Memorial of St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
When we think ahead to that great fulfillment for which we, as Christians, should long, let us remember that it will not be a private affair. It will be public and communal. We will not be isolated from our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we will live in a community. The New Jerusalem is named after a city for a reason. There is perhaps no greater rebuke to contemporary individualism than this theme from Scripture.
This is the fundamental reason why the Church speaks on social and public moral issues. St. Ambrose, for example, famously excommunicated the Emperor Theodosius, who had committed a grave sin connected to the slaughter of innocent people in the city of Thessalonica. Because of this appropriately stern action and because of the grace of God, the Emperor submitted to public penance and was forgiven. Many people might wonder today why the Church doesn’t just leave people alone – thank God she doesn’t!
Friday of the First Week of Advent
“It’s the End of the World!!”
This phrase has become a pet-peeve of mine, at least when it becomes associated with the second coming of Christ. To call it the end implies that, after that, humanity or the universe will cease to exist in any meaningful sense. But that’s completely contrary to Scripture. The second coming of Christ does not bring the end of the world, but the beginning of the final and complete stage of the human story. It will be the New Jerusalem – the new humanity, purified and resplendent.
When I speak about this with sophomores in high school, they are shocked. A noticeable quiet overtakes the room as they ponder this apparently new idea. It may seem esoteric and irrelevant, but it isn’t. As opposed to a gloomy, nihilistic destruction – we believe in a final perfection and fulfillment. How different would the world look with this vision before our eyes?
Thursday of the First Week of Advent
Last year while teaching a group of sophomores about the book of Revelation, one student persistently argued with me, based on a literal reading of a passage from Revelation, that the New Jerusalem would be cubical. I was a little flustered, since one goal of the unit was to appreciate the symbolic style typical in the book, something lost on the student. That scene always comes to mind when I think about the New Jerusalem. At least, though, that student had a vivid sense that this future reality would be quite real and quite tangible.
The prophet Isaiah speaks about this new city. Is this some fantasy to distract us from important, present-day tasks? If it were, would Scripture even bother us with it? No – as Catholics we should have a real and clear sense that the human story will conclude with the establishment of a perfect, communal society where God reigns and our hearts are satisfied. Cube shaped or not, this will be quite the spectacle.
Wednesday of the First Week of Advent
Hope is the forgotten virtue, at least compared to its siblings Faith and Love. In this season of advent, now is a good time to ponder what this virtue means and how we can grow in it.
Call to mind the idea of someone’s center of gravity. If an athlete wants to stay balanced, he must always be attentive to keeping his center of gravity above his feet – it’s just basic coordination. The last thing you would do is to deliberately move your center of gravity so far in front of you that you lose your balance. This is so natural that we don’t even think about it. Yet to live in hope is precisely to thrust your spiritual center of gravity far, far in front of you, until you lose balance.
So often we live entirely in the world of sin, darkness, and limitation – trapped in weakness, oppressed by the faults of others, and consequently we stagnate. To live in hope is to remember that salvation is at hand, that light will overcome darkness, that all will be well for me, for us, in the end. To take this posture is to lose our balance, but we will fall into the loving arms of God. As St. Paul said, “by hope we were saved.”
Memorial of Saint Francis Xavier, Priest
St. Francis Xavier possessed extraordinary moral clarity. He traveled to the ends of the earth to instruct souls in basic Christian teaching and to baptize them. While away, he orchestrated a missionary movement in Europe that impacted the lives of countless people. In contrast, today we ponder and argue constantly and are collectively unsure of what is essential, what is necessary, what to insist on in evangelizing or what to leave by the wayside. We end up exhausted and uncertain.
So often, at least for me, this dithering is but an excuse. Jesus is still the way, the truth and the life. Sin still brings misery, pain and death. God is still good and deserving of all our love. The Eucharist is still the “source and summit” of Christian life. Pope Francis is challenging us to move beyond this naval-gazing insecurity and to be bold in living the faith in an inviting and joyful way.
I hope today you can spend a moment in quiet prayer and reflect on how you can personally imitate this great saint in your own circumstances.
Monday of the First Week of Advent
In the final chapter of the human story, Jesus will return as King in glory to judge the world and set right all that is wrong. There will be justice and salvation. All those poor and powerless who suffer constantly at the hands of the powerful and indifferent – all these will receive their due. The repentent will rejoice, and those with hardened hearts will grow more bitter. It will be a time of joy for some, sorrow for others. Yet it will be a time of completion for the healing of the human race begun countless ages ago when God assigned penance to Adam and Eve.
Yet if Jesus is this King who brings justice and salvation, why is there still such evil in the world today? This question burns like acid in the hearts of those who turn away from God. It is a real question that we all must wrestle with, but it becomes an easy excuse for those who want to turn away. The truth is that Jesus asks us to hope – to trust in the future fulfillment of this plan. He extends his sacred hand and offers to lead us along, if only we are willing to trust. Life isn’t perfect now – true. But someday, with Jesus, it will be.
First Sunday of Advent
In pop culture, advent, if recognized at all, is simply preparation for Christmas. It began on Black Friday, or earlier, whenever marketers decide to begin tantalizing consumers. For Catholics, Advent begins today – and advent is not merely preparation for Christmas.
There are three advents, because there are three “arrivals” of Jesus Christ. The first, historical arrival took place in Bethlehem and is world-famous for its significance. The second advent is the arrival of Jesus Christ in the heart of the believer. This takes place at our Baptism, renewed at Communion, and strengthened whenever we consciously welcome Our Lord to dwell in our hearts – less flashy than Christmas, but no less important. The third, least associated with Christmas, is the second coming when Jesus will return in glory and usher in the concluding chapter of the human story.
Odd, then, that while our friends and neighbors are immersed in the routine of shopping, we Catholics are hearing about the end of the world. This week, let us take time to meditate on this fact and be open to whatever the Lord wishes to teach us.
Saturday of the Twenty-sixth Week in Ordinary Time
Jesus exhorts his disciples to gratitude, specifically for the gift of the Incarnation and their proximity to such an amazing gift. In our own daily examen, St. Ignatius urges us to begin with a review of the day focused on gratitude. After this, we are to review the day focusing on our conscience. In the name of efficiency, sometimes we might blend together these two reviews and do them at the same time. But it is wiser to stay close to St. Ignatius’ guidelines.
Going first through our day looking only for God’s gifts is needed before we start the difficult process of self-critique. If the latter is done without consciousness of God’s gratuitous love, we are likely to descend into a perfectionism or gloom about our faults. Even if we do not have time for a full examen, could it ever hurt to stop for a few seconds and recall the gifts of God, letting gratitude spring up naturally from these thoughts?
Memorial of St. Francis of Assisi
A helpful yet challenging point for reflection and examen in my life has been this: if the Catholic faith were proven false, how much would I change the way I live my life? In other words, to what extent do I actually live based on the faith I profess?
St. Francis’s life provides an example of someone whose faith was undoubtably the source of his lifestyle. When I was in college I ran across Nikos Kazantzakis’ book on St. Francis. Whatever one thinks of his approach to other religious topics, this book made a deep impression on me. Until then, I had only thought of St. Francis as a lover of animals. I knew nothing about the extremes of his poverty, the thirst he had for sharing the lowly lot of his Lord, or the stigmata he received while in ecstatic prayer. What is undeniably clear is that nothing about St. Francis makes any sense unless the Catholic faith is true in its entirety. It is this that makes the lives of saints an absolutely necessary component of the Church’s mission to the world. They – and we in our own way – illustrate the truth of the Gospel with examples. Let us ask ourselves, and God, how we can better live up to this calling.
St. Francis Borgia, S.J.
The reading from Nehemiah today presents a rich contrast: as the priests are reading the law to the people gathered in Jerusalem, the people are weeping, yet the priests urge them to be glad and rejoice. The reading ends with recounting the great feast that followed the reading of the law. While the people are feasting and rejoicing, they are not forgetting the demands of the law but rather understanding its inner nature more fully. No matter what God asks of us, it springs from His infinite love and care for His creatures. If we wish to understand His will, rejoicing in it is a good place to start.
“Then all the people went to eat and drink,
to distribute portions, and to celebrate with great joy,
for they understood the words that had been expounded to them.”