Who died and made you the Messiah?
Even on my best days I humbly admit, “I am not the Christ.” Even on that occasion in sixth grade when I won the Religion Bee contest at Holy Family School (I knew what the Immaculate Conception was), I was not quite on the verge of saving the world, although I felt capable at the time. In the most powerful moments of my life, I was not powerful enough to salvage human history. In my wisest hour I couldn’t solve the problem of sin or explain why people suffer. In my kindest hour I couldn’t mend a broken heart much less a torn ACL. So don’t look to me for miracles, healings, sermons on mountaintops or the reconciliation of heaven and earth. Heck, I was recently called “woke”, whatever that means. I have been able to forgive the occasional trespass but I can’t take credit for the forgiveness of sin on any grander scale.
Only God can do these things. Only through the life, ministry and teaching of the Divine Son can they be revealed to us. I can dearly wish for miracles, for the healing of a friend or the happiness of a family member or peace in the Middle East. I can pray for those outcomes, and should, and do. But I can’t bring so much as a gnat into being on my own. I know who I am, which includes knowing who I’m not.
Yet it is easy for any of us to get confused on this score. John the Baptist wasn’t. Whether he claimed to be the Christ or the local dog catcher probably didn’t matter at this point in his career – he was toast either way! Still he refused to exalt his position in the scheme of things. He wouldn’t describe himself as so much as a prophet. He simply designated himself as the voice. He cried out. That was the most he was willing to claim.
And being a voice isn’t bad. All of us who call ourselves Christian share this fundamental vocation. We cry out. We speak against injustice, stand with those who suffer, tell the truth in a season of easy lies. Most of all we bring glad tidings to the poor, like Isaiah writes. We also make sure the poor have a reason to rejoice always, as Paul writes.
Most of us won’t lose our heads for embracing this vocation, but it may cost us a fraction of our income, a bit of social influence, the backslapping approval of some neighbors, or a few hours of our time. Occasionally someone loses a job or lifestyle for crying out – but reaps everlasting benefits, which you have to admit is a pretty cool retirement package. Without being the Christ, we remain “in Christ,” a state in which all things are possible.
Another way of saying that…
“Who are you, Michael? That will be the defining question of your life, and I think you already know the answer, and that’s why we’re all here.”
That’s the question sports marketing legend Sonny Vaccaro asks basketball legend Michael Jordan in the movie Air, as Vaccaro is trying to get Jordan to sign a shoe deal with Nike.
“A shoe is just a shoe until somebody steps into it,” says Sonny, or as Jordan’s mother explains it even more precisely, “A shoe is just a shoe until my son steps into it.”
Jordan personified greatness. Vaccaro knew it, Jordan’s mother knew it, and Jordan himself knew it. “The rest of us just want a chance to touch greatness,” says Vaccaro. “ We need you in these shoes not so you have meaning in your life, but so that we have meaning in ours. Everyone at this table will be forgotten as soon as our time here is up – except for you. You’re going to be remembered forever, because some things are eternal. You’re Michael Jordan, and your story is going to make us want to fly.”
Time is on our side, as the Rolling Stones once sang. A new year in the Church begins today after hearing last week about endings and judgment and choosing the reign of Christ the King. With Advent, the wheel of time turns again. It’s all about new beginnings and fresh starts. The season is pregnant with hope and expectation. We can be born again with Christ; the world gets another chance to make things right. Each of us is issued the same opportunity to be made new.
So, it’s just a bit formidable to start such a bright season on a note of warning. Be alert! Watch! We might have preferred a word of encouragement, rather than a sharp and sober command. Something soothing to rock the cradle of a new world, you know, like Isaiah’s “Comfort ye! Comfort ye my people!” Not the militant tone of “Stay at your post! Keep awake!”
Ask an expectant mother what waiting for a birth is like. She watches what she eats like a king with a royal taster, poised for a hint of treachery or danger. She carefully monitors her movements, expenditures of energy, money and time. Her body becomes a guarded fortress, and a temple, and a treasure chest. She reads voraciously about what’s good for the baby, what’s harmful or ambivalent. Her eye is on the whole world ready to do battle for this vulnerable new life that depends on her every decision. No one is more alert than an expectant mother with a universe within her to care for.
So, it’s right to start Advent on a cautious note. In preparing for new life, every hour matters; every decision important. The church is pregnant with a mystery about to be revealed. As usual, Mother Mary leads the way in demonstrating what our discipleship should look like: careful, responsible, vigilant and patient.
That last item is not to be overlooked. We live in a rush-rush world of instant gratification. Click on Amazon for a world of options to be delivered to your doorstep overnight. But some things take time, and they are often the best things: baking a cake from scratch, making a friend, learning how to love. You don’t want to rush these things or they can fall apart. In a season of waiting, you want to make friends with time.
So, here’s our invitation at the start of a new church year, a new season with a new event horizon – make friends with time in these three weeks and one day of anticipation. Don’t rush to make all of December a month of Christmas. Be patient. Let the new life the church bears in this season of grace grow on you, and in you. And keep your eyes open for surprises.
Another story of waiting…
As a newly ordained deacon I arrived for my internship at an inner-city parish with a sprawling rectory housing five priests in Erie – St. Patrick’s. It still is a beautiful church and once it also included a school and a large hall just down the
block. The pastor, the two associate pastors and one of the residents who taught at Prep told me they were taking off for the Fourth weekend and I’d be alone to watch over the retired hospital chaplain, a Redemptorist priest, Father Dick Wagner who also lived there. I had no clue what “watching over Father” meant. But the firecrackers kept me awake.
At two in the morning, a piercing siren went off. I ran into the hallway and banged on the Dick’s door. Fire? A break-in? I didn’t know. Without his hearing aids, he couldn’t hear anything but he led me down the hall and opened a panel that revealed a large fuse box with several colored lights flashing on and off. He stopped the alarm and said, “It’s the school. Every year on the Fourth, kids tape M80s on its doors and run, shattering the glass…or somebody has broken in.”
He walked down the hall to a cleaning closet and pulled out a baseball bat behind the vacuum cleaner, handed it to me and said, “Go down the street and sit in the school lobby and wait…they will come automatically.”
I had no idea who “they” were – robbers or kids setting off more firecrackers or the police. When I got there, I discovered Father was right, the glass doors were shattered. I stepped through, found a chair and sat, holding the bat waiting for God-knows-who. An hour later a truck pulled up to board and secure the doors. The driver told me this happens every year and that it was good that I had waited for him to secure the building.
Advent…we wait…But thank God we know what for: Christ the Lord. ~ Fr. Glenn
“The wise brought flasks of oil for their lamps.” The core of this story, the center around which it pivots, the plot itself is all about the oil. All ten bridesmaids were ready for the reception. All ten had to wait. All ten became drowsy. All ten fell asleep. All of them heard the shout. All ten of them got up and lit their lamps. These lamps didn’t hold a lot of oil back in those days, and the length of the burn wouldn’t have been a secret to the people of the first century.
The wise ones took some oil with them; not huge Yeti containers, but enough for the wait, for the reception, for the day, for the night. One scholar wrote, “It’s not about the how much oil you have, it’s about how much you carry with you.”
The oil has been understood as good works, faith, spiritual practices, acts of discipleship, acts of love and mercy. We shouldn’t be asked to pick one. What sets the wise apart from the foolish isn’t that they act simply on the teachings of Jesus, because it’s not all about the works. It’s about the oil. The wise draw on the resource necessary to live the faith-filled life today, tonite and tomorrow. The oil? Is it faith? Is it spiritual practices? Is it deeds of discipleship? Is it acts of love and mercy? Yes, yes, yes and yes! All mixed in with a bit of grace, some fellowship and a measure of prayer. Sure, they had to wait for the bridegroom, but their light had to shine then and there, right now.
A tough part of the story to handle, I’ve thought, is that after the foolish had made the mad dash to the Jerusalem Dollar General at midnight to find oil for their lamps, they returned to the site of the reception and pleaded for someone to admit them. Not the butler, or the attendant, or even the parents of the bride and groom, but the groom himself says, “I do not know you.” Being recognized by Christ is critical, but still not as critical as the oil.
A similar story might add to the complexion of this parable.
One of the saints had a vision of Jesus where Jesus says, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.”
A man knocks on a door. The voice from inside says, “Who is it?” The man says, “It is your countryman.” The voice behind the door says, “There is no one hers.”
The man wanders for a year, returns to the door, and knocks a second time. The voice from inside says, “Who is it?” The man says, “It is your brother.” The voice behind the door says, “There is no one here.”
The man wanders for a year, returns to the door, and knocks for a third time. The voice from inside says, “Who is it?” The man says, “It is you.” The door opens.
How does Christ know us? He knows us when he looks into our face and sees himself.
We can’t ride Christ’s coattails. We have to receive Christ into ourselves as a person would receive food, put it in our mouths and swallow it. Then Christ will be building us up from the inside and awakening us into our identity as a child of God, Christ’s very own sister or brother.
It’s all about the oil! Fr. Glenn
Jesus said to his disciples, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses; therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do for they do not practice what they teach.”
Many people have turned away from the faith, scandalized or disillusioned by the behavior of a Church that in their view is not faithful to the gospel nor acting coherently with what it preaches. Jesus also forcefully criticized the religious leaders who “do not practice what they teach.” But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on seeking and calling everyone to a life of dignity and responsibility before God.
Through the years, I too have seen, sometimes close at hand, behaviors in the Church that do not fit with the gospel. Sometimes I was scandalized, sometimes I was harmed by them; they almost always fill me with sorrow. Yet today I understand more clearly than ever that mediocrity in the Church does not justify the mediocrity of my faith.
The Church needs to change a great deal, the realization of which has led to the Synod process, which is not the work of one person, but an answer to an almost universal call to address what is happening, or not happening, in the life of the Church. What truly matters for each of us is to renew our faith, to learn to believe in a different way, to stop running away from God, to listen honestly to the voice of our conscience, to change our way of looking at life, to discover the heart of the gospel and discover a way to live it joyfully.
I haven’t read the summary document from the Synod just ended, but from what I did read over the last three weeks it seems the Church will have to overcome its inertia and fears in order to embody the message of Christ in modern society, but each of us needs to discover that today we can follow Christ more faithfully than ever before, without false social fads or a sentimental attachment to “the way things used to be.”
Perhaps we each need to live more “evangelically” as Popes Benedict and Francis suggested over the last 18 years, without letting society shape us and without losing our Christian identity in the midst of modern frivolity like the alternatives that have captivated so many of our younger people.
What the Synod documents produced by the continental gatherings have pointed out – which became the fodder for the delegates to discuss in Rome last month – is the need for the Church to continually examine its faithfulness to Christ. The deeper dive will be for us to assess the quality of our belonging to Jesus. Our task is to give greater attention to our faith in the God revealed in Jesus. The sins and failings of the Church do not relieve me of my responsibilities – nor you. I’m the only one who can decide day by day to open myself up to God or turn away.
From what I understand, for the next year the universal Church, diocese to diocese, parish to parish will be asked to listen, reflect and discuss the document the 2023 Synod Assembly produced last month, to be patient with a process of percolation and discernment, and generate an agenda for Synod 2024 next October. We didn’t get this way overnight – the process takes time. One bishop critical of the method said last week, “It’s all been said; it’s just that not everybody has said it yet!”
It seems clear that the Church must build up its self-confidence and free itself from the cowardice and fears that keep it from spreading hope in today’s world. But remember – each of us is responsible for our own inner joy. Each of us must nourish our hope by going to the true Source.