Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Being Reconciled as We Wait in Joyful Hope

Advent is upon us. This Advent is the shortest possible Advent cycle, the minimum number of days between Advent's beginning and Christmas. So, hurry up and wait! Or, is that, our waiting is hurried? Shortening our waiting, in terms of Advent, means being ready to meet the Lord. As His disciples, our life is an advent. Our waiting for the Lord's coming, in words taken from the sacred liturgy, should be in "joyful hope". If you're anything like me, our waiting isn't always joyful of hopeful, but a bit fearful. This morning I am pulling from the Catholic Deacon archive a homily I gave for the Second Sunday of Advent in Iraq last year. What was unique about this Mass is that it was a rare occasion during which general absolution was offered by our pastor. This was canonically possible because we were in a combat zone. General absolution means being given the sacrament of penance without making a confession. It can only be extended in specific circumstances, like being at war. Besides, under the pastoral care of two priests and one part-time deacon were some 10,000 souls.

Readings: Isa 40,1-5. 9-11; Ps 85, 9-14; 2 Pt 3, 8-14; Mk 1,1-8

As human beings we cannot live without hope. Unlike other creatures, we are blessed with the ability to think about the future. We cannot live without something to look forward to. To be without hope is to surrender to despair and even death. We can find all sorts of things to live and hope for: for some measure of success or security, or for the realization of some more or less modest ambition; for our children, that they might be spared our mistakes and suffering and find a better life than we have known; for a better world, throwing ourselves into politics, medicine, or military service so that future generations might be better off. Indeed, these hopes are not selfish- they are noble. Such endeavors give a measure of dignity and purpose to our lives, but they are not the ultimate reason for which we exist.

In hoping for lasting peace, tranquil lives, sufficiency of food, an end to suffering, pain, and misery we are no different than people of all times and places. Just like the people of the Jewish scriptures, who awaited the advent of the Messiah, we live awaiting the Lord’s return- either at the end of time or at our death. Therefore, most of history is an advent, a waiting for the Lord. In this regard, we differ from our spiritual forbearers in two important ways. The first way we differ is by our recognition that Jesus’ entry into history at the time of the Incarnation is a partial fulfillment of God’s promises, an event that immeasurably confirms and strengthens our hope. The second way we differ is that Jesus Christ has revealed to us that God is not far off, but is already in our midst, in no way more powerfully than in the Eucharist we are celebrating. This is why Mary and John the Baptist are so important in the Advent liturgy- they recognized the new situation brought about by Jesus and serve as models for the Church in both discerning and being the presence of our Christ in and for the world.

Taking our cue from Isaiah in today’s first reading, God speaks tenderly to us, citizens of the new Jerusalem (Isa 40,2). God bids us to acknowledge our sins and to renounce all that separates us from him and from each other. In a word, we are called to be reconciled. We already know that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our guilt is expiated, but the effect our sins have on our lives and on our relationships continue to plague us. To reconcile means, in the first instance, to restore friendship or harmony. It also means to make consistent or congruous, to be made whole. We must, therefore, open ourselves to the reconciliation God offers us in Christ Jesus in order to prepare ourselves to receive Christ anew.

St. Peter in today’s second reading calls us to consider what sort of a person each of us should be, or, should at least aspire to be. Hopefully, it is this sort of reflection we have been doing this week in preparation for receiving General Absolution. Rather than being let off easily with what might easily be dismissed as "cheap grace", receiving general absolution calls us to an even deeper self-reflection because we don’t have the aid of a confessor to rely upon and assist us. As members of the military services we are all believers in accountability and taking responsibility, as we should be. This professional virtue is one that enhances us as Christians, as members of the Church, which is Christ’s Body. We hold ourselves and others accountable and take responsibility, not primarily to assess blame or to punish, but to correct and improve ourselves and our team as we strive to accomplish our mission and realize our goals.

What St. Peter gives us is a fairly thorough examination of conscience. Reading this passage reminded me of the old saying: "Live so the priest won’t have to lie about you when you die." Funny? Yes. But like much humor, it calls our attention below the surface of our lives. It calls us to a deeper reflection on those areas and patterns of behavior that are the source of our alienation from God and from each other.

Most of us, when we take the time to think seriously about how we live quickly discern that, on the whole, we are pretty nice people. If we look deeper, however, we also see that we fall short of God's standards, which are unreachable on our own (Rom 3,23). There is no better recognition of this than when we acknowledge at each Mass, just before receiving communion: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." God does not merely speak a word to us, but gives himself to us entirely in Jesus Christ, his Word. The words of the Baptizer announcing the Lord’s coming are summed up nicely in the lyrics of a contemporary Christian song: "He spoke the Incarnation and so was born the Son/His final word was Jesus/He needs no other one/He spoke flesh and blood so he could bleed and make a way divine/ and so was born the baby who would die to make it mine" (Michael Card, The Final Word). Therefore, we should all be very grateful that "[God] is patient" with us and gives us the time to come to repentance (2 Pet 3,9).

As we receive absolution, which requires that we "firmly intend, with [God’s] help, to sin no more and avoid whatever leads [us] to sin," let us be mindful of those things we need to change, resolve to change them, and humbly acknowledge that we need God’s gracious help, as we did in our Psalm response: "Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation" (Ps 85,8). We also require the help of our sisters and brothers to keep our resolutions.

Each of us has been baptized, not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus’ way of being present with us and who effects the sacraments. In baptism our sins are washed away. The sacrament of reconciliation, as an extension of baptism, is where God renews us when we have failed to live up to the promises we made at our baptism.

So, my sisters and brothers, as we prepare to see God’s kindness and receive God’s salvation let us humbly acknowledge, "Father, we need your help, Free us from sin and bring us to life. Support us by your power," Amen (From Evening Prayer for Thursday the First Week of Advent).

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