Waiting for the Lord

As Jeff Marlett commented last week on this page, now is an opportune time for Christians to draw again to the well of Christ; who is our spiritual drink in the desert of this world. One of the beauties of the liturgical calendar, in this regard, is that its regularity and cyclical nature points us continuously back to the mysteries of the faith. Amid natural, social, and political disturbances, the calendar always reminds of the unchanging and eternal nature of God. And that this God does not forsake us to the seemingly haphazard and tumultuous events of history. Rather, He entered human history in order to sanctify it, to draw us into communion with Himself and, thereby, with each other.

Channeling the beginning of Dr. Marlett’s last post, then, I would state: “in case you missed it,” we’ve begun a new liturgical year! The first Sunday of Advent marks the start of every liturgical year and, perhaps now in a most needed way, directs us to anticipate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. By commemorating the anticipation of his arrival, we are reliving the history of our spiritual forefathers and foremothers, i.e., ancient Israel. In many and various ways, the liturgical celebrations of the Church remind us of this communion we have with ancient Israel. Just as they longed for the coming of the Messiah, so too do we anticipate his return. And not only us but, as St. Paul vividly and strikingly phrases it, “the whole of creation has been groaning with labor pains together” (Rom 8:22) in anticipation of redemption.

adventA key word which is often used in the study of liturgy is anamnesis. While this word literally means “remembering,” in a liturgical context it does not simply mean this. In Christian worship, anamnesis refers to “making the past a present and lived reality by remembering.” One way that we Catholics do this during Advent is by reciting – ideally, chanting – the “O Antiphons.”

The “O Antiphons” are those antiphons sung for the Magnificat during vespers between December 17th and 23rd. They all petition the coming of the Lord using a foreshadowed title for Christ found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Though these titles appear scattered throughout the OT, they can also all be found somewhere is the book of Isaiah. For example, the “O Antiphon” for December 17th asks: “O Wisdom of our God Most High, guiding creation with power and love: come to teach us the path of knowledge” (cf. Is 11:2; 28:29; Wis 8:1; Sir 24:3). Here is the beginning of each “O Antiphon”:

December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)

December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)

December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)

December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)

December 21: O Oriens (O Dawn)

December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)

December 23: O Emmanuel (O God with Us)

Significantly, when the first letter of title is taken in reverse order it spells out E-R-O-C-R-A-S. In Latin, ero cras translates as: “I will be [there] tomorrow.” Thus, like the disciples before Pentecost (Lk 24:49), we await the fulfillment of the promise of the Lord.

By reciting the “O Antiphons” we make ancient Israel’s anticipation of the arrival of the Savior our own. With them we pray: Maranatha, “Come, Lord” (1 Cor 16:22). And like them, as today’s Gospel reading reminds us, we should be prepared for his arrival. “Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Mt 24:44).

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

The Gift of Waiting

advent3Now, in this holy season of Advent, the time spent waiting and preparing grows shorter.  But waiting is never easy.  Ask any child or the child in any of us for that matter.  Sometimes the waiting can make us desire the object of our waiting more and even sharpen our focus on that which is the object of our interest and affection.  We all know the adage “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”.  That compulsive aspect of waiting can prompt some to try to distract their attention by shifting the focus to something else.  Filling that emptiness with activity and distraction is likely something we’ve all done.  While that strategy may help pass the time, I’m not so sure that it’s the best use of our time and that gift.  In terms of our spiritual journey, my personal opinion is that the time of waiting is a gift, a grace that should be embraced as an opportunity to experience the longing for God.  The experience of that utter absence sets the stage for our ability to clear the space in our hearts and lives and know so deeply that that space was always meant for him to fill.  Realizing that this longing for God was the greatest gift that God could give me prompted me to pen these words many years ago.  I prayerfully return to them every Advent and I pass them on to you in the hope that they may resonate in your Advent prayer.

When did His favor

first come to rest upon her?

She ponders beginnings-

her memory cannot conjure the time,

the moment,

or extend her remembrance

into His knowing,

to that moment when His choosing

first nurtured her innocence.

She rests knowing

her response was always

His gift first-

that He prepared her in secret

and love her

before her remembering-

that His humility conceived

her freedom.

 

This poem first appeared in Review for Religious (Nov./Dec.1988)

 

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

He Comes in Silence

 A few years ago a friend shared a prayer with me called the St. Andrew’s Christmas Novena. The devotion, popular in the Western Church, is prayed daily from the feast of St. Andrew until Christmas. It is a beautiful prayer, and it goes like this:

“Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His blessed Mother. Amen.”

This prayer, profound in its simplicity, tells not only the meaning of Christmas, but the meaning of our lives in Jesus Christ. Close your eyes and picture the scene: night falls after a long day’s travel. Mary, uncomfortable and tired, knows her time of delivery is imminent. Joseph, doing his duty by registering for the census, feels the weight of responsibility for the care of the wife he brought so far from home, and the child who’s on his way. Searching the crowded city, the couple finally finds a cave in which to rest and wait. It’s quiet and cold. Finally, the child is born, but not just any child: the Word of God spoken as a helpless infant. The silence of the night is interrupted by the cries of the Child, the low hum of His mother’s comforting song, and Joseph softly stroking the newborn King’s head. Once again the quiet, and only Heaven really knows the wonder, the miracle of God’s love that the Earth will puzzle over and misunderstand as the Child grows.

In our “traditional” experience of Charlie Brown Christmas specials, “Midnight Mass,” and the breaking of oplatky embossed with Nativity scenes, it’s easy to embrace the “noise” of Christmas and lose the quiet contemplation and wonder. In our cozy kitchens, by the fireside, and snuggled in our beds we may forget the magnificence in the austerity of the Nativity of Christ. God becomes a man, the Creator becomes a creature, and the Son becomes a son. God breaks into time and history, into “the piercing cold” on a night a long time ago, in a place far away, yet into the very heart of the experience of each one of us.

The one, true living God is not a concept or a distant Watcher. He is a Person: a relationship of love – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who desires to be so close to us for all eternity that He comes to meet us “on our own turf.” The Son of God enters His creation Picture1as a baby, piercing not only the cold darkness of one night in history, but the cold, dark spaces of our human experience. Christmas shopping and gift-giving, baked ham and cranberry sauce, and the reunion of family and friends are an important and vital part of our Christmas experience. Worship in the Divine Liturgy and communion with each other are essential to the celebration. But so too is the quiet meditation, deep in each of our hearts, on the Word made flesh. Jesus became a man to save us – yes – to heal our spiritual infirmity – yes – and to conquer death – YES! Yet within the magnanimity of this saving act is the simple, subtle, unassuming truth of Emmanuel: God with us. When we are vulnerable, so is He. When we are weak and sick, so is He. When we laugh and when we cry, He is there.

As we wrap gifts and buy groceries, prepare feasts and make our way to Liturgy in the cold of night or the crisp early morning, let’s remember to steal moments of quiet thought. The gifts are signs pointing to the Gift of God Himself. The feast and fellowship we share foreshadow the bountiful goodness He has prepared for us. The Liturgy is that place where we meet Him, face to face, as vulnerable in the Bread and Wine as He was in the manger, but no less physically and spiritually present. Our hearts are the place where He lives, if we prepare a place there for Him to rest with us.

“Hail and blessed be the hour and moment,” and every moment of our lives, because God is near.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. This article first appeared in Eastern Catholic Life, the official publication of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic.

Mary and Advent (Or, Why Legos Just Don’t Satisfy the Infinite Thirst for God)

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on December 7, 2014.

My kids are into Legos right now. They are perhaps not my favorite toy, to which the bottom of my foot will testify.

Legos

But Legos—excuse me, interlocking brick construction systems—are at least an interesting case-study in human desire. To wit: Kid A desperately wants Lego Set X. He thinks, speaks, and dreams of Lego Set X. He obtains Lego Set X—rejoicing! He constructs Lego Set X. It’s fun.

On the day after comes the Great Letdown. Onto desiring Lego Set Y!

We adults may not try to fill the God-hole in our hearts with Lego sets. Then again, maybe we do.

Or perhaps we go for more Grow out of legossophisticated alternatives. Like the iPhone 6. Or the right job. Or the great relationship. But we are still just overgrown kids, vainly throwing Lego bricks into an infinite hole and wondering why we still feel lousy.

All of this points to the providence of having the Feast of the Immaculate Conception right smack in Advent, on December 8. The season of Advent these days has become the time to advert to our infinite desire for God amidst and despite the relentless consumerism of December. The purity of Mary, which is the product of her Immaculate Conception, releases her to drink deeply from the only well that satisfies human thirst: the truth and love of the triune God.

Mary fully allows the Father to achieve what Fr. Robert Imbelli in his beautiful book Rekindling the Christic Imagination calls “Christification”:

Christians are called not merely to the imitation of Christ but to participation in his own life, gradually becoming transformed from their old self to the new self, recreated according to the image and likeness of their Savior, who loves them and, in the Eucharist, continues to give himself for them.

The icon is the Mother of God of the Inexhaustible Chalice, a classic Russian icon. Mary calls us to come and drink from that chalice that never runs dry, the eternicon 3al, self-giving love of her Son Jesus. Like Christ arising from the chalice, so are we, as little Christs, resurrected into the newness of Christian life by his Eucharist grace. The Christification that God has achieved in Mary, he wants to do for each of us. What Mary has allowed God to do for her, she wishes us to experience through her maternal care. And we will, if we say fiat as she did.

This, then, is the hope of Advent: the hope of transformation into Christ, the satisfaction of those infinite longings for the triune God. This is the hope we bring to others. “The New Evangelization is not about a program,” Fr. Imbelli writes, “but about a Person and about participation in the new life he enables.”

As cool as Legos are, that’s much, much better.

Angela Franks teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

Awaiting the Incarnation

Almost everyone loves babies. And when the baby is the incarnate Lord, making himself completely vulnerable as a helpless infant, we are that much more moved at his coming, his advent, his nativity.

If the author of the Gospel of John knew of these stories, however, he seems to have been relatively unimpressed. And so we look forward to hearing Matthew and Luke’s nativity narrative, repeatedly, and perhaps glance over brief inclusions of passages from John.

And yet it is the Gospel of John that gives us the broadest perspective, and to me the most meaningful context of the incarnation. Matthew looks especially to the import of the incarnation in the context of God’s relationship to his people as revealed in Jewish history, indicated by the beginning of the Gospel, the genealogy of Jesus reaching back to Abraham. While Matthew includes signs of the Roman imperial context, it remains to Luke to place the incarnation squarely in that world, with his elegant and scholarly dedication and his direct signal to “the time of Caesar Augustus.” Both contexts are necessary to explore, and I doubt that the author of the Fourth Gospel would counter either one.

But his interests are broader. The prologue (1:1-18) of the Gospel of John continues a centuries-long discussion in Judaism regarding how it is possible to speak of a God who is both transcendent and immanent, Wholly Other Creator of the universe and yet intimately involved in every creature and to whom every creature gestures. The words used interchangeably for talking about God as present here, God-for-us, varied by the first century BCE; they included Wisdom, Son, Spirit, and yes, Word (logos).

Drawing deeply in his prologue from biblical passages such as Genesis 1, Sirach 24:1-25, Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-30, and Proverbs 8:22-36, this author makes it clear that Jesus Christ is no less than the incarnation of what the Jewish tradition has called God’s Wisdom, God when God is completely for us, especially as Creator of the universe. God’s Wisdom has been revealed before in Torah, in the Temple, in creation, but never so permanently and perfectly as now, in a particular human being. John’s is a Cosmic Advent.

With apologies to my spiritual father Francis of Assisi and his initiation of the living manger scene, John’s is a magnificent image to which I am personally far more attached than to the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. But John’s vision does present a problem: how does one live a cosmic advent every day? How is it manageable or even helpful? How do we put flesh on that imposing vision that this author has given us?

Some practical activities can help draw our attention to the wonder of the Cosmic Advent. We could look at the stars, really take time to look at the stars, and here I must recognize the contribution of my rescue pup Sasha, for whose needs I stand outside at 11pm every night! We could note the phase of the moon each night and marvel prayerfully in the wondrous structure and processes of the universe that result in what we can see at that moment, and we can marvel prayerfully that the savior whose advent we now celebrate is so much more than that.  

But we don’t have to be unceasingly celestial in our gaze to remind ourselves of the glorious interconnectedness and redemption of the universe that Christ reveals (Col 1:15-20). We can at so many moments of the day and night bring our awareness to the “thisness,” as John Duns Scotus and other medieval scholastics would call it (haecceity), of each created being God brings across our paths every day. We can “go small” and practice hospitality to our companions on this planet as best we can. When we do that, we celebrate an unending Advent, as Mary Oliver expresses in her poem “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” which I first encountered in America magazine (Sept. 25, 2006).

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.

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Art of Preparation

A number of years’ ago, my sister read an article titled “Be a Guest at your own Party!” The gist of the article was that with excellent preparation holiday entertaining can be stress free. To this day, my sister and I still judge how well we prepared for a party by asking if we feel like guests. As much as we get that good preparation goes a long way, sometimes it seems that no preparation is enough to make the Christmas holidays stress free. Perhaps this is why we have been given the season of Advent—a liturgical season designed to help us prepare not just for the celebration of Christ’s birth, like the way we prepare to celebrate a birthday, but rather the real celebration of anticipating Christ’s return and the coming of the fullness of the kingdom of God. And seriously, who of us is really ready for that party?

Euro shots 038On the one hand, it is the time of year when the spiritual emphasis of preparation matches the secular reality—there is a lot of preparation necessary to celebrate Christmas in the parish and in our homes. And, while many of our Christmas traditions have spiritual roots: the symbolism of the wreath and tree, the tradition of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus in giving gifts, the exquisite storytelling of our favorite Christmas carols, baking, gift –buying, gift-wrapping, cooking, and decorating can overwhelm and even steal away the time we need for spiritual preparation.

Imagine if you knew when Christ would return? What would you need to do to be ready for that? I read an Advent reflection that described the days of Advent as a time to make room for Christ: by clearing out all in our hearts that is not Christ. We celebrate Christmas specifically to help us make a habit of taking stock of how ready we are to receive Christ.

One of my favorite Scripture passages which captures the art of this spiritual preparation is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 25:1-13). Tasked with keeping their lamps light in anticipation of the coming of Our Lord, five of the women thought ahead and brought additional flasks of oil and five, did not stop to think of what they needed to get the job done. Those unprepared and without oil were locked out of the feast. This parable (depicted here in the photo of the beautiful mosaic found on the front of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome), is worth making part of your Advent prayer and reflection.

For me, it is a reminder of the contemplative and active dimenswisefoolishvirginsions of the Christian life. Preparation is a contemplative act in that we are drawn deeper into the mystery of the unfolding plan of salvation. Coming to know the Lord in prayer is the surest way to be confident we will recognize the Lord when he comes. Serving the Lord is the other dimension of preparation. Oil, in the parable, is symbolic of works of love, and so the subtle message of the parable is that at the eleventh hour, the foolish women could not borrow the good works of their wise sisters! At the heart of Christmas is the exchange of gifts—material and otherwise that really are signs of the love we have for those receiving the gifts we share. The poem below captures this so beautifully:

Face to face with our limits,

Blinking before the frightful

Stare of our frailty,

Promise rises

Like a posse of clever maids

Who do not fear the dark

Because their readiness

Lights the search.

Their oil

Becomes the measure of their love,

Their ability to wait—

An indication of their

Capacity to trust and take a chance.

Without the caution or predictability

Of knowing day or hour,

They fall back on that only

Of which they can be sure:

Love precedes them,

Before it

No door will every close.

                                                      (T.J. O’Gorman)

Susan Timoney is the Assistant Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Mary and Advent (Or, Why Legos Just Don’t Satisfy the Infinite Thirst for God)

My kids are into Legos right now. They are perhaps not my favorite toy, to which the bottom of my foot will testify.Legos

But Legos—excuse me, interlocking brick construction systems—are at least an interesting case-study in human desire. To wit: Kid A desperately wants Lego Set X. He thinks, speaks, and dreams of Lego Set X. He obtains Lego Set X—rejoicing! He constructs Lego Set X. It’s fun.

On the day after comes the Great Letdown. Onto desiring Lego Set Y!

We adults may not try to fill the God-hole in our hearts with Lego sets. Then again, maybe we do.

Or perhaps we go for more Grow out of legossophisticated alternatives. Like the iPhone 6. Or the right job. Or the great relationship. But we are still just overgrown kids, vainly throwing Lego bricks into an infinite hole and wondering why we still feel lousy.

 

All of this points to the providence of having the Feast of the Immaculate Conception right smack in Advent, on December 8. The season of Advent these days has become the time to advert to our infinite desire for God amidst and despite the relentless consumerism of December. The purity of Mary, which is the product of her Immaculate Conception, releases her to drink deeply from the only well that satisfies human thirst: the truth and love of the triune God.

Mary fully allows the Father to achieve what Fr. Robert Imbelli in his beautiful book Rekindling the Christic Imagination calls “Christification”:

Christians are called not merely to the imitation of Christ but to participation in his own life, gradually becoming transformed from their old self to the new self, recreated according to the image and likeness of their Savior, who loves them and, in the Eucharist, continues to give himself for them.

The icon is the Mother of God of the Inexhaustible Chalice, a classic Russian icon. Mary calls us to come and drink from that chalice that never runs dry, the eternicon 3al, self-giving love of her Son Jesus. Like Christ arising from the chalice, so are we, as little Christs, resurrected into the newness of Christian life by his Eucharist grace. The Christification that God has achieved in Mary, he wants to do for each of us. What Mary has allowed God to do for her, she wishes us to experience through her maternal care. And we will, if we say fiat as she did.

This, then, is the hope of Advent: the hope of transformation into Christ, the satisfaction of those infinite longings for the triune God. This is the hope we bring to others. “The New Evangelization is not about a program,” Fr. Imbelli writes, “but about a Person and about participation in the new life he enables.”

As cool as Legos are, that’s much, much better.

Angela Franks teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

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Watch!

I am very glad to be posting on this day, the first Sunday of Advent, because it affords me the opportunity to meditate on a theme which one seldom hears preached from the ambo but upon which our very salvation rests! This theme, of course, is Christ’s return (parousia) in judgment over the living and the dead on the last day (eschaton).

ChristMost Christians, and many non-Christians for that matter, could easily identify Jesus’ resurrection is the central belief of Christianity. In fact, it is only in the light of Christ’s resurrection that other Christian dogmas, such as the Trinity and Incarnation, can be seen as revealed truths. But what is often obscure is the meaning of Christ’s resurrection for us. Jesus’ resurrection is the “first fruit,” i.e., the sign and the promise, of the transformation that awaits all of creation (cf. 1 Cor 15:23-24). To put it plainly: a heaven of disembodied spirits is not our ultimate destination. Our ultimate destination, what we hope for, is the transformation of the entire cosmos, God’s Kingdom on earth, and our own resurrection into eternal life.

The celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas ought, therefore, to make us “groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). Just as at the birth of an earthly prince, an heir to the throne, we might anticipate the time when he finally rules over his kingdom, so too do we anticipate at Christmas the time when Christ’s Kingship (last Sunday) will be manifest “on earth as in heaven” (Mt 6:10). The Preface Prayer from today’s Mass reminds us that this is the fulfillment our hope.

For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh,

and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago,

and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that,

when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest,

we who watch for the day may inherit the great promise in which we now dare to hope.

One might say that our very lives while here on earth are preparation for the Kingdom. Jesus’ own Gospel proclamation announced its arrival. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15; cf. Mt 3:2). Jesus’ life, his teachings, and the grace which he bestows upon us through the sacraments of the Church, are all preparations for this Kingdom; a Kingdom which will only be consummated at his return. In this regard, all Christians are called to be Echatological Christians; that is, Christians who pray and long for Christ’s return. We are all called, with St. Paul, to pray “Marana tha” (1 Cor 16:22), which means “Our Lord, come,” or, as elsewhere in the NT, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

Sistine ChapelThus, perhaps for reflection on this First Sunday of Advent, we ought to ask ourselves: Do I pray for the coming of the Lord or would I prefer that he take his time in returning? Have the goods of this world captured my imagination so that, in my everyday life, I have made them ends in themselves rather than means to my salvation? Do I live St. Paul’s exhortation to “not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of [my] mind” (Rom 12:2). Will the Master of the house arrive and find me sleeping, at rest with the comfortable life I have made for myself? In today’s Gospel Christ reminds all of us to be prepared for his return at any and every moment. “Watch!” (Mk 13:37).

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 Don’t miss Saint Joseph’s College Online faculty (and blogger!) Susan Timoney presenting a webinar through the Catholic Apostolate Center on December 2. Click here for details!