Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

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.


+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.


+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?


+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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imageCome Lord Jesus!

I don’t often draw inspiration from comedians, but you have to give them their due.  Great comics succeed because of their keen insight into human behavior, and they get us to laugh at ourselves, even when it hurts.

A case in point is a guy I heard recently who built his routine around the noxious things people say when they get behind the wheel of a car.  His point was simple.  There’s stuff people say in a car that they would never think to say in the aisle of a market or in a library.  In the privacy of a car mild-mannered grandmothers become raging beasts, and lambs send wolves running for cover.  At the mere hint that someone is about to inch into their lane, for example, some people will unleash a torrent of naughty words that would make sailors blush.  Perhaps people feel free to do this because they think no one will hear.  And it’s good that people don’t hear, because most drivers are not saying the rosary or the Jesus prayer.  It’s usually quite the opposite, and it’s just better that people not hear what’s really being said.

IMG_9806This might seem an odd start to a reflection on Advent, but it’s not.  On the 1st Sunday of Advent the gospel passage from Luke quotes these words from Jesus:  “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent….”

When Jesus speaks these words today, he means to address them to each one of us, and not just to the so-called important people.  In a world that seems ready to plunge off the cliff, it’s easy to assume that Jesus is talking about big things like the bombings in Paris, wars all over the place, and catastrophes everywhere.  In the face of such horrors it’s tempting to freeze in our tracks and assume that there’s nothing we can do.  In fact, we should not even feel responsible, because Jesus is speaking only about the important people.

Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus notes that those who do well with the little things will be entrusted with even greater responsibility; and that brings us back to the business of driving.  Jesus speaks to us, and for not a few of us the time behind the wheel is the litmus test for the kind of lives we choose to lead.  If, on reflection, we are shocked by some of the things we say while we’re driving, then it’s important to realize that this is part of who we are, whether we like it or not.  It’s the personal baggage we tote around wherever we go.  If in other circumstances we keep this anger safely under wraps, then good.  But such tendencies are still there, lurking just behind the serenity of our faces.  It’s part of the complete package of who we really are.

imageSo what is the recipe for a successful Advent?  First of all, don’t expect God to delegate to us any of the huge issues facing the planet.  Chances are slim that the world will turn to us to solve a single international crisis.  Nor will people call on us to ease any of the nation’s problems.  Nor will they ask us to take the lead in bettering the culture of our town or community.

But we are not off the hook just because we’ve not been delegated any of the big items.  In fact, Jesus has given each of us lots of work to do, and for me it begins with the management of everything within a two-foot radius of my person.  That includes the space inside my car, and it also includes the many people who will come close to my circle in the next few weeks.

It may seem like Jesus has entrusted very little to us, but in fact he expects a great deal from us.  Our personal space may not seem like much, yet it’s what God has given us to manage.  For most of us, including myself, it’s sometimes even more than we can handle, but it’s what we’ve been given.

Advent, then, is our moment to wake up and see about managing our personal responsibilities.  And if by chance the inside of a car is what brings out the worst in us, then that’s where we need to begin on day one of Advent.  For starters, just imagine if, the next time someone cuts me off, I dispensed with my customary words and instead screamed out “Come Lord Jesus!”  Better still, imagine a highway filled with people shouting “Come Lord Jesus!”  It would be stranger than fiction and grist for a new comedy routine.


+Recently the monastic chapter of Saint John’s Abbey voted to accept Brother Efraín Rosado as a monk in our community.  Brother Efraín first professed as a monk at the abbey of Tepeyec in Mexico City.  But after living with us for some time he applied to transfer his vows to our community.

+This fall we were delighted to have on sabbatical with us Fr. Colman O’Clabaigh of Glenstall Abbey in Ireland.  As a parting gift he spoke to the community last week, on the topic of “50 Ways to Cleave Your Brother: Mischief, Mayhem and Misfits in Medieval Monasteries.”

+We were recently delighted by the news that one of our recent graduates has been named a Rhodes Scholar.  She is an alumna of our sister school, the College of Saint Benedict.

+On Thanksgiving Day I presided at the Abbey Mass.  Normally I would include a link to that sermon, We Are the Ten Lepers, but yet again WordPress, which manages this site, has “upgraded” the site without telling the users how to adapt.  They won’t deign to tell us until they figure out their own errors, but for now if you go to the homepage of A Monk’s Chronicle and click on the tab “Presentations,” you will find the sermon as the last selection in the series.  I am truly sorry and personally frustrated.  It reminds me of the columnist who recently noted that he had forgotten the password to the windshield wipers on his car.   Such is life in the technological fast lane.

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imageBe Watchful.  Be Alert.

You have to wonder what in the world the disciples were doing when Jesus pushed them to “be watchful.  Be alert.”  (Mark 13: 33).  Had they dozed off during one of his parables?  Had their minds wandered?  Did they assume that, as the ultimate insiders, there was nothing more to learn?  We’ll never know.  But I’m guessing they’d grown a little smug and thought they had nothing to worry about.  Life with Jesus was good.

Whether these words rattled them or not, we’ll also never know.  But one thing seems clear.  This was not an invitation to sit back, relax, and coast through life.  Jesus expected a little more out of them than waiting around for their turn to sit at his right in the kingdom.

What Jesus wanted from his apostles matters to us as well, since this gospel passage inaugurates the season of Advent.  And therein is a dilemma.  Is Jesus trying to scare us to death with talk about burglars breaking in when we least expect them?  Is he trying to make us paranoid with the thought that the loss of everything dear to us is just around the next corner?  Or does he recommend that his disciples and we dial down on the alarmism, but open our minds just a tad to what is going on around us?  It strikes me that we have two options here.  We can hit the panic button, or we can buckle down and tend to the quest of becoming Christian.

imageA popular stereotype of monks is that we are a dour and depressing lot.  People assume that we must worry constantly about our salvation, and that best explains why we spend all that time in church.  And Saint Benedict doesn’t help our public image when he tells  his monks to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  Who wouldn’t panic at the thought that today may see the end of everything.  I know I’d be anxious as heck at the thought that by nightfall I would pack it all in and face the grim reaper.

Most monks I know simply can’t and won’t live that way.  None of us can sustain that sort of emotional intensity for very long, because we’d either despair or go crazy.  On top of that, confreres who are like that are tough to live with.  That’s why we usually encourage them to search for God someplace else.  Life has enough difficulty without somebody constantly telling us that it’s going to hell in a hand-basket.

With all due respect, neither Jesus nor Saint Benedict were trying to have a little fun at our expense.  They did not intend to cry wolf and scare the daylights out of us, hoping to induce radical change in our behavior.  Instead, they both hoped we’d keep on searching for God, day in and day out.  No matter how boring it might seem.

imageThis point may be tough to tease out, but I think it goes something like this.  For those who expect salvation to be a personal big-bang moment, when God hits us on the head, they’re generally disappointed with the results.  Even Saint Paul, and even Martin Luther, had to deal with the realities of a long life after they fell from their horses.  Life proved too long to put all their eggs in the basket of a split-second conversion experience.  Life went on, and on.  And unlike so many other things for which life is too short, when it comes to the search for God, one life is more than long enough.  It’s a relationship that waxes and wanes through the years.  And like a marriage or a friendship, it’s something that requires regular investment.

So if Advent is an invitation to buckle down and be about our Father’s business, what exactly should we do?  Well, like New Year’s or Lent, one or two resolutions can be enough to nourish our relationship, at least for this interlude in our lives.  And as this passage from the Gospel of Mark suggests, our focus should be on the Lord in our midst.

imageOn the assumption that we should keep our eyes peeled to see Christ where we least expect him, I’ve decided to address one of my many pet peeves where my vision could use some improvement.  I know this sounds a little jaded, but one peeve results from years of experience with taxi drivers in New York.  If ever again a driver asks how to get where I hope to go (as two of them did recently), I’ve decided to take the question philosophically rather than literally.  “Let’s pray about this together, and I’m sure we’ll find the way.”  That’s definitely better than what I said two weeks ago, and on a few other occasions as well.  And the benefits of this approach?  I lower my blood pressure, and the driver is transformed before my very eyes.  He’s no longer the thief in the night, trying to lead me on a long and expensive diversion.  Instead, I realize that maybe he’s only trying to do the best he can.  In such a person it may be tough to see Christ at first.  But if you squint, it’s a real revelation when you finally spy Christ at the wheel of your taxi.

That, I submit, is the invitation Jesus puts to us in Advent.  This is no time to panic because we’ve not seen his face for ages.  Rather, it’s a few weeks when we buckle down and focus on someone who’s been there all along.  And so, if there are people on your list in whom you least expect to find the Lord, be watchful, and be alert.  The Lord may have been in them all along.  What a surprise to realize that — all this time — we’ve be gazing on the image of God.


+The monks of Saint John’s celebrated Thanksgiving with the customary festive meal.  Unlike in past years, however, the monks did everything, including the preparation of the refectory, the cooking, and the clean-up.  This gave the regular kitchen staff the day off, though from them it required an act of faith that we would not destroy the kitchen in their absence.  Actually, we are blessed to have several monks who have accomplished skills in the kitchen, and the meal was a great success.  At the end of the day the kitchen was in mint condition, much to everyone’s relief.

+On November 29th the University football team played its second game in the Division III national play-offs.  Sadly, they lost to Wartburg College, thus ending the season.  It was a great season though, and the final loss did come with a silver lining:  no more games in the cold of winter.  The winner gets to go on and freeze another day.

image+Over Thanksgiving I finished reading a book that I’d worked on for a while: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2013.)  As a medieval historian I found the narrative immensely interesting, as Heather traces the evolution of a new empire in the West and the development of the papacy from the 5th to the 12th centuries.  I had read a favorable review of it in The Wall Street Journal, which suggested its accessibility to the general reader.  It is accessible, but the novice historian will find the array of names of barbarian chiefs and kings bewildering.  The popes under discussion are slightly more familiar.  This is a terrific book for its narrative of how the Church and empire in western Europe became what it became.

+The prophet Isaiah shows up early in the readings for Advent, and the first photo in today’s post is of “Saint Isaiah”, from Oliva Cathedral in Gdansk, Poland.  The other photos are from the cathedral in Metz, France, which was near the epicenter of the Holy Roman Empire.

+In the post of 24 November I included a gallery of images of the Abbey church.  This week I’ve included selected photos of the Abbey church in use.


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imageJesus Christ the Apple Tree

Ours was the only home in the neighborhood to have an apple tree.  Actually, we had two; and my father babied them as if they were part of the family.

It wasn’t that our neighbors disliked apple trees.  Rather, Oklahoma City did not provide the optimal conditions for these poor creatures.  Red clay and the intense heat of summer made life tough for any tree.  Then there was the daily battle against birds and insects and drought.  No, it was a real chore to keep these trees going; and it was a war that our neighbors were unwilling to wage.  To them it just wasn’t worth the effort.

Given the investment of work, my father was not about to waste one bit of the hard-won fruit.  These certainly were not the perfect and unblemished apples that you found in the stores.  But they were my father’s apples.  And perhaps as a reward for the struggle, these apples had a flavor that the imports from Washington State could only dream of.

imageSo it was that each autumn we ate apples until we grew tired of them.  And when it was clear that we’d eat no more, he turned to pies.  Late into the night, night after night, he peeled apples relentlessly, while my bemused mother baked on and on.  Our kitchen became a pie factory, and by the end of the season there could be eighty or a hundred pies in the freezer.

In time all this became the stuff of legend in our family.  We still joke about it, and the pie that hid for three years in the back of the freezer has become a symbol of stubborn survival.  Small wonder that these unpretentious trees in our back yard still hold a special place in our family memory.

All that figured mightily when I got my first taste of English choral music.  I found the voices hauntingly beautiful, very unlike those in the churches of my youth.  And the lyrics seemed to have substance and solemnity quite unlike anything I had experienced before.  But nothing except family history prepared me for the carol that became my immediate hands-down favorite.  How could I not like Jesus Christ the Apple Tree?

We’ve attached many images to the figure of Jesus Christ, and among them we speak of Jesus as an offshoot of the rootstock of Jesse.  But unless I’m mistaken, you’ll search the Bible in vain for any explicit reference to Jesus as an apple tree — which is too bad.  It’s wonderfully evocative, and I’m a little surprised that early Christian writers didn’t latch on to it.  Then again, they didn’t live in England, where apples figure prominently in the diet and in the landscape.

imageThere are two strands of thought that make the apple tree so apt a description for Jesus.  First, in biblical language the messiah will come specifically to undo the sin of Adam and Eve.  For better and for worse, and for centuries, we’ve assumed that Adam and Eve picked and ate an apple.  But the really important point to be had from the Genesis story is that they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Needless to say, the whole experience was not what the serpent had led Adam and Eve to expect.  They did indeed learn an awful lot, but it was hard-won knowledge; and it didn’t transform them into the equals of God, as they had expected.  Instead, they reaped lives of toil, conflict, suffering and death.  So far from being the tree of transformation, it became the tree of death.  Thus it is that the wood of the cross is cast as the tree of redemption.  Quite appropriately, the English carol borrows and transforms this image, and it labels the apple tree as the “tree of life.”

imageThe carol also speaks of our life-long search for meaning and focus.  “For happiness I long have sought, and pleasure dearly I have bought,” it reads.  It gently pokes fun at our planet-wide search for a glimpse of truth, while we never for a minute notice the beauty that is right under our noses.  In just the same way the humble apple tree pales beside the majesty of an oak.  It lacks the grace of an elm and the vibrant colors of a maple.  But its small stature offers shade and shelter, and its simple but abundant harvest of fruit offers sustenance deep into the winter.

My favorite line comes in the last stanza of the carol, and it proffers a message of hope.  “This fruit doth make my soul to thrive; it keeps my dying faith alive….”  In Christian parlance, the apple tree becomes the symbol of the resurrection.  In the dead of winter, on the darkest of days, all may seem lifeless and lost.  But the buds of the apple tree are only dormant, and they are just waiting for the chance to burst into flower come spring.

imageSo what are the lessons to glean from Jesus Christ the Apple Tree?  First, it strikes me that we ought to have a clear, well-thought-out focus in our lives.  All of us waste prodigious amounts of our lives searching the horizon, looking for greener and more spectacular pastures.  In fact, the source of real meaning in our lives is generally right in front of us.  It is in the people with whom we rub elbows where we find meaning.  It’s in the chance to serve the poor and suffering where true life is to be found.  To ignore this is to miss out on life.

The second take-away is the initiative that Jesus takes in our lives.  Life has struggles enough, but it is a common mistake to assume that we have to do all the work when we look for God.  It should come as no small comfort to know that the job description for Jesus is simple enough.  He’s the one who comes to us.  He’s the one who searches us out.   He’s the one who does the heavy lifting, and we should stand back and let him do his work in us. That, it seems to me, is the real message of Christmas.

So the next time faith seems too much to carry, or too much to bear, remember why Jesus came at Christmas.  He’s the one who gives that little spark that keeps our dying faith alive.

[For a fine musical interpretation, listen to the choir of King’s College Cambridge, as it sings Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.]


+On December 11th I spoke to the faculty of the graduate School of Theology of Azusa Pacific University.  The occasion was their end-of-term Christmas party, and you can imagine the pressure I felt to keep them entertained and on focus.

+On December 12th I attended the annual Christmas celebration, hosted in Saint Paul by the presidents of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

+On December 15th the Abbey hosted a Mass in celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  This was a first for us, and it is a sign of the growth of the Spanish-speaking community in central Minnesota.  Bishop Donald Kettler was the celebrant, while Abbot John preached — in English.  Brother Dennis Beach translated.

image+Also on December 15th I celebrated Mass for two dear friends and a small gathering of their friends.  At that Mass they repeated their wedding vows, as did several other couples in attendance.

+The times have not been good to many inner city and rural churches across the country during the past few years.  Still, there are on occasion nice endings to counter the stories of decay, and last week we celebrated one at Saint John’s.  Ages ago Alphonse John Mich, Sr., a member of the class of 1911 at Saint John’s University, donated a stained glass window to his parish church in Donnelly, MN.  The ravages of time were not kind to the church of Saint Therese, and it had an appointment with the wrecking ball as it teetered on the verge of collapse.  However, just before the demolition, two of his daughters rescued the window.  Last week, in a ceremony attended by President Michael Hemesath and Abbot John Klassen, the window got a new home at Saint John’s.  Besides Mr. Mich’s two daughters, their second-cousin Brother Nick Kleespie joined the group, as did Mr. Mich’s great-grandson, Adam.  Adam is a sophomore at Saint John’s, and in him the long relationship between the Mich family and Saint John’s continues.

image+Advent is a time for spiritual preparation, but also a time of musical preparation and decoration, as several of the pictures in this post attest.    The singers and musicians make it all seem so effortless, but that is due to the long hours of practice that they put in ahead of time.  We sometimes fail to appreciate their dedication and sacrifice of personal time, despite the fact that they likely enjoy the entire experience.  They help to make Christmas such a memorable season.

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imageAdvent: A Time-Sensitive Invitation

One of the giant figures of the Advent season is the prophet Isaiah.  In the Jewish context he preaches a future in which justice shall reign and Gentiles will look to the descendants of Jesse for inspiration.  And from a Christian point of view, this shoot of Jesse is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah.  So it is that Isaiah serves as a prophet in two religious traditions.

All that is well and good, but there are elements in Isaiah’s vision that are a little on the impractical side.  It’s nice enough to imagine the day when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb (Isaiah chapter 11.)  I can also concede the possibility that cows and bears might be neighbors, as they already are on a few ranches in the west.  But it strains credulity that God’s plan includes the day when lions will become vegetarians and children will play with cobras.  Of the many items in the Bible that require a leap of faith, these pose some of the greatest chasms to cross.  I just can’t see myself jumping that far.

Of course Isaiah is speaking in symbolic language, and for good reason.  If you can’t imagine the day when leopards, goats, calves and lion cubs will all hang out together, then you have a rough idea of what it will take to achieve world peace and justice for all.  They are so beyond our reach, that they seem impossible.  But Isaiah appears to suggest that they are not impossible quests.  They are all within reach, despite our almost universal pessimism.

imageThis brings me to one of my pet peeves about a few preachers.  I don’t mean to throw stones, but it irritates me when people use the pulpit to run through a list of impossible items, and then dump them onto an unsuspecting congregation.  I’m for peace in the Middle East as much as the next guy.  I’m for an end to the violence that plagues central Africa and the poverty that still seems to grind at people in the far corners of the world.  But to impose those challenges on the average person in the pew is to stick them with the impossible.  It’s the equivalent of telling them to turn lions into vegetarians, and to do it by the end of the afternoon.  And when you’ve done with that, then go see to the leopards.  In short, all these things are too tall an order for our meager energies.  They’re beyond the talent of most of us in the room, unless I am mistaken here.

imageIs this yet another case of religion placing impossibly idealistic burdens upon us?  I hope not, despite the fact that I’m not likely to achieve world peace all by myself, and certainly not by Friday at the earliest.  But therein is the lesson to be learned.

One of the great points I drew from reading Martin Luther years ago was his emphasis on the total depravity of people.  He didn’t mean to trash people, nor did he imply that we were created as so much rubbish.  Rather, he wanted to convey one fundamental fact: if you are laboring under the illusion that you can save the world, all by yourself, then you are one sad customer.  You can’t.  There’s just too much to save, and you cannot do it all alone.  That’s why, ultimately, we must turn to God for help.  Alone we can do little or nothing.  With God’s  help we’ll be amazed at what we can accomplish.

So the next time some preacher assigns you the task of ending violence in America, and to do it by Wednesday, take it with a big grain of salt.  Whatever the homilist may have meant, interpret it as an invitation to look at the big picture first, and then go and begin to do your own part in achieving the impossible.  Generally the impossible begins with our own lives, because the impossible has to start somewhere, somehow.  And if I don’t work with God to get my own life in order, then the big goals will always remain just beyond my reach.  World peace will never come if I don’t make a place for it within my circle of friends, within my own home, and deep within my heart.

imageThat, it seems to me, is a central message of Advent.  If some of life’s aspirations are too much to do all by ourselves, then call on the Lord to help with that burden.  And then get down to the business of doing what it is that the Lord calls us to do.  After all, that is why Jesus comes as Messiah.

There are two other bits that are worth keeping in mind.  First, the invitation that Advent puts to us is non-transferrable.  The Lord invites us to do what we alone can do.  We can’t pass that off to someone else, hoping that they will carry our burden of responsibility for us.  Second, the invitation is time-sensitive.  Sure, Advent lasts about four weeks, and we hope that there will be more Advents to come.  But what if this is my last?  What if this is the moment when the Lord has chosen to speak to me?  Will I have the nerve to tell God to get back to me later, when I finally have the time?  I hope not.


+On December 2nd I was a guest speaker at an undergraduate theology class at Saint John’s University.

+On December 4th I presided at the Abbey Eucharist, and you may read the text of  the homily, Jesus as Leader, in Presentations.

+Once again, during the past week I avoided the airport, and it allowed me the chance to enjoy a major seasonal change in Minnesota.  First came a big ice and snow storm.  Then came the cold, and cold it was.  By Friday I finally caved in and turned on the space heater in my room, for the first time this winter.  Last  year I wrote a post on the acquisition of this space heater, which I use only when it gets desperately cold.  Normally I don’t turn on the antiquated radiator in my room, simply because the two options include “cold” or “full-blast tropical.”  But by Friday I had little choice.  Happily, the space heater still works.

image+On December 7th Bishop Donald Kettler of Saint Cloud came to Saint John’s to ordain to the diaconate Brothers Bradley and Michael Leonard.  Though Bishop Kettler had visited Saint John’s a few weeks ago to attend a football game, this was his first official visit as bishop to the Abbey.  He set a nice tone with the opening lines of his sermon.  “I’m supposed to read a canned sermon of instruction,” he said, “but I’ll get to that in a little while.”  He did read the printed text later, but we all learned that he can speak just as well for himself.  It turned out to be a wonderful event, and Bishop Kettler joined monks and guests for lunch in the Abbey refectory.

+In a homily last week our confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann spoke about the overabundance of great Advent music.  He cited two hymns that we had sung particularly well that week, and lamented that Advent is just not long enough to sing all we’d like to sing.  I agree completely, and with that in mind I recommend for your listening The Holly and the Ivy, sung by the choir of King’s College Cambridge.

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