Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah the Prophet’

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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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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