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Archive for December, 2015

IMG_0195Christmas:  A Reason to Hope

Christmas has been something of a mixed bag this year, especially if you’ve paid the least bit of attention to the news.  No doubt there have been some bright spots in our own little worlds, but over it all has hung something of a dark cloud.  It bothered me, for instance, that for the first time in 1,900 years there were some Christian communities in Syria that did not celebrate Christmas.  The threat of expanded conflict in the Middle East depresses me as well, though at least there is a perverse consolation in the knowledge that the area doesn’t have a monopoly on war.  To all that add the random terror in places like Paris.  That’s given birth to an anxiety that will take some getting used to.

The chaos around the world made even more striking the announcement of the birth of Jesus, which we chant from The Roman Martyrology.  At Saint John’s we sing that at morning prayer on Christmas day, and it’s something I look forward to year after year.  Actually, we don’t sing it, because a single cantor intones it, as if he were the town crier reading off the big news of the day.  The passage nests the birth of Jesus in human history, and it notes the number of years that had passed since the creation of the world, the flood, the exodus from Egypt, and the founding of the city of Rome.  Then the text notes one oddity as it builds to the announcement of the birth of Jesus.  Solemnly it declares that Jesus was born “when the whole world was at peace.”

IMG_0175These are striking words, because peace has never enjoyed long stretches of popularity in human history.  We pray for it, we work for it, and we even fight for it.  Still, the times of peace are few and far between, which is perhaps why The Roman Martyrology took pains to mention it.

If joy is an overriding theme in the Christmas liturgies, then hope runs a close second.  Naturally we hope and pray that peace will settle over the earth and that justice will prevail.  We pray as well for a variety of other gifts that seem equally unlikely, and by the time it’s all over we might be tempted to wonder if anything substantive ever comes from Christmas — other than the exchange of gifts, of course.

Given the state of international affairs and the difficulties that confront people across the world, is it at all realistic to have hope at Christmas?  Is there any reason to hope that things will ever get better?  Is hope an illusion, and should we resign ourselves to the likelihood that things are just going to get worse?

IMG_0141It’s easy to conclude that the world is going over the cliff, and that there’s little or nothing that you and I can do about it.  But were we to do so, we’d miss entirely the true message of Christmas.

Despite the apparent mess, there’s much to be hopeful for, and we need only start with the bare fact of the birth of Jesus in a stable.  By anybody’s standards he had zero chance to have an impact on the world; but of course he did.  Second, he sent the Holy Spirit to stir among us, and ever since then people have risen to the occasion to perform astonishing acts of generosity and self-sacrifice.  That sort of thing still goes on, though it’s easy to overlook it.  Third, God gave life to you and me, and I’m absolutely convinced that we were not created for the sole purpose of whining that there’s nothing we can do to make the world a better place.  And lastly, God gifts us regularly with the creation of new people who come to lift a hand just when we’re ready to give up.  With great energy, these people sustain our hope, just when we are ready to cash in the chips.

That’s part of why we hope at Christmas.  In the dead of winter, when spring seems to be a distant impossibility, we celebrate the birth of one who broke the chains of death and the grip of depression, and he continues to give us good reason to hope.

At the first Christmas God sent his only-begotten son.  That son Jesus continues to see in us possibilities that we don’t always see in ourselves, and he enlists us in the work of restoring the world to its lost innocence.  Even better, the Lord continues to call to our side others who join in the work of renewing our corner of the world.  For all that — and for more — we give thanks at Christmas.  Because of all that, the Lord gives us plenty of reasons to hope at Christmas.

IMG_0180Notes

+On December 22nd I presided at the Abbey Eucharist.

+Our celebration of Christmas was especially nice at Saint John’s.  The music at the Christmas Eve Mass was over-the-top great, and a large congregation filled the main portion of the church and spilled up into the balcony.

We were also blessed to have a white Christmas, though that was due to a residue of snow that had survived several days of warm weather.  However, on the day after Christmas we got a bountiful snowfall, which pictures in today’s post illustrate.  It was the perfect way to celebrate the feast of St. Stephen; and it recalled good King Wenceslaus, who went out on the feast of Stephen to see the snow, deep and crisp and even.

Finally, we monks celebrate Christmas with a simple yet festive meal on Christmas Eve, during which we light the tree in the refectory.  The next day our main meal is at noon, after which many take the opportunity to visit relatives and friends.  For me the highlight of both meals were the Brussels sprouts, which are at the top of the food chain as far as I am concerned.

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imageChristmas: God With Us

As we approach the final days before Christmas, the Magnificat takes on special significance.  We speak of it as Mary’s song, and rightly so it is.  As the opening lines proclaim, God has lifted up someone of no particular significance and elected to accomplish great things through her.  Holy is God’s name; but holy too is the person through whom God works.

Sometimes the focus of the Magnificat can remain so much on Mary that we forget that it is a prayer that has a cosmic dimension to it.  It’s not just the story of one person, because it reminds us that God has mercy on those of each and every generation who fear him.  Through each and all of them God also accomplishes great things.  Holy are they too, in their unique ways, just as Mary was holy.

During the season of Advent we look forward to the coming of Christ at Christmas, but the Magnificat reminds us that the incarnation of Jesus Christ does not exhaust itself on just one day of the year.  Perhaps that’s why we say the Magnificat 365 days of the year, just to remind ourselves of that.  It’s a gentle hint that Mary’s encounter with God took place long before the birth of her son; and like hers, our own encounter with God is an ongoing and even daily experience.

The cosmic dimension of this prayer is clearest when it speaks of the conceit of the proud and the weakness of the downtrodden.  It gives a nod to those who put their trust — metaphorically at least — in horses and chariots, only to discover at the end of the day that true strength is to be found in the name of the Lord.  And whether we take them literally or symbolically, those final words of the Magnificat have a haunting quality about them:  in every generation the Lord fills the hungry with good things, and the rich he sends empty, away.

imageChristmas is both a test and a reminder.  It’s a test of whether gifts and material items exhaust the meaning of the feast, or whether Christmas is more than that.  If Christmas is merely a day to celebrate merchandise, then we will all go away on the 26th, empty.

On the other hand, for those who see Christmas as the celebration of God with us, they will rise on the 26th filled with good things.  Christmas is a reminder that the greatest gift is the awareness that God does not leave us orphans.  God always walks with us, every day, even to the ends of the earth.

Notes

+On December 16th I attended the annual Presidents’ Christmas Dinner, hosted by the presidents of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  It’s held annually at the Town & Country Club in St. Paul, and this year I delivered the invocation at the beginning of the meal.

+The two photos in today’s post show work from the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Annunciation, by Juan de Flandres, ca. 1508-1519.  The lower photo is Expectant Madonna with St. Joseph, French, ca. 1450.

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imageBe It Done Unto Us

“Be it done unto me according to thy word.”  So responded Mary to the angel when the latter brought news of the birth of a son to her.  To be honest, Mary’s response doesn’t sound very proactive, but all the same it’s important to recall that she did have a choice here.  She could have said “no” and gotten on with her life.  But she didn’t

Still, there is in Mary’s response a hint of resignation, and I can just imagine her confusion.  “Why me?”  Given that possibility, the gospel writer may have thought it prudent to delete the part of the story where she shrugged her shoulders, sighed, and wondered what was coming next.  Since the angel was short on details, perhaps Mary’s best course of action was to wonder about it all, go with the flow, and hope that something good might come of it.

There is a similar lack of clarity in the life of John the Baptist, the other great figure in the Advent story.  John’s message was never about himself, and he preached about someone he would not meet for quite some time.  In fact, he had no idea who the messiah might be, and all he could hope was that he’d know him when he saw him.

imageAppearances to the contrary, neither Mary nor John were passive doormats in this story.  Mary may have looked like a benign young woman and John the consummate number two in a movie that could have but one  star, but that was not the case.  They too were leading characters in the story of Advent, and they are fascinating in their own right.

In Luke 3, the gospel passage for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the crowds ask John the Baptist what they should do.  For life-long Jews this seems a curious question to pose.  If they didn’t know by now, then clearly someone had not done a good job of religious education.  But whether they were truly ignorant or merely testing John to see what he had to say, they set him up for a great sermon.

What’s curious about John’s response is the one thing he did not say.  He did not tell them to rush back to the temple to offer a sacrifice.  It’s not that he discouraged this, and I suspect he presumed they knew to do that anyway.  But John has a very specific course of action to recommend.  He encourages them to give to the poor, to be just in all  their dealings, and to live ethical lives.  Parenthetically he might have noted that worship in the temple was the work  of the entire community.  But this was the formula for an individual life lived well.

imageJesus carries forward this theme in his own preaching, and his ministry helps to explain the meaning of Advent.  Advent does not announce the birth of a messiah who comes to make people knuckle under to his will.  The messiah does not come to crush people or turn them into passive doormats or wall-flowers.  He comes instead to remind people of the gift of life they have from God.  And with that gift comes opportunity, as well as responsibility.

Mary allowed Jesus to take flesh within her, and John the Baptist pointed with his finger to the messiah.  Neither played second-fiddle to Jesus, because God gave to each an invitation and the grace to respond.  The same is true for us.  So the point of Advent is not to prepare to be casual onlookers as the messiah comes into our midst.  Rather, the point of Advent is to energize ourselves and live creatively.  When we choose to do so, it’s amazing to see what God can do through us.

Sometimes it may not be clear what God asks of us, but that’s okay.  The same was true for Mary.  She finally shrugged her shoulders and decided to go with the flow, in the hope that something good would come of it.  Something did.  And if we too pray that the same will be done unto us, who knows what surprises await us?

imageNotes

+On December 12th we celebrated with great joy the ordination of two of our monks.  Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud visited the Abbey and ordained Father Lew Grobe to the priesthood and Brother Isaiah Frederick to the diaconate.  Father Lew grew up in Minnetonka, MN, and after graduating from Saint John’s University he was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany.  He then worked as a Benedictine Volunteer at an abbey in Africa, after which he worked in Admissions at Saint John’s University.  Currently he works in the Abbey woodworking shop and also assists in formation of the younger monks.

Brother Isaiah was from Tucson, AZ, also attended Saint John’s University, and then worked for ten years for Price Waterhouse in Phoenix.  In my work for Saint John’s I had the chance to visit him several times in Phoenix, and I take full credit for not scaring him away from life in the monastery.

+On December 13th Bishop Kettler returned to Saint John’s, where he and Abbot John celebrated Mass in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Present were members of the Latino community from central Minnesota.

image+The weather impacted my life in very different ways during the past week.  Earlier in the week I was out for a walk and got caught in a big rainstorm.  I was thoroughly soaked, but it was fun nonetheless.  I’d not done such a thing since childhood.  But that satisfies that need for a few more years.  Later in the week I was scheduled to drive from northern California to Reno, NV, to attend a reception for alumni of Saint John’s.  Unfortunately, upwards of three feet of snow in the Donner Pass kept me grounded, and I was not about to brave the elements.  I was sorry to miss the event, however, because it featured the work of one of my former students.  Colin Robertson is now director of programs at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, and he helped to curate a major exhibition on the history and art of Lake Tahoe.  He also contributed to the beautiful exhibit catalog published by Rizzoli’s.  He was an excellent host that evening, and it is gratifying to know that a student has gone on to live a wonderfully creative life.

+The rather faded photos in today’s post are medieval frescos at Subiaco Abbey, located just outside of Rome.  It was where Saint Benedict began his monastic life as a hermit.

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imageAdvent: Pious Purposelessness?

Fr. Daniel Durken has not been gone from our midst all that long, so memories of him are still quite vivid in the monastery.  During a long and productive life he taught scripture to undergraduates at Saint John’s University, was editor at The Liturgical Press, and for a while served as novice master.  He excelled at all, but we remember him best for his love of the English language.

As a preacher Daniel had a unique style, and we looked forward to his displays of wit in the pulpit.  What was most remarkable was not just what he had to say, but how he said it.  For one thing, alliteration was the signature element in all of his homilies.  Effortlessly he could string together phrases and even sentences that hung on a single vowel or consonant.  I’m guessing he was predisposed to this, since his initials were DDD.  But his expertise didn’t end there, and many a well-crafted sentence became grist for thoughtful meditation.

A friend of mine reminded me of this last week when she wrote about the onslaught of work as Christmas approaches.  She knows from experience that the season can be too much for her, and that’s when she pauses to glance at a note that Daniel penned to her long ago.  “You can’t do everything altogether at the same time at once right now.”

imageObviously this points up the major shortcoming of multi-tasking.  We mere mortals can do one thing at a time, and if so we can do it pretty well.  Or we can try to do a bunch of things at the same time, and the results likely will be shoddy.  Less obviously, this is also a reminder of the impact of deadlines that come nearer and to-do lists that lengthen.  Ironically, those lists tend to grow longer at the very time of the year when the days grow shorter.  It’s a recipe for panic.

On the 2nd Sunday of Advent John the Baptist makes his entrance into the Advent story.  The gospels portray him as a voice crying in the desert, and his message is striking for its simplicity.  “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his paths.”  It’s all a very nice thought, but do any of us really have the time to add one more thing to our to-do lists?  Could this be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back?

The interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas is not a good practice run for the “peace on earth” that Christmas promises.  Actually, for most of us it’s a crazy time of frenzied shopping, congested traffic, holiday parties and the like.  It’s a high-stress time when people and events can push many of us to the breaking point.  We do it all to promote goodwill and build community, yet some of us still find ourselves lonely and depressed.  We can often feel like we walk the paths of life alone.

It’s important to realize that John the Baptist is not asking us to add one more item to our to-do lists.  Rather, he suggests that this may be the best time to set everything aside for as long as it takes to make some sense of it.  Where is all this mindless activity taking us?  Do we even know what we want to do with our lives?

imageJohn the Baptist offers a way to deal with the season and the pressure, and it’s a matter of sitting down and sorting things out in the light of our gospel calling.  If tasks do not have some ultimate meaning or purpose, then chances are they lead to dead ends.  If hyper-activity leaves us dazed by mid-day, then it’s possible we’ve become little more than hamsters on a wheel.

Making straight the way to the Lord is not just another job.  It’s not pious purposelessness, to use some of Fr. Daniel’s alliteration.  A focus on the Lord gives perspective, and it helps us prioritize all the stuff we think we need to do.  A focus on the Lord provides the criteria for effective triage.  If something contributes to personal peace as well as to goodwill among family and friends, then it can stay on the to-do list until it finally gets done.  But if it doesn’t help us realize a vision of Christ in our lives, then off the list it should go.

So John the Baptist is not trying to choke us with one more assignment.  Rather, he urges us to simplify our lives.  Focus on the Lord, he suggests, and all the pieces will come together — eventually.

This Advent, then, if we have too much to do and we’re doing it all poorly, then let’s try to do at least one thing well.  Let’s heed John the Baptist and get a grip on ourselves and go out and get lives.  Preferably we should get lives rooted in the Lord; and if we do so, all else will come our way besides.  Of course this is easier said than done, until we finally start to do it.

image.Notes

+On November 30th we celebrated the lighting of the Christmas tree in the Great Hall.  This year it was different for two reasons.  First, after umpteen years we finally had to dispense with a live tree in the Great Hall.  Our insurance company and the fire department had badgered us for years to stop dragging in a live tree, for fear of fire.  Because of that, long ago we stopped decorating it with lights.  This year we finally went with an artificial tree that should last us for years and years.  But with that came the opportunity to decorate it once again with lights.  So it really is a sight to behold.

+On December 5th the choirs of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict performed their annual Christmas concert at the Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis.

+John the Baptist has been a favorite subject for artists for centuries.  At Saint John’s images of him abound, including the stained glass in the Great Hall and the sculpture by Doris Cesar in the abbey church.  The third photo is a mosaic from Lourdes, and at bottom is another mosaic, from the cathedral of Orvieto in Italy.

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