Saturday, November 26, 2016

"For you do not know on which day your Lord will come"

Readings: Isa 2:1-5; Ps 122:1-9; Rom 13:11-14; Matt 24:37-44

Being Christians requires us live our lives to the fullest. This means doing everything in the mindfulness of our destiny. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves by also loving his/her destiny. Realizing your destiny means realizing the very reason God created you and sent His Son to redeem you. It was for you and for your destiny that Christ took on flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Advent is the season during which we not only prepare to celebrate the Lord's Nativity in the manger at Bethlehem, but it is a time we spend thinking about and preparing for when He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. As our Lord himself said in the verse that immediately precedes the beginning of our Gospel reading for this First Sunday of Advent in Year A of the three-year lectionary cycle: "But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone" (Matt 24:36).

At least the first half of Advent, as our readings for this Sunday amply demonstrate, has an undeniably penitential tone and tenor. I note this because these days, among the relatively few Roman Catholics in the United States who observe Advent, not only is the penitential aspect of the season overlooked, it is often denied.

In addition to not knowing the day or the hour of the Lord's return, you don't know the hour or the day of your own passing from time into eternity, should you die before Christ's return. Not knowing the day or the hour of these events makes everyday a day of judgment. Living each day as a day of judgment ought to make us people of sober minds. Once our minds are duly sobered we can take the time to recollect on what this means, what this says to us about our lives.

Your recollection should show you that far from living in misery-driven angst and fear, living in this way is the source of your greatest joy. Why joy? Because living in this way frees you to live in accordance with your true nature. It permits you, with the help of God's grace, to become who God created and redeemed you to be. This becoming is called sanctification, a big word meaning being made holy. Living each day as a day of judgment allows God to restore you, by grace, to His likeness. Living in this joyful way is never the easiest way because the path of least resistance is not the trail to glory. Living everyday as a day of judgment allows you to embrace reality according to all the factors that together constitute it. Engaging reality according to all the factors that together make it is what it means to really live.

In his second and, at least in my view, far too overlooked second encyclical letter, Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI, in his clear, precise, and yet beautiful manner, which I miss very much, wrote about judgement:
The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope (par. 44)
Last Judgment triptych, probably by Hans Memling, executed between 1467-1471

One of the best ways to live everyday as a day of judgment, which gives you the opportunity to live joyfully by growing in charity, which is the fruit of hope, is to seek God's mercy each day. A time-tested way of bringing forward those things for which we need to implore God's mercy, which Christ died, rose, and sent the Holy Spirit in order for us to receive, is the daily, or at least weekly, practice of the Examen. What is the Examen? It is a form of prayer set forth more than 400 years ago by St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits. It is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day, or week, in order to find those words, those actions, those thoughts for which you need God's mercy, to discover God's grace at work in your life, and to discern His direction for you moving forward.

Like lectio divina, the practice of the Examen is ordered and easy. It has five steps:
1. Pray for God to give you light to see
2. Give thanks to God for the gift of the day (even if, maybe particularly if, it was a "bad" day)
3. Look back over your day, start from where you are and work backwards (my preferred method), or go back to the beginning of the day and start from there
4. Face your shortcomings, what you did wrong in your thoughts and in your words, in what you did and failed to do, ask for mercy- perhaps pray an Act of Contrition; in this step also recall those moments during the day when you experienced God's presence, His grace at work
5. Look forward to tomorrow. Praying for God's assistance in what is to come is called hope. There is a petition found in the Intercessions for Saturday Morning Prayer for Week II of Ordinary Time that captures this well: "From your generosity we have received the beginning of this day, grant us the beginning of new life"
A good time to practice the Examen is close to the time you go to sleep. Going to sleep is a "little death" and arising to the dawning of a new day is a "little resurrection." You can download and print a free card on how to practice the Examen here. You can also read an article on the Examen, written by Fr. Dennis Hamm, SJ; "Rummaging for God: Praying Backwards Through Your Day."

Practicing the Examen with regularity helps you to make a good confession, which, in turn, enables you to make a better communion with Christ at Mass, and respond to God's grace by clearing away the debris that accumulates. Rather than making the message of our readings for this First Sunday of Advent abstract, practicing the Examen gives you something concrete in response to God's word to the Church on this First Sunday of Advent, a way to observe a fruitful Advent as you wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Keep in mind a discipline itself isn't a magic formula to obtain God's favor or transport you, apart from living your life everyday, into the kingdom so beautifully described in our first reading from the book of Isaiah. As James Kushiner memorably noted: "A discipline won’t bring you closer to God. Only God can bring you closer to Himself. What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace." I would submit that, apart from actually going to confession, nothing helps you get your ego out of the way better than regularly practicing the form of prayer we call the Examen.

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