08 December 2007

I ain't waitin' on Santa Claus...

2nd Sunday Advent (A): Isa 11.1-10; Rom 15.4-9; Matt 3.1-12
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

[NB. If you don’t care for my more “evangelical” homilies, you might want to skip this one!]

We are told again and again during Advent that we must wait. Sit still. Anticipate. Be watchful. Alert. Just…wait. And hope. Expect and hope. Soon now, very soon. Keep hoping, keep hoping, keep hoping. Fortunately, we are assured by Paul in his letter to the Romans that “by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Endurance, indeed. What is it that we are waiting for? For whom do we wait? And why must we endure? Wait a minute, why do we need encouragement to endure!? That doesn’t sound all that attractive! Don’t we encourage one another in grief or sorrow or when some devastating event has crushed all hope? Strengthen my heart to last, O Lord. Strengthen my heart to suffer well until the coming of your Son! And may I with him produce good fruit. Again, who is it that we wait for?

We wait for: Jesus the Just Judge, eyes radiant with his Father’s mercy; Christ the King, right hand lifted high in blessing; Jesus the transfigured sacrifice of Mt Tabor, sign of the Father’s promise of resurrection; Jesus the entombed, wrapped in burial clothe and laid to rest in his grave; Christ the broken man of the cross, lifted off by Joseph and washed for burial; Jesus, “the King of the Jews,” nailed hands and feet to the cross, admitting to heaven the crucified but repentant thief; Christ the scorned, the beaten, the one betrayed in the garden; Jesus the revolutionary criminal, arrested and abandoned by his friends; Christ the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation, given for us at Passover; Jesus the teacher, who teaches only truth; Christ the preacher, who preaches repentance and mercy; Jesus the healer, who draws out the faith of the sick, the crippled, the unclean and makes them whole; Christ at the wedding feast, the Son of Mary, changing water to wine, the first sign of his ministry to come; Jesus the baptized, raising from the Jordan at the hands of John; Christ the beloved son, the one to whom we must listen; Jesus the student in the temple, learning the Law and its fulfillment; Christ the misplaced boy, teaching his elders in the synagogue. Jesus, the God-child asleep in his bed of straw; Christ the newborn, receiving the reverend Magi; Jesus, the Spirit of God who overshadowed his Mother and ours to be born a man like us; Christ the Word at Creation, Wisdom at his Father’s side, prophet of reconciliation, instrument of both division and peace; we wait for the coming of the shoot from Jesse’s branch, Christ Jesus, Lord, Emmanuel, God-with-Us, I AM. We wait for the consummation of the world and the coming again of Christ the Just Judge!

And here you thought you were waiting for Santa Claus and your favorite Christmas ham! NO! Absolutely not…

Listen again to Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.” He will judge with justice and “decide aright” for the poor. He will strike down the ruthless and slay the wicked. His coming will subvert the natural order of creation: wolf and lamb, leopard and sheep, lion and calf—all will “browse together” as guests at his table. The Child will lead the bear and cow to friendship and the lion will eat hay like the ox. His coming will be a sign for all the nations, and “the Gentiles shall seek [him] out, for his dwelling shall be glorious!” Paul, our witness, teaches us, “…that Christ became the minister of [the Jews] to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises of the patriarchs, so that the Gentiles [the rest of us] might glorify God for his mercy.” We are not waiting on egg nog, ugly sweaters, gift cards to Cracker Barrel, battery-operated dolls with glam outfits, new cars, fake furs, or Britney Spears’ last CD. Our gospel acclamation says it all: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths: all flesh shall see the salvation of God!”

It is too quick and easy to say that Advent is a season of preparation. For us, the ones who wait for the Thief to come at any moment, for us, being prepared is a way of life, right? I mean, sitting on edge, vibrating with adrenaline fueled tension, just waiting to spring into holiness, to snap into charitable action the second the heavenly trumpet blares and the first cumulus nimbus parts! Being ready is what we do. Trumpet. Cloud. Jesus. BAM! We on it and set to go. But, ummmm, just one small question: who are we waiting on again? We’ve heard King and Judge, Child and Lamb, Servant and Master, Emmanuel and I AM. By the way, what or who does an “I AM” looks like? Anyway, so we are sitting here, standing here, praying here, praising here, just being here, waiting in joyful hope for the coming of the Lord, but are we sure what it means “to make straight the path of the Lord”? And, for that matter, are we real clear on what “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” means?

Naw, I don’t think so. John the Baptist understood his mission perfectly. Leaping in his mother’s womb when a pregnant Mary visited his mom, John knew instantly what his prophetic responsibility would be: to announce the coming of the Lord to all flesh, all nations. And so, John preached in the deserts of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” When confronted by Pharisees and Sadducees—latecomers to the Lord’s party trying to get baptized —John said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Ahhhhh ha! John the Baptist and his prophetic mission is exactly what Advent is all about. Not wreaths and violet vestments and hanging out ‘til Santa brings me my stuff. Advent is about getting ready for the return of our Lord and the end of everything as we know it. Thus, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths…” Are you situated right now, settled right now and ready for Lord of your redemption to return? Or, are you wiggling around with the vipers, coming lately to the feast and hoping to sneak in the back door?

Our basic Advent question is: can you produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance? Let’s hope so. John warns, “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.” Is this meant to scare us? Frighten us like children into a last-second fit of self-flagellation and groveling for mercy? The picture John paints for us isn’t all that comforting. John says that though he himself baptizes you with water “for repentance,” the Lord, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Wheat goes in the barn. Chaff goes in the fire. Who it is we are waiting on? We’re not waiting on Jesus the Social Worker. Jesus the Hippie Priest. Jesus the Babydoll of God. We’re not waiting on a pacified, commercialized, suburbanized, plastic Messiah. Our Blessed Mother did not give birth to a Group Facilitator or a Dialog Specialist or a Conflict Mediator. Our Father did not preserve the Virgin Mary from all stain of Original Sin so that she might bring into this world some guy to teach us to be nice to one another, to show us how to just get along. As much as we would love to believe that Christ will return and pat us on the head for our C- efforts, his Coming Again is about one thing and one thing only: the consummation of human history, the end of everything as we know it. So, let’s ask that Advent question one more time: can you produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance?

Truly, we must resist the temptation to domesticate our Lord. To whittle him down to a toy or sugarcoat him into a holiday candy. We are not playing a game. We are not feeling the warm-fuzzy of rum nog. The Good News of Advent is that he is coming again. This is the Good News of Christmas, the New Year, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, and every solemnity we celebrate in between and among the feast days of the saints. Our need to repent, to turn from sin and to love as God loves, is a daily, hourly need, a nothing-special-about-this-season need. If you are ready, stay ready. If you are not ready, get ready. Why? Because if you have ears to hear, listen: there is a voice crying out in the desert, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Shameless Christmas Begging

Maybe I should put a pipe on my Christmas Wish List!

Even though I am the Poster Friar for Religious Introverts, no one has ever accused me of being shy. . .or subtle.

But I have an incredibly busy weekend ahead of me--three homily preps, six Masses, grading grad student papers, writing an exam for seniors and grads, reading Sir Gawain and preparing the Lit Trad final exam, usual priory stuff, and a load or two of laundry.

So. . .I'm just gonna ahead and embarrass my Mama and my Prior and rename the Amazon.com Wish Lists:

Fr. Philip's Christmas Phil & Theo (the usual philosophy and theology books) Lots of activity on this list lately. . .THANKS!!!

Fr. Philip's Christmas Poem & CD's
(poetry books, poetry CD's, and some music) Someone recently bought me Janis Joplin's essential hits. . .my heart is racing!!!

The Novices have an important pending request. When and if their request gets approval, I will direct my mendicant efforts to that project. For now, click, shop, and send with wild Christmas abandon!

:-) Fr. Philip

07 December 2007

Mary: deathless Mother, Church

Immaculate Conception: Gen 3.9-15, 20; Eph 1.3-6, 11-12; Luke 1.26-38
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas (Vigil)

I have heard the dogma of the Blessed Mother’s immaculate conception called everything from “unnecessary political propaganda” to “anti-womanist tripe” to “Mary’s crowning as the fourth Person of the Blessed Trinity.” Our Marian dogmas tend to draw out this sort of hyperbolic distortion. Mary is a Catholic goddess. Catholics believe that Mary is equal to Christ as our Redeemer. Since Mary is the Mother of God, it is her flesh and blood we consume at the Mass. No doubt some of these distortions are the products of overeager amateur theologians. Some are intentional misrepresentations made for scoring anti-Catholic political points. Others are half-heard, mis-heard, re-heard rumors of rumors and poorly memorized fifth grade catechesis poorly remembered under duress!

We are here this evening to celebrate one of those oft-misheard, misunderstood Marian dogmas: the Immaculate Conception. On this day in 1854, Pope Pius IX issued an encyclical titled, Ineffabilis Deus (“Ineffable God”). In this letter our Holy Father teaches: We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” Let’s look at what this statement says and then look at what it means. Here’s what we need to notice:

1). The phrasing “we declare, pronounce, and define that…” establishes Ineffabilis Deus as an infallible papal pronouncement. Not the first nor the last. Please note that papal infallibility wasn’t officially defined (i.e. “limited”) until 1870 at the First Vatican Council some sixteen years later.

2). The Holy Father is pronouncing infallibly on an existing doctrine. In other words, Pope Pius IX did not “invent” the Immaculate Conception. Our modern solemnity developed rather circuitously over the centuries from the second century oriental feast of The Conception of St John the Baptist. This feast and the feast of The Conception of St. Anne, Mary’s mother, carried the tradition in the East until we find in the eleventh century liturgical books the Feast of the Conception of Virgin Mary. The first Feast of the Immaculate Conception was celebrated by Pope Sixtus IV in 1476.

3). Mary’s immaculate conception in her mother’s womb was achieved “by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God…” This was a unique gift to Mary, an individual dispensation.

4). Mary’s preservation from O.S. was made possible by “the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race…” Mary did not save herself or preserve herself from original sin. Like the rest of humanity, our Mother, very much a woman, was “saved” by Christ.

5). Pius IX defines “immaculate” as “preserved free from all stain of original sin…” In other words, Mary was spared the effects of the Fall and was thus perfect in her humanity while living among us, remaining sinless her entire life, leading to her bodily assumption into heaven.

6). As already noted, the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception has always been believed by the Church. Pius IX’s 1854 declaration simply elevates the doctrine to the rank of dogma, teaching us that Mary’s sinless state at the instant of her conception “is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.” Faithful assent to the dogma is not optional for Roman Catholics; it is definitive of the faith, i.e. de fide.

That’s what the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception says. What does it mean? Think about what Mary the virgin girl was asked to do by the angel Gabriel. She was asked to assent to conceiving, carrying, and giving birth to the Word of God, His only Son, the Christ. Gabriel greets Mary with, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!” Rightly so, Mary is scared nearly speechless by this and “ponders what sort of greeting this might be.” Gabriel, seeing her distress, says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Mary assents to the angel’s request to be the Mother of the Word among us, saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Quite apart from the utility of explaining how the Son of God becomes the Son of Man w/o Original Sin attaching to his incarnation, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception prefigures for us the conception of the Church.

Follow me here:

Mary gives Christ his body from hers. The Church is the Body of Christ, making Mary our Mother.

Mary gives birth to the Word of God. The Church is the Word of God preached to all the world.

Mary is deathless Mother, who has been raised bodily to heaven. The Church is deathless Mother, who will be raised bodily on the Last Day.

As members of the Body of Christ, we are given the dogma of the I.C. as more than a theological explanation, as more than a mere definition of doctrine. The I.C. is for us a way, a means of knowing our Father and the strength of His fidelity to His promises. Paul teaches us that God chose the Church, as he chose Mary “before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before him.” Immaculate. Like Mary, “we were also chosen…so that we might exist for the praise of His glory…” Mary is the exemplary church, the ideal body of believers assenting to the will of God; conceiving, carrying, giving birth to the Word daily, hourly before the world, for the world. And for this purpose, Mary and the Church were themselves conceived, carried, and birthed without the stain, the burden of sin.

For each of us and for all of us, this feast is a singular grace, a gifted moment where we glimpse not in passing but in perpetuity the overwhelming power of our Father to accomplish through Christ the promises He made to our ancestors long ago: a virgin will conceive a son and he will be called “Emmanuel,” God-with-us, Jesus the Christ!

Sheep with sharp teeth

St Ambrose: Eph 3.8-12 and John 10.11-16
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass

Paul, writing to the Ephesians, tells us that “as the very least of the holy ones” he has been given the grace: 1) “to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ;” 2) “to bring to light for all what is the mystery hidden…in God…;” and 3) to complete these two tasks “so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the Church to the principalities and authorities in the heavens.” On a recent episode of America’s Got Talent, I heard one of the judges say to an ambitious twelve-year old singer who announced her intention to sing a Whitney Houston ballad, “That’s a mighty Big Song, little mama!” Compare Paul’s graces to Christ’s nature: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep […] there will be one flock, one shepherd.” The stark simplicity of Christ’s job description set beside Paul’s self-understanding is startling.

What is Christ giving to the Church when he serves as our Shepherd? Let’s start the answer with another question: can anyone doubt that the last five years have been extraordinarily difficult for the Roman Catholic Church? Clerical sexual abuse of minors; clerical and lay financial malfeasance; an archbishop marrying a Moonie; this craze of Catholic women “ordaining” themselves “priests” on riverboats and in Jewish synagogues; the bishops’ conference endorsing two blockbuster movies that directly attack basic Christian virtues; pro-abortion politicians and outlandish drag queens taking communion; and on and on. Catholic scandal these days is somewhat like taking a drink from full-on fire hose…one try at a sip and you’re drenched! We hear one question repeated more often than any other: where are the bishops while these scandals play out? Why won’t they “do something”?

Another way to ask that same question: what is Christ giving to the Church when he serves as our Shepherd? Paul sees his graced ministry as a Christian leader in somewhat esoteric terms: revealing the hidden mystery of God’s manifold wisdom through the Church. OK. Reading his letters we can see how he goes about doing this. Using his training in Greek philosophy and Roman rhetoric, Paul enthusiastically constructs a viable religious and spiritual practice out of his own encounter with Christ and what he has heard from other witnesses, preaching with enormous success do the Gentiles. Jesus, on the other hand, well beyond Greek philosophy and Roman rhetoric, uses a simple, near-universal image to evoke Christian leadership: the shepherd with his flock. Vigilant against predators. Eager to rescue lost sheep. Willing to endure hardship to get the job done. Willing even to die for his sheep. To lead us, Christ our shepherd was willing to die for us. To show us the way, to reveal the manifold wisdom of his Father, Christ was freely accepting of death. To preach the inscrutable riches of his Father’s mercy, Christ gave his life for us on the cross.

We know that the wolves of scandal and dissension slobber at the chance to pick off the Lord’s sheep one at a time. There’s security in numbers. Safety in the crowd of fellow-sheep. Comfort in looking out over the flock and seeing uniformity and compliance. But security, safety, and comfort are not the fruits of baptism, or of a life lived in Christ. Nothing we do here today and nothing we do as Catholics in a lifetime promises us a scandal-free, trouble-free life of lazy, spiritual grazing in verdant ecclesial meadows. Emerging from the waters of baptism we are set upon by a world in conflict with the Body of Christ and with itself. Jesus knew this. Paul knew this. And so, we are given as a grace in preaching “boldness of speech.” And as a grace in prayer “confidence of access” to the Father through our Shepherd.

Put that boldness of speech and confidence of access together, my fellow sheep, and let’s ask one another, “Why don’t we do something about the slobbering wolves of scandal and dissension?!” What did Christ leave his sheep? The truth of the faith, the communion of saints, the authority of his Body, and nice, sharp set of Wolf-biting teeth!

06 December 2007

"Messing with the Mass..."

Here's an excellent article on priestly narcissism from Homiletic and Pastoral Review (Nov 2007).


It is important for priests to keep in mind that most Catholics go to Mass to encounter Jesus Christ, and not to come into contact with the particular psychology of the celebrant. Furthermore, they go for something that is not present in the popular culture — a sense of the sacred (and a recognition of the need for humility). We don’t want to come away from the mass being affirmed in where we are, we want to be drawn toward where we long to be — closer to Christ and to Heaven.

Given the tendency toward “ego renewal”, self-esteem and self-aggrandizement, priests and seminarians should be made aware of the danger of inserting one’s personality into the liturgy. This tendency toward narcissism needs to be addressed specifically in the context of the mass celebrated versus populum (facing the people). Regardless of where one stands with regard to the respective merits of the mass being celebrated ad orientem (with the people) or versus populum, there can be little question that the temptation to grandstand is greater when the celebrant is facing the congregation. Cardinal Arinze, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, recently commented on this issue, saying, “If the priest is not very disciplined, he will soon become a performer. He may not realize it, but he will be projecting himself rather than projecting Christ. Indeed, it is very demanding, the altar facing the people.

EXCELLENT article!!!

05 December 2007

Music List...

NO! I haven't forgotten about my poetry reading or writing. . .with all that's been going on--Rome plans, classes, sinus infection, ad. nau.--I've been a bit distracted.

Not only have I updated the POETRY wishes, I've added MUSIC wishes as well!

Sad but true story: I had about 300 classical/alternative/world music CD's before I joined the Order. Two days before I got on a plane to fly to the novitiate, I gave all but about ten of them away. I gave away a lot of stuff, including books (YIKES!).

Sooooo, Music: less important globally than philosophy books for my immediate future, yes. However, somewhat important for my Local sanity and artistic growth.

God bless, Fr. Philip, OP

04 December 2007

Advice on buying philosophy books...

What most sensible people look like about two and a half minutes into a Derrida essay!

In the combox under “Philosophy’s Evil Twins,” SJH wrote:

“Father, perhaps you have a better handle on this than I. Where do you start? There's so much out there to read. As a former Philosophy graduate student (for a while) and as someone who hopes to be a graduate student again (in Philosophy or Theology), but also as a more general question, it's hard to know what to read and in what order. And it's also difficult to think you'll ever make much progress towards reading enough... since there's so much out there that is canonical and since you're also responsible for being up to date with the latest in one's field... and that stuff is cranked out at an incredible rate (especially since everyone has to write a book to get tenure). Any ideas? (Does the question even make sense?)”

The question does make sense and, let me say: I feel your pain! As an undergrad philosophy major at a public university twenty-five years ago, I was taught using textbooks and the occasional primary text. Now, here at U.D., I’m teaching seminars where we use only primary texts…the occasional “history of X” type text will slip through. The difference in these two methods is tremendous.

As I am putting together my philosophy library—with the constant and generous assistance of the blog’s benefactors!—two principles vie to guide me: 1) anthologies in major areas of philosophy will give you an introduction to the problems, vocabularies, personalities, etc. in that area; e.g. something like the Oxford Companion to Kant will lay out basic issues and provide you with a bibliography. It won’t take long for you to see the same names popping up over and over again. This leads to my second principle: 2) buy the books of the people whose names pop up most often, whether as primary authors or in annotations. So, for e.g., for Kant, you want to get Henry Allison’s book, Kant’s Transcendentalism Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense. It took me about fifteen minutes to discover that this is considered a basic “must-have” text in the field.

As I noted in the post below, continental philosophy is more like literature than science, meaning that the range of acceptable genres and styles of writing is tremendous. Here I’ve discovered that one must find an author one can read and enjoy…much like you do when you find and read a favorite novelist or poet. I find some authors to be fascinating thinkers but nearly unreadable writers (J.-L. Marion). For the most part I prefer my postmodernist philosophy in poetic form (R.M. Rilke) or invective (Nietzsche).

The best advice I have is to just jump in! Go to the library, check out an anthology or two on modern or contemporary philosophy and start reading.

03 December 2007

Sister Soap

Yes, I know! It's Advent. . .and you will not find a more fervent Advent-Nazi than yours truly.

However, shopping for Christmas now is a prudent way to avoid stress and anxiety later on.

Check out the Cloister Gift Shoppe operated by the Dominican Sisters of Summit, NJ.

Buy someone you love (or someone who needs a hygiene hint!) a bar or two of Sister Soap. . .

Fr. Philip, OP

Preach...or die

St Francis Xavier: 1 Cor 9.16-19, 22-23 and Mark 16.15-20
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

During my novitiate six, seven years ago, the novices had a saying that leapt to our lips readily when asked to mop the floor or sweep the parking lot or grout the bathroom tile. We would say to the offending senior member who burdened us with an odious task, “Father, THAT was not in the brochure!” More often than not the senior member would respond with something like, “Yea, that’s right. Who would join if we put THAT in the brochures?” Reading again Paul’s description of preaching, I now know why we Dominicans prefer the Beautiful Feet of the Preacher quote from Isaiah: if we put Paul’s description of preaching in the brochures, no one would join us! This leads me to wonder and ask: why would anyone in his or her right mind want to be a preacher, choose the life of the preacher?

Let’s quickly review Paul’s description of preaching: there’s nothing about preaching worthy of boasting, he says, rather preaching the Gospel is an imposed obligation; he laments, “Woe to me if I do not preach it!” He is rewarded if he preaches willingly, but not if he does so unwillingly. He preaches for free. (That’s not good.) He has made himself weak, a slave to all; he has become all things to all for nothing more than a share in the Gospel. For all the romanticism of this picture of the preacher, I can’t imagine the vocations brochure drawn from our Pauline description that would attract a single soul to the preaching. But, then again, I could be missing something. After all, the image of the Gospel preacher painted by Christ himself isn’t all that attractive either: driving out demons, speaking weird languages, handling snakes, drinking poison, touching the sick. Yea, um, not a good brochure.

So, both Paul and Jesus himself paint wild and woolly pictures of the Gospel preacher. Nothing we could put on our vocations recruitment material. Why do we choose to become preachers then? All of us, any of us here: why do we heed the Lord’s admonition: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature”? Surely the psalm this morning has something to do with our decision: “For steadfast is His kindness toward us, and the fidelity of the Lord endures forever.” Good reasons, yes, but not quite enough, I think. Surely the life of the preacher is adventurous: snakes, demons, poisons, slaves, preaching Forty Day Novenas to the Infant of Prague! Tempting but not quite. Maybe this is it: we preach b/c those who hear the Gospel and believe “will be saved” but those who hear and do not believe “will be condemned.” We have a moral obligation to preach AND convince. Yes, that’s an excellent Dominican reason to suffer through a novitiate.

But I think the best reason is stated rather quietly in the conclusion of the gospel reading. After Jesus was taken up into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, “…[the disciples] went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them…” While the Lord worked with them. While they preached the Lord worked with them. Because they preached, he was with them. For those of us called to preach (any of us here!), is it too much to say of us that we are preachers b/c we know, somehow truly Know, that we cannot work with the Lord unless we speak his Word of mercy, unless we preach his Gospel? This is not just a matter of saving others from condemnation but finding and claiming our own salvation. We know, in other words, that there is nothing else for us to do but to lend—to give, freely give—our voices to the Word, to become slaves for the Word. Maybe our vocation brochures need to say only this: “If you are called to preach the Gospel: woe to you if you don’t!”

Preach today. Not because you ought to, unwillingly. Not for recompense or recognition. Not to boast or to exercise your rights. Preach, proclaim the Good News, because and only because, if you don’t you will not be you, because you cannot be you if don’t.

02 December 2007

Do nothing special for Advent

1st Sunday Advent (A): Isa 2.1-5; Rom 13.11-14; Matt 24.37-44
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

[NB. My opening comment on the podcast is a reference to the fact that our parish maintenance guy closed off more than half the seating space in the church in order to wax the floors with this foul-smelling, eye-watering chemical. ]

We should hear about patience and waiting this morning/evening. We should hear about taking our time, not rushing through, slowing down. We should probably hear about wakefulness and readiness and walking in the light. All good Advent themes found in abundance in our scripture readings for today. We could hear about the church’s New Year—new start, starting over, begin again in the new liturgical year. We could hear about how Advent is not Christmas and how the Big Bully Christmas must not be allowed to push her little sister Advent further and further back toward Thanksgiving. Too late for that! What else could we hear about on this First Sunday of Advent? Orgies, lust, drunkenness, swords, plowshares, spears, pruning hooks, war. Terrorism, plague, starvation, floods, wildfires, messianic suicide cults, war, again war. And certainly there are moments of joy. Without warnings or threats of furtive kidnappings, let’s look at what we know this First Sunday of Advent. Rather than wallow in the messes of our ignorance, let’s review what we know about our faith, what we have been told about our end, and what we have figured out given what we know.

Jesus tells his disciples that in Noah’s day, folks were eating and drinking and that “they did not know until the flood came…” And later he says, “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.” If the master of the house had known the thief was coming, he would have stayed away. They did not know. You do not know. If only he had known. Strangely, Paul writes to the Romans, “Brothers and sisters, You know the time…” You know! “It is the hour now for you to wake from sleep.” While Christ was with us, we did not know when he would return to us. Now that he has left us to be with his Father, we know when he will return. No? No. Paul and the Romans do not know the time of our Lord’s return. What they know is that the time is right for conversion and repentance. They knew then and we know now that time is now: “For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed…”

We know that our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. We know that there is a hour of reckoning; a hour, a day of expectation and judgment. We know that we are not moving in an ever-widening circle but rather processing in a line together toward our conclusion, approaching in brighter and brighter light, in deepening clarity and seamless continuity, our End, The End—the hour we expect, look forward to, pray for. Our end is a time and a place when and where we will be carried away, flooded away with Christ and the ark of his cross. And we know, we know that we must stay awake, be prepared, always ready, humming with tension, pure in motive and drive. . .to…to…to do what? Paul says we must “throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” All Jesus says is that we “must be prepared.” Why, Jesus? “For at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” An hour we do not expect! So much for Advent expectation! So, what are we doing then? We are doing nothing special. Nothing out of the ordinary. We should be doing absolutely nothing that we would not be doing if this were July or October or some other boring liturgical month. The Lean Green Season is over. Break out the violet vestments! The Advent wreath, the O Antiphons, the too early Christmas hymns and Christmas trees. But if you are prepared, ready, sitting on the edge of true righteousness and apostolic fervor, do nothing special. Nothing special at all…

Nothing special?! It’s the First Sunday of Advent! The new church year! It is and we know that our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. We know that the night is advanced and that the day is at hand. And we know that we must put off the works of darkness and don the armor of light. We know this. We know that we must turn from a dark hungry death in sin to a bright shining life in Christ. We know that feeding the appetites of the flesh, those temporary desires of the little gods of our bodies, we know that these are small things grown large—the momentary thrill, the surge of satisfaction that comes before the lack rises again and wants more. These are idols and altars that must come down. We know this. And what’s more: we know these truths everyday, all day, everyday not just Sunday the first day of Advent. And b/c we know these truths, we are ready, fully-prepared, wide-awake; we are locked sitting on loaded and all-set for the Holy Thief to break and enter and steal us away!

I said early on we could hear about waiting, anticipation, Advent longing this morning/evening. I said we could hear all about the church’s new year, the reboot of the liturgical year. Hear all of that AND hear the call to repentance. From the prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in His paths.” Hear Paul’s cry to all believers: “You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep…put on the armor of light…put on the Lord Jesus Christ…” And hear Christ himself plea for our repentance; to turn, to return again and again. To come back and stay: “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come…for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Does this make you nervous? Anxious? Good! It should. But don’t leave it there. Turn that nervousness, that anxiety into an electric joy. Turn it into a righteous hope. There is no meaner, darker spiritual buzzkill than despair, and if Advent is about anything at all, it is about HOPE.

Paul is not threatening the Romans. Jesus is not menacing his disciples. And neither of them is trying to put us on some sort of existential edge, a worrisome ledge. Rather, they are both teaching us to hope. Our Holy Father, Benedict, in his encyclical, Spe salvi, released just this weekend writes: “…the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life”(n. 2). How is your life new, different? New in what way? Different from what? From whom? Look around you, outside, at the world. Who are we out there? Who are we to those who will not hope? We are: Lab rats. Cannon fodder. Inconvenient products of conception. Rungs on ladders to power and wealth. Herds of genetic code and meat. We are idiot children, bought and sold. To those who hope, however, we are weapons against despair; tools for cultivating love; bodies for health and spirits for perfection. We are those who know that “the dark door of time” has been thrown open and it is Christ who waits to steal us away.

Pope Benedict concludes his letter on hope: “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety” (n. 31).

Let the first Sunday of Advent 2007 then be the first Sunday of a year, a lifetime of hoping against the hopeless fables of accidental life. This is not special work for Christians. But the everyday work of all those who will risk hoping against the dark.