhetoric today.

– Jared Spencer

The Franciscan Thesis on Christmas

December 13, 2012 Comments Off on The Franciscan Thesis on Christmas

The Christmas crèche is traditionally associated with the inspiration to Francis of Assisi in 1223. He called the people of Grecchio to reenact the infancy narratives about the birth of the Savior-Redeemer. A critical question is behind the inspiration. Francis freely sought justice or the perfect good for its own sake and made this choice of the good of the Christmas reenactment in relation to goodness itself. Another way to say this is that Francis’s freedom came from his willingness to obey his personal quest for truth and to be docile. His will to interiorize and to love Goodness for its own sake and above all else is the inspiration for his metaphysician-theologians, Bonaventure [d. 1274] and John Duns Scotus [d. 1308], to reflect on the motive of the Incarnation. Bonaventure writes that the Incarnation is the greatest of God’s gifts. Duns Scotus reasoned, with Aristotelian precision, that Christ would have been born even if Adam and Eve had not fallen. Augustine had thought it possible but concluded that it did not happen. Scotus argued that in fact this is what God has done for us. Scotus reasons that the perfection in the redemptive work of Christ is not willed by God after foreseeing the fall of our first parents, but the consequence that presupposes the perfection of the Incarnation as an end in itself. Francis began a trajectory in understanding Mary, and his disciples used a Marian metaphysics, which Franciscans believe is the way to understand what they mean.

– Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFMConventual, University of Notre Dame

Advent Reflection: Waiting While You Wait

December 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses, Georgia O'Keefe, 1931, Oil on canvasAdvent

We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.

-Patrick Kavanagh

A friend once told me that it’s the waiting while you wait that gets you.  And with the waiting, in between the impatience and the silent peace in the pause of slow-paced truth, is the longing. The longing for things hoped for, for hope to pierce through the doubt, for a cup of kindness yet. 

In Patrick Kavanagh’s poem, he longs for “the luxury of a child’s soul” in the midst of Advent, hoping that the penitential rites, formerly associated with Advent in Roman Catholic Ireland, can cleanse out that which has been “tested and tasted too much”.  Kavanagh draws us into the disconnect between new wonder and experienced apathy, apathy won through the “knowledge we stole but could not use. While he waits, he longs for the “spirit-shocking wonder” found in the “ordinary plenty”, and he vows not to “analyse God’s breath in common statement.”  He desires to put aside knowledge and the material pleasures for the fulfillment of his Advent longing, which is in the coming of Christ.

December can be jingle-bell trite with slick Christmas pop songs about love, if only we can approach the critical purchasing mass. Kavanagh reminds us, however, that in the bleary-eyed midst of emptiness comes grace, grace which did not enter with blaring trumpets or loud cheers or probably even angels singing on high. God became human, like us, not in the midst of the sentiment of that there is “no place like home for the holidays”, but precisely in realities of rootlessness, poverty, social stigma, and of shame. Curious choice for an all-powerful, all-knowing God – and yet therein lies the strength, the grace in the broken cry of an infant.  We begin to realize why “God we shall not ask for reason’s payment”, because this God who lowers himself in poverty and shame does so that we may be raised to newness, to “prophetic astonishment”, and to the love which is as simple yet powerful as the assent of that January flower.

-Nicole Hanley

Advent I Reflection: Unexpected, Surprising Love

December 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

Advent IThis Advent season is the first time I’ve really made space to let the reality of Christ’s birth rest in me. It’s also the first time I’ve realized the amazing gap between the exhilarating event of Christ coming into the world and the rather tepid cultural experience of Christmas. Maybe this gap explains why the holidays have always been more comfortable than joyous for me. Every year, the season has been very predictable, and there’s been very little surprise in any of it—especially the kind of surprise that raises the everyday to the extraordinary. To be completely honest, that’s maybe all I really wanted — the usual get togethers, a Messiah performance somewhere, people generally in a better mood, time off, no big drama, and no surprises.

 Maybe I needed to become open to surprise before I could wake up to the meaning of Advent, because when I think about it now, every aspect of Christ’s birth seems surprising to me. Surprising that God would choose to reconcile with us by becoming one of us. Surprising, the humble setting for such a momentous birth. Surprising also, the people to whom the event was announced and the ways it was proclaimed. Most surprising of all, the form that the hand of redemption would take —not a powerful fist demanding our crushing obedience, but a tiny hand that would grow to reach out to us in a relentless gesture of compassion. God with us. 

 Christ’s teaching must have been completely surprising in his lifetime. There was such a gap between the expectations of those watching for him and his living reality. And, because of that expectation, they couldn’t be surprised by love. Now as then, is there anything more unexpected than love? Not so much the love we have for family and friends — not love reflected in kind, but the open, free-flowing, unattached, unexpected love that Christ showed us.  We know it when we experience it because of the unusual joy that we only feel in those moments when we come close to Christ’s love. And, because of Christ’s life, that love and joy is our birthright.

 When I look around, it seems that the longing for that love is everywhere, and the ache that people experience in its absence is profound. It’s especially noticeable at this time of year. What a surprise if must be for those who long for love to receive it in some measure, no matter how small. How much more surprising it must be for those who have long ago given up on that longing. Perhaps what “at the last day” will be, is a world where love is no longer surprising, where it infuses everything about us. A world where we’re turned inside-out and our greatest joy is realized in losing ourselves in our love for each other and in coming together in the endless embrace of our Christ, who has been waiting for us all along.

 So, my prayer for this Advent, it is that I might notice where I can surprise people with love. I want to be awake to the everyday places, the places that are easy to miss, the places where someone will be surprised by an unexpected act of generosity, or kindness. It might be offering to help a mother with a stroller on the subway stairs. Maybe it will be in coming on to someone looking through a trash can for food, and offering them a meal. Or maybe it will be something as simple as giving an understanding glance to one of the hundreds of people I see daily who are made frightened, lonely, and angry by the pressures of their life — a healing recognition far beyond the moment. Something unexpected, something surprising, something that, like that unexpected star, will point to Bethlehem and the reason for any love I have to offer — Christ was born.

– Tom Wharton

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