In our third Sunday of the Season of Advent, the readings turn to the “firstcoming” of Jesus. John the Baptist, in the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel, announces the impending appearance of Jesus in public ministry. This was the beginning of a new age—the breaking into human history of what Jesus would call “the kingdom of God”—God’s will to be done right here and right now.
John’s announcement was earthy and direct. First he got his audience’s attention by calling them “brood of vipers”—children of snakes. Then he called upon them to repent—not just to feel remorse for their sins, but to change the way they lived. When they asked for guidance he gave them advice that was very down to earth. He didn’t say “Go to the temple and make a sin offering.” He didn’t say “Go and study the Scriptures.” Instead he said, “Change the everyday ways you treat the people around you—do right by them.” If people were so poor they lacked clothes and food, those who had those things should share them. Tax collectors should not charge more than what was actually due and soldiers should not abuse their situation of power by extorting money from people.
John is not only urging the people to change their lives in the direction of mercy and justice. He is pointing to a deep mystery of the Incarnation—its earthiness. In taking on human life completely, with all its limitations, God enters fully into the practical ordinariness of human life and dignifies it. It is within the ordinary, the specifics of daily life, that the “kingdom of God” shows forth, as people who love and are loved by God turn their lives around and love their neighbors as themselves. In so doing they are vipers no longer. They become icons of the new age.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Deacon Frederick Erickson
In last week’s Gospel, Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem, teaching and preaching along the way, as recounted in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:46-52)
He and his companions have walked to Jericho (about twenty miles from Jerusalem). There, he cured a blind man. And he taught us by example.
Jesus had compassion.
Jesus listened. He had compassion. And he healed.
In this week’s Gospel, commemorating the Feast of All Saints, Jesus shows us humanity again. And He shows us an even greater example of God’s power. (John 11:32-44)
He walks to comfort friends Mary and Martha after the death of their brother. He weeps over Lazarus. And, not for his sake, but for the sake of the crowd gathered there, so that they may believe, He raises Lazarus, deceased for four days, from the dead.
Faith has power. We may all be blind to some degree, and to some things. We all may be sick, in one way or another. But we can all have faith – faith in the power and the love of Jesus Christ for each and every one of us, no matter how afflicted, no matter what our blindness or sickness is. We can believe that we are loved by Jesus Christ. Jesus has time for us. He believes in us. He wants us to believe in the power of his Father.
In the words of our parish prayer, we can ask for the grace to grow in faith, hope and love.
We can learn from what Jesus teaches. And we can all be unbound and let go by the power of faith.
Walking with you in faith,
When Jesus saw his mother
and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her,
he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.”
Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.”
Standing, in the midst of suffering, requires strength. Mary and John stand at the foot of the Cross with the strength that comes from faith. Although their hearts are broken because their beloved is dying, they know, in faith, that Jesus is victorious in love. Jesus is communicating divine love in these last moments of His life. This is why and how Jesus gives them to one another. He is not simply seeking to ensure that they take care of one another, so that He can have peace of mind. It is so much deeper than this. Jesus is establishing a new, deeper spiritual kinship. Otherwise, it would make no sense for Him to say to His mother,“Woman” or “behold your son”. And, it would make no sense for Him to say to John, “Behold, your mother”. We are witnessing the overflow of divine love.
I invite you to approach our tabernacle at the main altar in the sanctuary. This tabernacle used to sit empty in our Lady Chapel. It now sits prominently at our main altar. Our Parish Administrator has lovingly cleaned and polished it. It has probably not been this radiant since it was crafted many years ago. (Thank you, Mark!) Details have come to life: swirling clouds and Holy Land–scape, and above all, Mary and John, co-suffering with Jesus, standing by faith.
The refreshment of this tabernacle door is a metaphor for the cleaning and polishing of our hearts currently underway by the Holy Spirit. We are entering a new chapter in the life of our parish. Our prayer for renewal and growth is an expression of our desire to hasten what God is doing in and through us. Our purpose is to grow in faith, hope and love, that is, to enter more deeply into the life shared by Mary and John—who journey with us. And, our purpose is to grow in number as a parish, sharing the gifts bestowed upon us. It is in sharing the gifts that we receive that they bear fruit.
Lead us into our neighborhoods to be agents of holy transformation,
and, with apostolic zeal, to bring back new parishioners
with whom we may worship you as an awesome God.
Give us hearts wide open to welcome them
and all those who come through our doors.
And, by the power of your Spirit, may we, together,
“go and make disciples of all nations.”
Thomas Merton (d. 1968), the well-known Trappist monk, in his 1948 autobiography, Seven-Story Mountain, speaks of being “salt of the earth”. In this Sunday’s gospel (Mark 9:38-50), Jesus tells us: “have salt in yourselves”. Thomas, of course, speaks of religious life, which is about belonging to God in a unique and special way, thanks to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The spirit of religious life, however, ought to permeate the journey of each of us and of us all as Body of Christ, the Church. We are called wholeheartedly to belong to God. And, in that belonging, to impart the flavor of God to one another and, as the same passage says, to “be at peace with one another”.
I will let Thomas speak:
I had to be led by a way that I could not understand, and I had to follow a path that was beyond my own choosing. God did not want anything of my natural fancies and selections until they had been more completely divorced from their old track, their old habits, and directed to Himself, by His own working…My selfishness was asserting itself, and claiming this whole vocation for itself, by investing the future with all kinds of natural pleasures and satisfactions which would fortify and defend my ego against the troubles and worries of life in the world.
Besides, I was depending almost entirely on my own powers and on my own virtues — as if I had any! — to become a good religious, and to live up to my obligations in the monastery. God does not want that. He does not ask us to leave the world as a favor to Himself.
God calls us — not only religious, but all Christians — to be the “salt of the earth.” But the savor of the salt, says St. Augustine, is a supernatural life, and we lose our savor if, ceasing to rely on God alone, we are guided, in our actions, by the mere desire of temporal goods or the fear of their loss: “Be ye not solicitous, therefore, saying what shall we eat, or what shall we drink or wherewith shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things.” “And he said to all: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life, for my sake, shall save it.”
In this Sunday’s second reading (chapter three of the letter from Saint James), a great question is posed, one that we might be tempted to pose in the public square:
Who is wise and understanding among you?
Oh, how we need wisdom in our lives, in our homes, in our workplaces, in the public square.
Saint James speaks of wisdom from above, the unique understanding that comes from the Holy Spirit, joining our hearts and minds. Saint James gives us a few hints as to what characterizes such wisdom: “wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy”.
I want such wisdom! It is indeed a gift. If so, it must be sought and received. Who is wise and understanding? The one who asks.
One prayer seeking wisdom is the well-known serenity prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971), a United Church of Christ minister, professor, author, and 1964 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Seeking wisdom with you,
Saint James asks, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (2:5). Some would call this revolutionary. Some would simply call this the mystery of divine love. God, who is love, sees what the naked eye does not: our inner beauty.
The words of Saint James remind me of the three years I spent in the L’Arche community (I was in a community in Brussels, Belgium. There are four communities in the greater Washington, DC area, for which our Parish Administrator, Mark Cosenza, was formerly Director or Operations and Finance). “The aim of L’Arche is to create communities, which welcome people who have intellectual disabilities. By this means, L’Arche seeks to respond to the distress of those who are too often rejected, and to give them a valid place in society.” (Charter of the Communities of L’Arche). At L’Arche, the “poor in the world” are recognized as “rich in faith”. And, those who choose to live with them are enriched in faith. The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, in his book, “Becoming Human” says the following:
The belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart of L’Arche…and at the heart of being human… We do not discover who we are, we do not reach true humanness, in a solitary state; we discover it through mutual dependency, in weakness, in learning through belonging.
We must ask God to see with “divine eyes”, eyes of faith, to see as God does.
Here is a morning prayer (attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi) asking this:
Lord, in the silence of this morning,
I ask You for peace, wisdom and strength.
I wish to see the world today only with eyes full of love,
to be patient, gentle and wise
to see Your beloved children as do You, beyond appearances,
and thus only see the good in them.
Close my eyes to all malice and keep my tongue from all malevolence.
May only thoughts that bless be in my mind,
that I be so kind and joyous that all those who approach me sense Your presence.
Clothe me with Your beauty, Lord, and may I reveal You all the day long.
You may have noticed that we have statues: Christ the King and Mary, as well as Saint Agnes, our Patroness and Saint Vincent the Deacon (both of whom died in 304) (It is unclear how Saint Vincent made his way here, but we welcome him nonetheless!) In front of all of them, we have votive candles. Why votive candles? Indeed, why statues? What is their meaning? Are they a helpful tradition? Are we, rather, engaging in a superstitious practice?
Let us consider what preceded and prepared our practice. In Judaism, a perpetual light was kept burning in the Temple (and in the synagogues) primarily to show the presence of God (cf. Exodus 27: 20-21 and Leviticus 24: 2-4). Later the Talmud prescribed a lit lamp at the Ark, where the Torah and other sacred writings were kept, to show reverence—a practice that probably influenced ours of having a lit candle to indicate the presence of Christ in Communion reserved in the Tabernacle.
There is evidence that lit candles (or oil lamps) were burned at the tombs of saints, particularly martyrs, by the 200s, and before sacred images and relics by the 300s. St. Jerome (d. 420), in his Contra Vigilantium, attested to this practice. And, the practice continued to develop.
Although a natural symbol, light has a special significance for us: Christ, “the true light” (John 1:9). Some Medieval spiritual writers expanded the imagery of the candle itself: beeswax symbolized the purity of Christ; the wick, the human soul of Christ; and the light, His divinity. Recall Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the light of life” (John 8:12) and “I have come to the world as its light, to keep anyone who believes in me from remaining in the dark” (John 12:46).
Here, as in the early Church, as a gesture of honor, we light a candle before a statue of our Lord or of a saint. i.e., those whom our Lord has fully “conformed into his image” (cf. Romans 8:29). Of course, we do not honor the statue (or any image). We are not engaging in superstitious practice. It all depends on intention. These are but stepping stones in prayer. We make use of a visual representation and reminder to turn to Him Whom we worship without seeing. As far as Mary and the saints are concerned, we do not worship them; we venerate them because of what Jesus has done in them and because we believe them to be present by virtue of Jesus.
The light signifies that prayer is a “coming into” the light of Christ. And what is wonderful about a candle is that it continues to burn when we are gone, expressing our desire to remain present to the Lord in prayer even though we may depart and go about our daily business.
You are welcome to light a votive candle...
Yours in the light of Christ,,
(Thanks to a July 1994 issue of “The Arlington Catholic Herald” for inspiration for this reflection.)
Pray in the Spirit at all times
in every prayer and supplication.
To that end keep alert
and always persevere
in supplication for all the saints.
These two encouraging verses are from the letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians(6:18). To “pray at all times” is a tall order, however! At all times?!? What about sleep? What about all of the people and daily responsibilities that demand my attention? I’ll never get anything done!
Well, Saint Paul speaks of prayer in the Spirit. And, the same Saint Paul tells us elsewhere that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”. (Romans 8:26)
“At all times” is thus perhaps less a reference to a continuous act of prayer in time—which is impossible—and more a reference to a constant intention to be open to the Holy Spirit, Who indwells us and helps us to pray. Indeed, although the Holy Spirit is active in us and wishes to teach us to pray (wishes to pray in us), we must do our part. We must intend, want, choose: “Come Holy Spirit, enkindle in us the fire of Your love”.
Our prayer is a mysterious act of faith, hope and love, and is both the work of the Holy Spirit in us and our act. And, per this and other exhortations from Saint Paul, our prayer must dare include all aspects of our life (“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Our prayer must be humble and not presumptuous. Our prayer must be full of hope and persevere. Who makes this possible? The Holy Spirit—if we want…
pupil with you of the Holy Spirit
I mean, really. It can be such a hassle. Getting out of bed the only day we have for deserved extra sleep before resuming the rat race of the week. And, for some, the drive. Oh, the drive! Even if less crazy than during the week, it is still a drive. And, for some, kids. Oh, the kids! Not always cooperative. The deck seems stacked against going to church. And, can’t I just pray at home and essentially be fine?
Well, in this Sunday’s gospel (John 6:51-58), Jesus’ words are powerful and give us a powerful reason to go to church:
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you have no life in you.”
In our church, we believe in the Eucharist, Communion. We believe that Jesus, the Bread of Life, gives Himself in a very particular, perhaps even in an “unsettling” way. Jesus gives a simple bread that communicates to us His flesh and thus His Self. (This, of course, requires a huge leap of faith!) This gift we cannot give to ourselves at home.
“No life in you” seems a little strong, however!! Where does this leave me if I don’t go to church? Where does this leave Christians who don’t believe in this gift? Well, “the Lord is gracious and merciful” (Psalm 145:8). This gift is not the only way in which God loves us. But, it is a special way, and perhaps we can say that we are missing something in our relationship with Jesus without this intimate gift. Jesus speaks strongly when He is sharing His heart. Jesus is adamant because He is the Bread of Life, and He wants us to have life, to come to life, to taste everlasting life.
So, why go to Church? For incredible, incredibly uplifting music, a (hopefully!) decent sermon, the faces of sisters and brothers in Christ, but, above all, this gift, which gives meaning to all the rest. We go to church to be loved and, in that love, to go forth to love, “to do all such good works as God has prepared for us to walk in” (Eucharistic Prayer, Rite I)
In Christ’s love,
Member of the Body of Christ
From the desk of the Rector