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4th Week of Advent: Surprise


4th Week of Advent: Surprise

Advent into Christmas

This week we light the fourth Advent candle, and prepare for the celebration of Christmas on Friday. In the early centuries of the Church, a mass would be celebrated at night in Bethlehem, at the cave of the nativity. In the 5th century, the tradition was brought to Rome, but was celebrated on Christmas Eve. The Pope would begin at night in a small chapel (St. Mary Major). The Gospel was from Luke about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

At dawn the Pope would celebrate in a Greek community in Rome (St. Anastasia) before proceeding to St. Peter’s for the Mass during the day. It was from this experience that we have the traditional three Masses of Christmas – at night, at dawn, and in the day. Each Mass reflects upon the birth of Christ in a slightly different way, with different scriptural texts.  “It is impossible to encompass and express in only one liturgy the richness and complexity of the mystery that it celebrates.” – Days of the Lord

Week Four – Surprise

My family loves hummingbirds. Every spring we put a red hummingbird feeder on the window in our family room and wait for the emerald green birds to return. And every year they do.

Hummingbirds are a wonder of speed and flight. Their wings beat over 50 times per second, and the tiny birds can hover and zoom at amazing angles. Hummingbirds can even fly backwards! Their hearts – the size of a grain of rice – beat more than 1000 times per minute. The hummingbird is also almost a ghost – something you hardly ever can get near to. Any hint of movement, and they flash away into the trees.

But last summer we did get near to one.  I was working at my desk when my sons came running into me calling, “Dad! Dad! There is a hummingbird stuck in the garage!” We had the door open, and she couldn’t find her away out because she kept flying into the space between the ceiling and the door. We tried to chase her out, but it wasn’t working. Time was of the essence, because hummingbirds need to eat every 10 – 15 minutes or they will dehydrate.  Finally, I rigged a fishing net on a long pole, and after many ridiculous moments of waving it about, I was able to trap her in corner. She flayed out her wings, exhausted, trying to make herself look bigger than she was. And then she was still.

I moved my hand under the net and gently slipped my fingers beneath the hummingbird. She didn’t move at all, and made no sound. My boys watched, wide-eyed and quiet. Then she stood, resting on the palm of my hand. Except for the slight prick of her sharp feet, it was like she wasn’t there. She was completely weightless, like holding a small glimmering flame. I have never walked so carefully, with all of my concentration focused. We stepped out into the sunlight, and I moved away the net.

For one moment, she sat there, the untouchable amazing creation of this bird nested in my hand. And then in she was gone, a flash of green into the trees.

I can’t even remember what I was working on that day… but I will never forget that little bird. I was given such a gift – for a moment to be in contact with the wonder that is this world. To be aware of it. God is constantly working to surprise us – to wake us up – to break in on us - to help us to see the miracle of love that is happening in our lives.

From Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk, 20th Century

Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it – because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it – his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.

The Magnificat - translation from The Message by Eugene Peterson

(This is Mary’s prayer when she greets Elizabeth)

I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

From The Color Purple by Alice Walker. In this scene Shug talks with Celie about God, trying to get her to move from seeing God as “an old white man in the sky” to seeing God as that love which creates all that is beautiful – even herself.

Listen, God love everything you love — and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.

Yes, Celie, she say. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?

Well us talk and talk about God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I have been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. Now that my eyes opening, I feel like a fool.

The Visitation – by James B Janknegt, 2007, oil on canvas


This lovely painting by James Janknegt offers us an imaginative illustration of the Gospel story of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Mary came into her home, the baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. And she speaks the beautiful words of surprise and joy: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  We see – in sort of a magical ultra sound – the two wondrous children. John the Baptist is leaping for joy within his mother, and Jesus is shown with a crown, revealing already his destiny and identity. Note also the two fathers in the background – Zechariah with his board (for he has lost his voice for doubting the angel), and Joseph, an older man, with a suitcase in hand, the father carrying the luggage. It is a picture of the joy of birth, of new life, and of celebrating the coming of Christ into the world.


3rd Week of Advent: Preparation


3rd Week of Advent: Preparation

Gaudete Sunday

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians we hear the apostle encourage his community to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” This verse gives us the name for the third Sunday of Advent - known as Gaudete Sunday. The term comes from the first Latin words in the opening antiphon for today’s Mass – “Gaudete” or “rejoice!”

The third Sunday of Advent means we have passed the halfway mark in our preparations. The mood of the season changes, lightens, as we draw nearer to the birth of Jesus. Priests wear rose-colored vestments to signify our closeness to Christmas. The third candle of the Advent wreath, which is also rose colored or pink, is first lit today.

Week Three – Preparation

When I was in college, I went with the Catholic Campus Ministry on a service trip to the Dominican Republic. Our diocese served a very poor rural parish in the countryside along the border with Haiti. We spent ten days there, living with families and working to build and repair homes.  The people had very little, electricity was rare or intermittent, and we took our baths in the river like everyone else.

The priest had to travel each week to several campos, small villages far off the beaten path. He went by donkey because the roads were so rough. One day we walked three hours to one of these villages for mass. We were late (typical college students) and when we arrived at the small building which served as a church, we found the entire community had gathered to greet us. We celebrated a beautiful mass, (which included dancing!) and then shared a meal together. An elderly woman walked up to me and spoke something in my ear. I turned to a friend for translation, and the woman spoke it again. My friend told me, “She said that now we have shared everything that is important.”

I am still amazed at the depth and clarity of that woman’s vision. She could see what that young college student couldn’t, and what I still struggle to see. Somehow, in the midst of difference and distance and poverty and struggle, she knew that what happens at the Eucharist, what happens when Christ is present is what matters most.  Her eyes were open, and she could see it.

In this week’s Gospel people come the John the Baptist and ask him how they can prepare. We want to be ready – so what do we do? And he gives them practical answers. Don’t cheat the poor. Give your extra to those in need. Don’t abuse your authority.  It is not a question of God not being present – it is a question of our blindness. And the spiritual wisdom of the Church offers us practices that can help us to see. The Church says: Read these texts. Pray about them. Feed someone who is hungry. Visit someone in prison. Skip a meal, or a drink, or a TV show. Spend the time in silence. Forgive someone who hurt you. Forgive an enemy. Do these things because they will help you open your eyes. They will help you to be awake when Christ comes.

From Bishop Robert F. Morneau

John the Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah. In the desert, at the Jordan, in prison, this prophet remained faithful to his vocation. This courageous disciple points us once again to the mystery of God’s presence in Jesus.

Most of us prefer to live undisturbed lives. We strive to isolate ourselves from the fears of insecurity and the anxieties of poverty. By means of control and power we erect walls that protect us from the bruises of life. No “enemy,” demon or divine, penetrates our fortified souls.

John the Baptist did not live such a life. God invaded his heart and turned him into a prophet. God besieged him day and night until he surrendered to the divine will. No walls of separation remained to impede the currents of grace.

Advent is the coming of God into our planetary city. A disturbing enemy, indeed. God breaks down our walls of narcissism and greed until we are free to welcome the Lord of life and joy. It sometimes takes many Advents for us to offer full hospitality.

In the poorest of the poor we see Jesus in distressed guise.
— Mother Teresa

From St. Bonaventure (13th century)

He, therefore, who is not illumined by such great splendor of created things is blind; he who is not awakened by such great clamor is deaf; he who does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; he who does not note the First Principle from such great signs is foolish. Open your eyes therefore, prick up your spiritual ears, open your lips, and apply your heart, that you may see your God in all creatures, may hear Him, praise Him, love and adore Him, magnify and honor Him.

From Anthony de Mello, SJ

This is a dialogue between a student and a spiritual master.

“Is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?”

“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”

“Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”

“To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”

 From Antonio Machado

I love Jesus, who said to us:

Heaven and earth will pass away.

When heaven and earth have passed away,

my word will remain.

What was your word, Jesus?

Love? Affection? Forgiveness?

All your words were

one word: Wakeup.

Anna Mgaloblishvili: Butterfly

 “We imagine the Divine as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.” - Teilhard de Chardin

“A warm glow lies over this painting by the Georgian artist Anna Mgaloblishvili. The soft light of daybreak spreads across the mountain in the background and casts its orange rays over the water, the grass and the face and hands of the man. Darkness is dispelled, a new morning dawns. It reminds me of the words in Isaiah 9: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…’

In the center of the painting stands a man with big sensitive hands. On his hands a small yellow butterfly has descended. Full of attention he looks at this unexpected gift from above.

Now and then we too get glimpses of God’s nearness. When we look closely at the painting, we see several butterflies shooting through the air. Jesus comes to us in all kinds of unexpected signs. Let’s keep our eyes open: the sky is full of butterflies.”

(Text from “The Sky is Full of Butterflies,” by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker)

Anna Mgaloblishvili is a Georgian painter and art historian. She studied painting at the I. Nikoladze Art College and the Tbilisi State Academy of Fine Arts, where she was part of a group of students who established an experimental studio of Church Murals and Icons. It was one of the first attempts to bring ecclesiastical art into the university after the fall of the Soviet rule in Georgia.


2nd Week of Advent: Promise


2nd Week of Advent: Promise

By Steve DeLaney, Asst. Director of Evangelization

The Wreath and Candles

The tradition of the Advent wreath arose in the Middle Ages in Europe, a time of great creativity in the Christian imagination. The medieval mind found God reflected in everything. The evergreen branches seemed to speak of the unchanging nature of God’s love, the circle of the wreath reflected the eternity of God, and candles lit in winter darkness were the image of Christ’s light. Even the holly branches, with their sharp leaves and red berries, drew the mind of the believer to the crown of thorns and the blood of the cross. Pine cones, with their hidden seeds, hinted at the resurrection to come.

The colors of the Advent candles reflect the liturgical colors for the season. Purple, or violet, is the primary color, and is one of preparation and repentance. There are four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent. The third Sunday, called Guadete Sunday (Rejoice!), has a rose colored candle, to symbolize that our waiting during Advent is almost over.

The Advent wreath is a wonderful tradition of prayer and waiting during Advent. The lighting of the candles is often done at dinnertime, along with the reading of a prayer.

Week Two – Promise

We all called her “Miss Eloise.” She had worked at the school for more than fifty years, starting as a young woman in her twenties, and had never left. She did the morning cleaning shift, coming in at 3:30 AM to open up, turn on the lights, make the coffee, sweep up, and do what had to be done so the school was ready for the teachers and students. She called everyone her children, and everyone loved her.

When I was teaching, I would come in early in the morning, and many times it was just the two of us. One day I was prepping for a prayer service which I was supposed to lead. I went to the teacher’s lounge for coffee, and there was Miss Eloise.  She could tell I was nervous about something, and she asked me about it. I told her about the prayer service, and then said, “I am just working so hard to make sure this thing goes right.”

She looked at me and said, “You don’t need to worry about it going right. That’s not your job. That’s HIS job.” I was so surprised by her answer that I almost laughed out loud. Of course, she was right. I was thinking about the whole thing as if it was up to me, and only me. The fact that God might have something to do with it didn’t cross my mind.

Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer and teacher, has a wonderful and devastating critique of many religious people. He says that we can be “functional atheists,” meaning that we profess to believe in God, but we act like the whole world is up to us. We don’t let our belief really impact our lives. Miss Eloise was helping me see that this is what I was doing – I was making the whole thing depend on me, when the whole thing really depends on God.

This Sunday’s readings invite us the consider God’s promises to us. The prophet Baruch consoles the people of Israel during the exile with the promise that Jerusalem will be restored. St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians speaks of his confidence that the work God has started will be completed. And in the Gospel of Luke we hear of the deepest, and most profound promise of God: that every valley will be filled and every rough way made smooth, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

As humans we often find ourselves making promises to God so that things will work out for us. We forget that the God is the one who has done the promising. God has promised to love us, to save us, to never leave us alone, and there is great comfort in being reminded of this. During Advent, that promise rings in our ears from the voices in the scriptures. The life of faith asks us to trust completely in God’s promise.

Do we? Do we really trust in the dream of salvation? In the promise placed deep within us – the promise that drives us out into the night, looking for the star, listening for the word of God that rises up from our souls? As we prepare for the coming of Christ, let us hold to that promise, and let us trust in the God who is always faithful to His word.

From “To Be A Virgin” by Loretta Ross-Gotta

Jesus observed, “Without me you can do nothing,” (John 15:5).  Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing.  We think we have to make Christmas come, which is to say we think we have to bring about the redemption of the universe on our own.  When all God needs is a willing womb, a place of safety, nourishment, and love.  “Oh, but nothing will get done,” you say.  “If I don’t do it, Christmas won’t happen.”  And we crowd out Christ with our fretful fears.

God asks us to give away everything of ourselves. The gift of greatest efficacy and power that we can offer God and creation is not our skills, gifts, abilities, and possessions.  The wise men had their gold, frankincense, and myrrh, Paul and Peter had their preaching.   Mary offered only space, love, belief.  What is it that delivers Christ into the world — preaching, art, writing, scholarship, social justice?  Those are all gifts well worth sharing.  But preachers lose their charisma, scholarship grows pedantic, social justice alone cannot save us.  In the end, when all other human gifts have met their inevitable limitation, it is the recollected one, the bold virgin with a heart in love with God who makes a sanctuary of her life, who delivers Christ who then delivers us.

Try it.  Leave behind your briefcase and notes and proof texts.  Leave behind your honed skills and knowledge.  Leave the Christmas decorations up in the attic.  Go to someone in need and say, “Here, all I have is Christ.”  And find out that that is enough.

“The Way It Is” by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

“Last Night As I Was Sleeping”  by Antonio Machado

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart. 

Harriet Tubman Series (no. 4) – Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence (1917 – 2000) was an African-American painter who documented the stories and trials of African-Americans through his work. This painting is the fourth in a series about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad (and is housed at Hampton University). It expresses the incredible sense of hope and celebration of people who had been enslaved and are now on their way to freedom. Their journey is also celebration and dance. They are experiencing, before our eyes, the promise of freedom and salvation.