23 December 2012

Awaiting his coming in peace

4th Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Through his prophet, Micah, the Lord God promises, “. . .from you [Bethlehem] shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. . .He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the LORD. . .he shall be peace.” This promise was made almost 800 years before the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Between the making of this promise and the birth of Christ, eighteen generations of God's people waited and waited and waited for its fulfillment. And when the Lord God placed His only-begotten Son in the virginal womb of a teenaged Mary, and she bore him into the world as a squalling baby in a barn, who could blame God's people for their disappointment and their turning away to wait some more? Rulers are born to kings and queens. Strength comes from wealth. Peace is settled with a sword. Babies born to working class bumpkins from the sticks do not grow up to rule God's people. And so, the waiting continues. For those of us who see in the Christ Child a ruler of strength and peace, the wait is almost over. Just two days and our wait is over. Blessed are those who believe that what is spoken to them by the Lord will be fulfilled. Blessed are those who wait upon the Lord. 

Speaking strictly for myself, patience is not a virtue; it's more like a penance, a trial, or even a punishment. Being patient requires a level of “letting go” that I find extraordinarily difficult to master. Over the years, I've gotten better at enduring the obvious flaws of others. No one's perfect after all. Me included. But, of course, my own flaws never inconvenience anyone else. The truest test of patience ever invented by the Devil is called “Driving in New Orleans.” Second to this test is the one called “Parking in New Orleans.” Either one of these tests alone would wear a hole in the patience of the Virgin herself and both of them together would likely cause Jesus to return in the Apocalypse earlier than planned. Fortunately, for the sake of my holiness and humility, I am tested often enough to notice that patience in waiting can—sometimes—actually be virtue: the good habit of letting go and waiting upon the Lord. If Lent is that time before Easter when we are consigned to wait upon the Lord's resurrection, then Advent is our time to wait upon his birth. As Christians, our waiting is not polluted by impatience. We know he is coming. Rather, our patient waiting is flavored by anticipation. 

Blessed are those who believe that what is spoken to them by the Lord will be fulfilled. What has the Lord spoken to us? What word of His do we believe will be fulfilled? Through His prophet, Micah, He says, “. . .from you [Bethlehem] shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. . .He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord. . .he shall be peace.” He also says through Micah, “. . .the Lord will give [Israel] up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne. . .” The time between the delivery of this prophecy and its fulfillment in the delivery of the Christ Child by Mary is the Advent of Israel, that long season of waiting between hearing the good news of a future Messiah and his arrival among us. Eight hundred years of anticipation, eight hundred years of waiting and waiting. If hopeful anticipation spices the main event, then the birth of Christ was well-seasoned! However, we know that his arrival—his humble start—was a disappointment to most of those who had patiently stood by. Perhaps they had forgotten the last sentence of what the Lord had said to Micah about the coming of the Messiah, “He shall be peace.” What sort of king comes to deliver his people from oppression using a sword of peace? 

God's people waited for eight hundred years for the coming of the promised Messiah. Some—those who do not follow the Christ—wait still. And even though the Messiah has been born to the virgin as prophesied, and even though we who follow Christ no long wait for his arrival in history, we still wait for the advent of his universal peace. We don't need a recitation of recent global and domestic events to know that we are far from the peace promised by the birth of the Savior. If anything, violence and death seem to be taking the upper hand. It is not too much for us ask: how much more strain can civilization bear before it cracks and falls apart? When we ask questions like this, and when we expect answers in concrete terms (days, weeks, months), we tend to forget that as followers of the Prince of Peace our hope, the fulfillment of God's promise of peace, is not to be found on a watch or a calendar. It's not found in the workings of the State, the laboratory, the classroom, or the battlefield. Our hope, the fulfillment of God's promise of peace, rests solely in the kingdom Christ brought with him to that barn in Bethlehem, the same kingdom he will bring to completion when he comes again. “He shall be peace,” and he is our peace until he comes again.

There's an obvious danger to this way of thinking. If we are simply waiting for the universal peace of Christ to arrive when he comes again, then we can be sorely tempted to adopt a “do-nothing” quietism; that is, we are poked and prodded by the sheer overwhelming horror of violence and death to stand aside and gamble our lives away on the off-chance that God will “do something” about this mess. So often we hear people ask after a disaster, “Where was God?” The assumption being that if God really existed or really cared, none of this horrible stuff would've happened. We waited on your help, Lord, and you never showed. Perhaps the most frustrating part of being a follower of Christ is knowing that help for our world is coming but that it did not arrive in time. Of course, help did arrive in time. He arrived 2,000 years ago as a child born in a barn. What we are waiting on now is our own growth in holiness, our own progress toward the righteousness that he made possible by his death and resurrection. If we want peace now, if we want help now, then we must be that help and that peace in his name. We cannot be both freed from our fallen nature by grace AND free from the consequences of that fallen nature. If we will be free to follow him in peace, then in peace we must follow His will and word. 

Just two days and our wait is over. Blessed are those who believe that what is spoken to them by the Lord will be fulfilled. Blessed are those who wait with anticipation upon the Lord. Elizabeth blesses Mary b/c Mary believed Gabriel's word to her. She says Yes to being the Mother of the Christ Child and comes down to us in the faith as the Blessed Virgin Mary. For an example of humility and peace, we need to look no further than the fervor with which this teenaged girl freely accepted the harrowing mission of bearing the Word made flesh into the world. As a good Jewish woman, Mary knows words of the prophets. She knows who it is she is carrying in her womb. She runs to Elizabeth in haste to greet her cousin, and all of her hopes are fulfilled when Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” With the birth of Christ 2,000 yrs ago and with our celebration of his Nativity in two days time, we too are blessed. We have seen the glory of God in the face of a child and what we saw there has freed us to await the coming of his peace. 

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  1. There are times (not regularly) when I read your homilies and know that any "problems" I see could be very easily corrected on the spot with either a change or addition of a word or two, or a certain inflection, or pause, etc... The beginning paragraphs of this homily are like that in places - and since it is meant to be spoken not just read this is certainly a minor issue.

    I did find the 2nd paragraph choppy, but, again, verbal cues could completely change the impression - and I did chuckle at "Over the years...my own flaws never inconvenience anyone else." Only a smart-alecky INTJ would write something like that ;-).

    It started flowing nicely from about mid-third paragraph onward. Final two paragraphs were really well-done...I appreciated your voicing the "obvious danger", and then developing that further. Final paragraph really built well on the foundation you had laid out, and I found myself repeating your final sentence, esp. the last half.

    Thanks - practical, informative and hopeful all rolled together.

    1. Shelly, I always try to write for the ear. That's my poetry training coming out. Sometimes, I doesn't make sense read or heard though.

      The 2nd para. got hearty chuckles from the congregation. NOLA drivers are notoriously bad.

    2. So I re-read the beginning last night, thinking "poetry", and somehow that changed the way I read it - I still found the 2nd paragraph a little choppy, but the rest flowed nicely. I guess you had to leave room in the 2nd paragraph for the laughs :-).

      Have a Merry Christmas Eve!