19 December 2023

Bro, take the win!

3rd Week of Advent (T)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great, Irving

Zechariah learns a hard but well-deserved lesson in prayer. You can pray for what you think you want. Get it. Question the veracity of the gift. Fail to be grateful. And. . .get your tongue glued to the floor of your mouth. What makes this lesson most-poignant is that Zechariah is a priest, praying in the Holy of Holies, in the presence of an archangel, who tells him that his long-prayed-for son is on his way, and he still has the audacity to bark out a dumb question like: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” I'm reminded of a recent incident in my philosophy class when a seminarian correctly answered one of my questions. I congratulated him on being correct. But he continued to argue with me vigorously. One of his classmates shouted, “Bro, shut up and take the win!” Zechariah, bro, take the win. Now, we could excuse Zechariah's incredulity as a reaction to being addressed by an archangel, or excitement at learning he's finally going to be a father – at an advanced age. But it's a safe bet to take that the real problem here is his understanding of God's providence and the purpose of prayer. I'm betting that Zechariah thought of prayer as a sort of cosmic Amazon Wish List. Put your wants on a list and God will provide when you're ready to receive. That's not how this works. God provides and we receive. That's true. God provides what we need to return to Him freely in love. Not every want that crosses our mind. He gives what we need when we need it. Our job is to be always in a receptive mode. That mode is called gratitude. Whether we have actually been given what we need or not, we remain in gratitude. By remaining in gratitude, we remain open to receiving, always ready to get what we have been given. Zechariah muddles the recipe by adding a dash of doubtful curiosity to the mix. That's like adding cilantro and garlic to your brownie batter. Not good. The result is a dire punishment for a priest: if you're not going to use your gift of speech to give God thanks and praise, then you're not going to use it all. As you prepare to receive the gift of the Christ Child six days from now, contemplate how and why you pray. Are you praying with thanksgiving? Are you praying to add to the Wish List, or praying to receive whatever it is that God has to give you? Are you daring an angel to put you on mute by doubting that God knows what He's doing? By doubting that He can do what He wills? Last lesson from Zechariah's fumble: you and I don't have to understand what God is doing in and with our lives. We've already said Yes. Just give Him thanks and praise.

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17 December 2023

We are him whom we announce

3rd Sunday of Advent

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP

St. Albert the Great, Irving

When asked “who are you?” John confesses who he isn't – the Christ. He's not Elijah. He's not a prophet. When pressed for an answer, he says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’” What sort of person – one who isn't the Christ or a prophet – cries out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord”? We would say that this sort of person is a herald, a harbinger, one who goes out in front, giving warning that One greater than he is coming. He is not the light, but goes out to testify to the light. We know who John is and what he came to do. Who are we? What have we come to do? We could say that we too are heralds, harbingers sent out ahead to make the paths of the Lord straight. And that's true. We could say that we have taken on the work of prophets, announcing God's Word, preaching and teaching His truth. And that's true as well. But if we see who we are and what we do as mere preparation for the Lord's coming, then we miss the bigger picture: we prepare for Christ's coming again by being Christs for others now. We are him whom we announce. Each imperfect alone but more perfect together.

The Christ Child was born some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem. He will come again as the Just Judge at the end of the age. In the meantime, what we call the End Times – that's right now –, Christ is here in his Body, the Church. In each one of us as members of his Body. He is with us always b/c he never truly left. He is in his sacraments as priest. He is in his preachers as prophet. He is in his Church as king. And yet, we wait on his coming again. What's the point of waiting for someone who is already with us? What if we're not waiting on him? What if he's waiting on us? That is, what if he's waiting on his Church, his Bride to be fully prepared to welcome him? What if he's waiting for you and me to exhaust our gifts in service to the Gospel, to receive the fullness of the Father's holiness, to totally surrender in gratitude to just being loved creatures desperately in need of his mercy? What if we are imperfect Christs waiting to be made perfect – and that is his Coming Again? It would seem that the only proper response is. . .rejoicing!

What else would we do? Cry? Laugh? Groan in disappointment? To be made perfect in Christ – to be made a Christ – is the highest glory of the baptized. And it's a transformation we must participate in. How? Paul gives us a start: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” Rejoice. Pray. Give thanks. This is the will of God for us. That we rejoice, pray, and give thanks. “[Keep] what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.” Easily done if we are rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. If we are rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks, we are growing in holiness, becoming more and more like Christ, moving away from the world and toward the kingdom. The closer we get to the kingdom, the closer we get to our perfection in Christ and the closer we come to bearing witness to Christ coming again. But we aren't just sitting around being perfected, passively being worked on by the HS. In receiving all the Father has to give us, we become conduits for those gifts, fire hoses of grace soaking the world with His invitation to repentance and forgiveness. Like the Christ we will become, we minister, attend to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, showing them the mercy we've received, and bearing witness to the mercy they show us.

Paul ends his letter with a blessing: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” For this blessing to take hold and bear fruit, we must acknowledge our nascent Christ-hood and rejoice. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Rejoicing is the wordless prayer of thanksgiving that leads to surrender. And surrender leads to perfection.  

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