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Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

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Who Stole My Sundays?

It was a nightly ritual in their household.  Jake gave the signal when he walked to the door and stared through his dark brown eyes.  Finally someone came to throw the tennis ball far into the darkness outside.  Then out he bolted, eyes fixed on the ball.  Only after he had pounced on the ball did he do his duty, and at last it was time for bed.

I think that was the first serious lesson I ever learned from a dog.  For Jake there was no physiological connection between throwing that ball and doing his business.  Nor was it a feature at any other time of day when he needed to relieve himself.  Only at bedtime was it part of his routine, and it seemed that for Jake it was the last joyous affirmation of a day well-lived.  That day I learned from Jake the importance of ritual, even in the lives of some of our animal friends.

IMG_0020_2In a few days comes the First Sunday of Advent.  For some it will occasion little or no response;  for others it may elicit memories of religious obligations that were more onerous than life-giving.  For still others it will resurrect thoughts of a more innocent age, before Black Friday side-tracked it into a seasonal frenzy of consumerism.  But for the lucky ones, Advent will be a time of renewal that reminds us of an inner transcendence that we all share.

Jesus often spoke about the importance of the sabbath, and in well-chosen words he reminded anyone who would listen that they were not made for the sabbath.  Rather, the sabbath was made for them, and it was meant to recall our intrinsic value as people made in God’s image.  We need not be pawns of marketers or slaves to unrelenting schedules.  There’s more to life than mindless activity, because there is in fact purpose to our lives.

A recent column by David Brooks reinforced this point for me when he quoted the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel.  “The seventh day is a palace in time which we build,” he wrote.  “It is made of soul, joy and reticence.”  Brooks paraphrased Heschel when he concluded that “we take a break from the distractions of the world not as a rest to give us more strength to dive back in, but as the climax of living.”

IMG_0024_2I find it interesting that in our march toward a more secular worldview we’ve managed to repurpose the point of Advent and decorate it in the trappings of merchandise.  We’ve supplemented it with what some have labeled the nightly liturgy of the talking heads.  Even as our eyes are glued to the televised politicos, we hold cell phones as if they were life-support, and in effect we make of ourselves appendages of technology.  Ironically, we’ve come to believe that all these things are here to serve us, when in fact it’s become the other way around.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this is the first time in the human experience that this has happened.  It’s merely the modern iteration of the eternal quest to achieve sanity and to attain the inner peace that makes life worth living.  Not surprisingly, our sabbath and Advent observances are part of that ritual effort to transcend the mundane.

I’m not about to advocate that we take these religious observances to some extreme.  But what I do suggest is that we take them for what they are worth.  And therein I draw one more lesson from Jake.  Jake didn’t need to chase tennis balls all day long to find meaning in life.  Once a day was enough to affirm the value of his life in a routine of eating, chasing squirrels and barking at the UPS people.  Life was good for Jake, and life can and ought to be good for us, no matter the tedium and challenge that fills the spaces between successive Sundays and Advents.

IMG_0022_2This Sunday I’ve resolved to set aside one activity and elevate it as a symbol of the transcendent value of my life.  I was made for God, and not for online shopping or the cell-phone or rush-hour traffic.  Sure, these are struggles with which we must contend, but they are not the ultimate good in and of themselves.  They are no more than the means to a greater good.

Finally, when the last Sunday of Advent dawns, I hope I don’t find myself wondering what happened to all those Sundays.  Nor do I want to be asking “Who stole my Sundays?”  For better or for worse, if I have nothing to show for my efforts, I hope I’ll have the honesty to say that I’ve given all my Sundays away.  If, on the contrary, I’ve made something of them, then I’ll have the joy of singing with the saints:  “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice!”

IMG_0025_2Notes

+Thanksgiving has come and gone, and it was serenely quiet at Saint John’s over the holidays.  Now the rush to the end of the term has begun, and the starting gun has signaled to our students the opening of the camping season in the library.

+In a recent post I presented a photo of a fresco of Our Lady the Good Shepherdess, on the walls of the mission church of San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.  I noted that it was the first time I’d seen such an image, and one of my confreres graciously pointed out that it is in fact a common image in Italy, Spain and the Latin countries in the Americas.  There it is referenced as La Divina Pastora.  My previous encounters with similar images have been in manuscript art, and from one of my files I have retrieved a stone carving of that scene.  It is entitled the Madonna of Mercy, done in the first half of the 15th century in Tuscany.  It is housed in the Fondazione Salvatore Romano in Florence.  The photo is at the bottom of today’s post.

+The stained glass in today’s post all come from a rose window in the church of Saint Eustace in Paris.

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img_0211_2Welcome the Savior

“Here’s the deal.  There is a savior; and you’re not the savior.”  This bit of spiritual advice came to me third-hand last week, and it’s the sort of statement-of-the-obvious that most of us could afford to hear now and again.

It’s not that we actually think we’re God that gets us into trouble.  Most of us aren’t that self-deluded.  Rather, the real problem is the assumption that we’ve been delegated to act on God’s behalf.  Why else would God gift us with certain divine qualities, such as omniscience and always being right?  Why else would we make our own that wonderful prayer of the Pharisee:  “I thank God that I am not like the rest of people!”  Ironically, if we say that prayer often enough, it actually comes true.  But that’s a topic for another day, because for now I want to focus on the savior business.

In just a few days we’ll celebrate Christmas, and despite the overemphasis on material gifts, the point of it all is the gift of Jesus as savior.  I know that can sound a bit like a cliché, but I’d also suggest it will remain just a cliché until we finally give up being personal saviors to ourselves and turn that job over to Jesus.  Only then will we discover what a radical difference Jesus can make in our lives.  But until then we are on our own — which is a scary thing when you think about it.

In the Advent readings we’ve met some pretty formidable personalities.  Isaiah and John the Baptist are nothing if they are not forceful and dynamic.  Mary too has a unique role in this narrative, but her charisma is of a very different sort than that of the prophets.  And then there’s Joseph, who’s the unsung silent figure in all of this.

img_0232_2Joseph is the featured personality in the gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent.  That said, you have to conclude that his agent did a lousy job in promoting Joseph’s on-stage presence.  For one thing, Joseph sleeps through his entire scene.  Later on, when he wakes up, he discovers that even then he didn’t get a speaking part.  Never, in any of the gospels, does he get to say a single word.  Despite everything God expects of Joseph, the gospel writers not even once do Joseph the courtesy of citing his reaction to all this.  There’s not so much as a “maybe I’ll do it” or an “okay, I’ll get right on it.”  Nope.  Joseph hears the message and gets straight to business.  And we’re left to wonder what sort of person Joseph really was.  Was he always the strong silent type?  Was he like that as a kid?  Was he the teacher’s dream student in kindergarten?  Was he always so poised and determined to do the right thing?  Did he ever have a moment’s doubt?

Christian tradition has given Joseph the short end of the stick and put him in the supporting cast of the Christmas story.  But we should know better, and we should never dismiss him as unimportant, because in many ways Joseph is the most practical role model that any of us could ever have.  He may have run under the radar.  He may have been quiet and reserved.  On the other hand, he did an awful lot of heavy lifting when called upon to do so.  No doubt even Mary, who gets most of the headlines, relied on Joseph for strength, guidance and support.  After all, like Joseph she had only the sketchiest of notions about God’s plan for her.  She had to lean on somebody’s shoulder, and that shoulder belonged to Joseph.

img_0092_2That makes Joseph a not-so-bad role model for those of us who’ve come to realize that we are not the headliners in life.  Despite not having speaking parts on the international stage or in the leading pulpits on the planet, God still has plans for us. God has work for us to do, even if at times we wonder whether our efforts matter.  In fact, like God did with Joseph, God has assigned to each of us some moments when we can really make a critical difference.  And like Joseph, we need to awaken to the possibilities and seize them.

I believe it was John Calvin who made a useful point that helps us understand the difference between the savior and the saved.  “Believe as if everything depends upon God; and act as if everything depends upon you.”  That’s definitely not an invitation to run the world, or even our little corner of it, as if we were God’s vice-regent.  Rather, it’s a reminder that we have a savior and that savior stands with us when we deal with our assigned tasks.  That’s the real message of Christmas, and it’s great news.

img_0064Notes

+I know I shouldn’t say this, but throughout 2016 I had great good fortune with the airlines.  I made it everywhere I needed to be, pretty much on time and intact.  But last week was different.  For the first time in years my checked bag failed to make a flight connection, and it stayed in Detroit a lot longer than I did.  Fortunately it caught up with me the next day.

Then, later in the week, I landed at noon in Detroit for a 1:10 pm flight, only to discover that it had been rescheduled for 3:30, due to weather.  But the gate agent quietly told me that the 10:30 am flight hand’t left yet, and there were two seats left.  The upshot was that my original flight left two and a half hours late, while I got to New York fifteen minutes ahead of my original schedule.  Even better, my bag made it along with me.  The lesson here?  Be  kind to the people at the airlines.  Like God did with Mary, they too  have the capacity to do great things.

+I was on my way to New York, where it was cold and snowy.  And to top it all off, I was not properly dressed for any of it.  Even so, I made it to my meetings.  I also had time to join two good friends for a foray to the Metropolitan Museum, where I got to see an exhibit entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400:  Every People Under Heaven.  It ends on January 8th, so this was my only chance to see it.  Even better, we got to hear a concert of Byzantine Christmas Music, performed by the Axion Estin Foundation Chanters.

img_0063If you’ve never heard Byzantine chant, you should.  The deep and resonant voices are dramatic, and you can appreciate the reaction of the envoys of the king of the Bulgars when they listened to it in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the early 9th century.  They thought they were standing in heaven itself.  Ironically, the chanters at the Met were perched in the Medieval Sclupture Hall, beneath a mosaic of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist.  That mosaic had once graced an apse in Hagia Sophia, and on earlier trips to the Met I’d never noticed it.

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I am hugely sophisticated when it comes to chant.  Despite the grandeur and majesty of Byzantine chant, a little bit goes a long way — at least for me.  Plus, given that it was in Greek, Armenian Arabic and Russian, for all I know they could have easily slipped in some stuff for Lent or Easter.

+The first three photos in today’s post show works of art housed at the National Gallery in Washington.  At top is The Marriage of the Virgin, by Bernard van Orley, Netherlands, c. 1513.  Next comes The Expectant Madonna with St. Joseph, made in France in the 15th century.  The third image is The Virgin Reading, by Vittore Carpaccio, Venice, mid-15th century.  The two images at bottom show the balcony and mosaic that originally was located in Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, now housed in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At the bottom of this post is Sandro Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi, Florence, ca. 1480.

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img_3912Routine:  The Foundation for Change

“When was the last time you did something for the very first time?”  So the greeting card I held in my hand asked, and I took it as a test of my flexibility and spontaneity.  To be perfectly honest, I had never posed that question to myself;  so my response was a forthright “Just now!”  Clearly I had passed that test with flying colors.  Next question, please.

Most people are creatures of habit, and on that score monks get higher marks than most.  After all, Benedictines live by a Rule written nearly 1,500 years ago.  Its wisdom and values have scarcely changed, and when we’ve made alterations to the daily routine, we’ve tended to stick with them for decades or even centuries at a time. Whatever else you may care to say about monks, spur-of-the-moment people we are not.

Still, nothing lasts 1,500 years if you never do anything for the first time.  Even St. Benedict recognized that, and he knew there would be times when monks would have to adapt.  In cold climates, which we enjoy on occasion in Minnesota, Benedict allowed his monks warmer clothing.  When monks did more strenuous manual labor he made provision for more food.  And to the abbot who had a better idea for the organization of the Psalms or the daily schedule, Benedict gave blanket permission to give it his best shot. After all, he meant his Rule to be a guide for living, not a straight-jacket.

img_3967We often think of change as something to resist as much as possible, but some change is unavoidable.  Take, for example, the flow of the seasons.  We’re unable to do a lot about that save to escape to other parts of the country — which itself is a form of change.  In ancient Israel they accepted the inevitability of spring, summer, fall and winter, and they harnessed that seasonal progression to teach something about our relationship with God.  The Hebrews incorporated into their cycle of worship harvest festivals, days of atonement and spring planting; and not surprisingly, early Christians did the same.

Even so, many in our own day are blissfully unaware that the liturgical calendar is linked so intimately to the changing seasons.  Now that we are in Advent we’ve begun the new Church year, and our celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas correlates with days that will slowly grow in length and begin to hint of the coming of spring and the flowering of his ministry.  Advent and the darkest days of winter reinforce one another wonderfully, unless of course you live in the southern  hemisphere.

img_3935What in the world might this suggest about our relationship with God?  At the very least, it seems to me, it hints that it’s not static.  Like the seasons, the course of our lives waxes and wanes.  To take a cue from the vows made at marriage, we all have good times and bad.  We all experience bouts of sickness and health.  Death will us all do part, someday.  But most of all, we each grow with the seasons — sometimes imperceptibly and at other times quite obviously.  We are all on pilgrimage, to cast this process in spiritual language, and experience teaches that we do not walk alone.  We walk alongside our fellow pilgrims, and we also walk with God.

As we change and mature, we tend to feel the pull to pray, and so it is that we pray alone and we pray together.  Prayer brings us into conversation both with God and with one another, and we do so because we all seek the wisdom to choose our next big steps in life.  It’s what comes naturally when we need to figure out the course of our actions.

img_3957I long ago realized how pointless it is to pray that things might never change.  That doesn’t mean I no longer pray for that.  Rather, I just realize it won’t happen, whatever I may have to say about it.  That was the bind that Peter found himself in at the Transfiguration.  He prayed that Jesus would let him build booths for Jesus, for Moses and for Elijah.  He wanted to prolong the moment, to which Jesus responded with the equivalent of “are you kidding me?  I have other stuff to do.”

Jesus is not kidding when he reminds us to wake up and get with the program.  Of course there will be stretches during which the observance of routine will be life-giving.  But we can never let “routine” degenerate into “rut.”  Routine certainly keeps chaos at bay in our lives, but it also prepares us for life’s surprises.  Routine allows us to pick out the voice of the shepherd when he calls us to seize the moment.  Routine is the foundation on which we build fruitful lives, and it prepares us for the occasion when we have to do some very important things — each for the very first time.

img_3948Notes

+On December 10th Bishop Donald Kettler visited the abbey and ordained our confrere Brother Isaiah Frederick as priest.  Fr. Isaiah grew up in Tucson, came to college at Saint John’s University, and for several years worked as an accountant with Price Waterhouse in Phoenix.  Since my work has taken me to Phoenix regularly through the years, I had the opportunity to visit with him there, before he came as a candidate to the monastery.  It is wonderful to have him as a confrere and priest in the abbey.

img_3972+This past week was fairly uneventful, save for one little incident that I could never have anticipated.  I made a brief trip to Portsmouth, NH, to meet with an alumnus of Saint John’s.  I arrived early and had a bit of time to explore the town, which I had never seen before.  I stepped into a gift shop, looked around, and saw pottery which I did not need and the card on which today’s post is based.  In the course of this, the woman working there asked if she could be of help.  So I inquired whether there was a good bookstore in Portsmouth, and she asked what kind of book I had in mind.  I told her non-fiction, biography.  “I have just the store for you.”  She then locked up her own shop and walked me four blocks to the hole-in-the-wall shop she had in mind.  She took me in, introduced me to the owner, and returned to her shop.  I was completely flabbergasted by her act of kindness, so much so that I bought a novel.  The fact that a stranger would extend such hospitality to a visitor to Portsmouth is proof enough of the existence of God.  On the other hand, I left with the distinct impression that this was not one of those things she had just done for the first time.

img_3969+Two years ago I found myself in Vienna during Advent.  Famous for its Christmas markets, the city comes alive with lights and casual outdoor conversation.  It’s cold, which makes it all the more exhilarating.  If you’ve not been there during this season, it’s one more thing to add to your list of things that you’ve never done for the first time.  Today’s photos show the Christmas market in front of the city hall of Vienna.

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img_0012_2Advent:  A Luxury We Can Afford

I was surprised when a friend of mine told me the details of a three-day retreat he had gone on recently.  The fact that he’d made a retreat was no big surprise, since lots of people do them these days.  What caught my attention was the place where he went to do this.  He had just spent three days with the Camaldolese Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California.

Big Sur — the monastery — is quite a distance down the coast from San Francisco, and the place is exceptional both for its beauty as well as for its isolation.  The views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking; and as for its site, it’s best to say that it’s convenient neither to schools nor shopping.  It’s not near anything, and the occasional earthquake or forest fire has left both monks and guests isolated from the outside world.  Still, people keep coming, and reservations are a must.

In general people are familiar with Jesuit retreat programs and their regimen of structured activities.  Unlike them, however, retreats at Benedictine monasteries tend to leave people plenty of time to sort things out for themselves.  There may or may not be conferences to attend, and participants usually have access to one of the monks for spiritual guidance. But the biggest investment of time and energy goes into the round of liturgies that structure the lives of the monks.  In addition, there is encouragement to do some reading and meditation and walking.  And as the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once pointed out, walking can be one of the great spiritual therapies in any program of renewal.

img_9825Not everyone is able to trek out to some isolated spot for a retreat these days.  Some simply don’t have the time.  Others may not have the resources to do it.  Still others have obligations from which there is no easy escape — or so they assume.  And therein is my bit of encouragement to anyone who could benefit from time away from the normal routine.  At first glance retreats can seem to be a luxury that most can ill-afford.  In fact, the opposite is the case.  Taking time to assess our lives is something most of us can ill-afford not to do.

On the Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist steps into the scene, and he pleads with his listeners to consider what they are about.  To translate into modern English, he’s not trying to lay a guilt trip on anybody.  Rather, he challenges people to think about what they are doing with their lives.  Are they good stewards of their time and talent?  Do they care about one another?  Or are they chasing after material fantasies and other such delusions?

There are days when the pursuit of power and wealth and the exploitation of one another may seem what life is all about.  John would argue that these are dead-end activities.  For him what matters most is our creation in the divine image.  That’s what makes us noble, and with that comes the invitation to live wonderfully creative lives.

img_9826That reduces John’s message to its bare bones, and that was the takeaway for people who had hiked out to the desert to hear him.  John encouraged them to make good use of the brains that God had given them, and he urged them to put their brains to the task of producing good fruit.  Such lives reflect the vitality of God.

John was a powerful force in his day, in part because he did not preach in the temple in Jerusalem.  Instead he went to the wilderness along the Jordan River, and there people searched him out.  Ever since then, men and women in the Christian monastic tradition have gone out to the wilderness, and in imitation of John they are willing to share with any and all what they have learned in their spiritual journeys.  Far from wasting their lives, they try and replicate the message that John once proclaimed.  Like John, they try to live with intensity, and not because of any impending doom.  Rather, it’s a tragedy to waste a life that God has given.

img_0103_2Advent is no time for a guilt trip.  Rather it’s a wake-up call to consider what we’re doing with our lives  And in that spirit, if John the Baptist were to offer his recommendations today, this is what he might have to say.  First, it’s impractical for most of us to fly off to the Jordan River in order to repent, but that’s no excuse for doing nothing.  It’s impractical for most people to check into a monastery for a three-day retreat, but that’s no excuse either.  But there are things almost anyone can do.  First off, unless people are illiterate, it is possible to read a little bit of scripture and then pray.  That can be a bit of a retreat.  Attending a concert of sacred music can clear the mind and be something of a retreat.  Stepping out of the daily routine to volunteer in service to others can be a bit of a retreat.

These scarcely exhaust the options, but common to them all is this:  they give some equal time to the spiritual dimension of our lives.  Given the season, the screaming commercialism will always get plenty of air-time.  But stepping out of that noise gives God the chance to whisper into our ears a message whose time has come.  To our surprise, such a moment may not be a luxury after all.  By comparison, all else may be luxuries we can ill-afford.

img_0102_2Notes

+On November 30th I gave a lecture on The Saint John’s Bible at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Currently there is a major exhibit of folios from the Bible through early January, and my talk was part of a series of lectures on the topic.  What made this different was the presence of my mother and brothers and sisters.  It was the first time my mother had ever heard me speak, and finally she’s learned something of what I do for a living.  It was especially nice that the museum director introduced her to the audience.  That evening she finally got to decide whether years and years of tuition were worth the investment.

+In the interests of full disclosure, I have never had the chance to visit the community of Benedictine monks at Big Sur, CA.  They belong to a branch of Benedictines that blend in an emphasis on hermit-life, and it was begun by St. Romuauld at Camaldoli in Italy.  Many of our monks have gone on personal retreats at Big Sur, and one of their monks is scheduled to give our community retreat at Saint John’s in June 2017.

+The photos in today’s post present stained glass from three different sites.  The first is of Saint John the Baptist, and it comes from the entrance to the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  The next two photos are scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and they are 14th-century Austrian glass now housed in the V & A Museum in London.  The two lower panels illustrate the Annunciation, and they were made in the Upper Rhine Valley in the 15th century.  They are now housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris.

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img_0027_2Sleepers Wake!

The other day I happened to notice in my rear-view mirror a car darting through the traffic, as if the driver were on his way to a fire.  But his was not an emergency vehicle, and so I could only imagine why somebody would take such crazy risks, given the heavy traffic.  Obviously this person had something terribly important to attend to.  Or not.

Eventually the driver worked his way up alongside me, and he missed my car by inches as he veered in front of me.  It was all I  could do to keep my cool, but just barely.  Then, three or four minutes later, the traffic slowed to a crawl, and there he sat, a mere two car-lengths ahead.  He had risked his own life and the safety of everybody else, and all he had to show for it was forty or fifty feet of road.

What struck me about this modern variation on the fable of the tortoise and the hare was the utter futility of it all.  To all appearances the driver seemed to have a sense of purpose, and he’d seized both the wheel of his car and life with intensity.  In fact, however, he’d reduced his life to some sort of video game.  For a few miles he’d ceded control of his life to a primal urge to get ahead.  But I suspect he scarcely realized he’d gained very little on the rest of us.  We had plodded along at the speed limit, and for all his mania he’d gained perhaps twenty or thirty feet of roadway.

img_3896In my post of last week I noted that I was grateful to have the good sense to know that there’s room for improvement in my life.  Even better, I was grateful that the Lord has given me some time to work on this.  And then this Sunday, on the fist Sunday of Advent, Jesus spoke in the gospel about the need to prepare for the coming of the Lord.  Am I right in thinking that Jesus may have meant those words for me?

Jesus warns that we know neither the day nor the hour of his coming, and this creates an air of urgency for those of us who get nervous about that kind of thing.  What exactly is Jesus expecting of us as we prepare?  Ought we to double-down, put our noses to the grindstone and make each and every minute be a peak experience?  Ought we to ratchet up our activity, much as did the crazed driver?  Do we dare waste a minute in idleness when our eternal life seems to be on the line?

Hyperactivity might be one course of action, and I fault no one for coming to that conclusion.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he counseled preparedness.  In Matthew 24 Jesus goes on to note that two men were working in the field, and God took one.  Two women were grinding at the mill, and one was taken and the other left.  What’s important to note is that this wasn’t an issue of who was working harder.  Everybody was busy.  No hands were idle, and al were doing their fair share of the work.

img_3895The issue then is not the amount of work, but rather the sense of purpose that coursed through those four minds.  All were equally busy,  but two of them knew to expect the coming of the Lord.  There was a meaning to even the simplest tasks that they had to do, and their self-awareness made all the difference in the world.

On the First Sunday of Advent Jesus reminds us that “at an hour we do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”  Now it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Jesus is talking about the end of time, or at the very least, about the last moment of our lives.  But knowing what little I do about Jesus, I long ago concluded that Jesus was not the kind of guy who wants to wait and barge into my life at the very end, with a great big “surprise!”  Rather, he really does want to be part of our lives, now.  For those of us who thought this interval was ours to do with as we chose, this can be a little disconcerting.  But as I’ve learned from people who claim to know, to this idea Jesus says “Fat chance!”

I fully expect to run into the Lord Jesus at the end of time, but between now and then I have no plans to run around like a mindless fool.  I hope I don’t ever find myself speeding down the highway of life, oblivious to those I’m passing.  Rather, I think the better course is to get a grip on myself and prepare to meet the Lord more than a few times, and well in advance of my own last day.

img_3921Soon enough we monks will be singing Advent lyrics that urge sleepers to wake.  We might very well be a bit groggy when we sing them at morning prayer, but the point is well-taken.  The words are a spiritual alarm clock.  They are an urgent call to consider what God calls us to do with each and every day that we have ahead of us, beginning with today.

Finally, I live staked my life on the belief that God calls us to be neither wastrels nor workaholics.  These, I think, lead down paths paved with self-delusion.  Rather, God wants something very simple of us.  God calls us to take a moment to consider where we might be meeting the Lord Jesus in the course of our day.  And the thoughtful person knows to expect to find Jesus waiting just around the corner, ready and more than happy to surprise us yet again.

img_3907Notes

+On Thanksgiving Day Prior Brad presided at the Abbey Mass, and following that we all adjourned to the Abbey refectory for dinner.  Through the years Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday in the Abbey, largely due to the fact that we do not have to stay up half the night in church in order to earn the feast day.  Sadly, vigil Masses are not my forte, as I normally get up an hour or two after they conclude.  So Thanksgiving is the feast day made to order for early risers like me.

+On November 26th I witnessed the renewal of vows of my friends Drake and Madeline Dierkhising on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary.  Drake and his brother are the third generation of Dierkhising’s to go to school at Saint John’s, and the family roots go back to the beginnings of our neighboring town of Saint Joseph.

img_3911+We continue to have snow at Saint John’s, and in addition many of the last few days have been quite overcast and gray.  The photos of the landscape in today’s post hint at that, and in fact some give the impression that I took them in black and white.  I didn’t.  The first photo shows a woman sleeping over a grave in the central cemetery in the city of Lviv in Ukraine.

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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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