Saturday, December 10, 2016

Third Week of Advent Reflections from Immersed in Christ

Third Week of Advent
from Immersed in Christ

Appreciating and Accepting Jesus as: “Jesus – God Saves” — who frees us from darkness and diminishment

December 11, 2016

There Is Hope For Those Who Have A Sense Of Sin


What gives me more joy than anything else on earth? What do I think about with joy (rejoice in) most often? To what do my thoughts keep turning?

A person I love? A child, perhaps? Life? Beauty? A work I am involved in?


The Entrance Antiphon suggests we go deeper. “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Why? Because “the Lord is near.” This is what makes us able to rejoice in everything else.

The joy we find in those we love, in life, beauty and the contribution we are making to life on this planet would be bitter-sweet if we were going to lose it all through death. But we aren’t. All true joy will last forever. Because of Jesus, our joy on earth will be our joy in heaven — only more so.

The Opening Prayer asks that we who “look forward to the birthday of Christ may experience the joy of salvation.” How do we make this joy an experience?

The answer is: by reflection and celebration. To “celebrate” is to “single out for grateful remembrance.” To do this we have to think about what we remember enough to understand and appreciate it. But unless we also celebrate it, expressing our joy with conscious enthusiasm, our appreciation will be like a smothered fire. Joy needs air to breathe. We have to open the windows for it to explode.

Advent is dedicated to this. And this third Sunday of Advent is named “Rejoice Sunday” (Gaudete in Latin) to remind us that “the Lord is near.”

He comes to save us:

The Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 146: 6-10) gives the root of all rejoicing: “O Lord, come and save us!” To say this with meaning, we have to be aware of three things: that we need to be rescued; that Jesus can make things better for us; and that he really will.

Isaiah 35: 1-10 promises that “the desert and the parched land will exult.” To appreciate this we have to see we are in a desert, a wasteland.

How can we see this? We are well-fed and clothed, life is fairly pleasant. We have friends and work, TV and sports and lots of ways to enjoy ourselves. What else do we need?

Isaiah speaks to “hands that are feeble… knees that are weak… those whose hearts are frightened.” Is he speaking to us? He promises that when the Lord comes to save us “the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf cleared, the lame will leap and the mute sing.” Does that describe us? Does it describe me?

Is everything in my life what I want it to be? My home life? Social life? My school or professional life? My personal life? Do I need a savior only to make what I have now last forever, or do I want something more? Does it give me hope to say, “O Lord, come and save us!”

What do we wait for?

Matthew 11: 2-11 tells us what to expect from Jesus. John the Baptizer had it wrong: he expected Jesus to get him out of prison. But Jesus is not that kind of savior. He sent word to John: “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” Jesus frees from interior slavery, not external oppression.

The truth is, we are all blinded to some extent by our culture. We have been programmed to false attitudes and values, wrong priorities. This is why we can’t walk as we should in the footsteps of Christ. It is why we are deaf to so much in his word. This is why we are not cleansed of so many things that incline us to selfishness, incite us to evil and inhibit us from doing good.

Do we need the light of Christ to guide us in making our home life what we want it to be? (Do we need his light just to dream of what it could be?) Do we need his help to walk straight on the crooked paths of our culture (and of every human society and culture infected by sin)? Do we think that without his light and strength to support us we can consistently be part of the solution instead of adding to the problems we run into at school and at work, in our social lives and civic involvement? Do we really think we are so immune to the infection in our culture that we can remain pure of selfishness and self-indulgence? Be free from prejudices and compulsions, and stay faithful to the ideals and principles we believe in?

Not likely.

It doesn’t take too many years of adult experience to convince us that, left to ourselves, we are gradually, even unconsciously, going to veer off toward destructiveness and distortion, toward mediocrity and meaninglessness in all we do. It is hard to row against the tide of culture.

When we realize this — when we come to this act of “life-giving despair” — that is when we are able to cry out with passionate desire, “O Lord, come and save us!”

And he will. He is already doing it. “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Rejoice: “the Lord is near.”

Advent invites us to recognize his presence, to seek his face in prayer, to listen to his words, to reflect on them in our hearts, and — by interacting with him at home and at school, at work and at play — to live them out in action.

This is to accept Jesus for what his name really means: “God saves.” This is what the angel told Joseph: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That is what encourages us to keep crying out, “O Lord, come and save us!”

The test of truth:

James 5:7-10 speaks to the Christians of his time, who were people just like us. Is it not true that, like them, we are people who “endure temptation” (1:12); who are sometimes hearers of the word and not doers (1:23); who make distinctions between the rich and the poor, and show partiality (2:4-9); who have faith but do not always live it out in works (2:14); who sometimes say to a brother or sister who is naked and lacks daily food, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet do not supply their bodily needs (2:15); who make many mistakes (3:2); who are not able to tame our tongues (3:8); who from the same mouth speak at times both blessing and cursing (3:10); who sometimes have bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts (3:14); who are not always pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy (3:17); who still experience conflicts and disputes among ourselves which come from cravings that are at war within our own hearts (4:1); who speak evil against one another (4:11); and judge our neighbors (4:12); who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town doing business and making money” instead of saying "If the Lord wishes, we will still be alive and do this or that” (4:13-15); who by fraud or injustice in manipulating world market prices have depressed the wages of laborers (5:4); who, compared to other nations have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure (5:5); who have fattened our hearts in a day of slaughter (5:5) by making wars for profit and profit from wars?

And yet James began this list of failings by saying, “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (1:12). And he ends it with today’s reading: “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord…. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:7-8). There is hope for those who have a sense of sin. It is they who can pray from their hearts, “O Lord, come and save us!”


What is there in my life that, more than anything else, I would like Jesus to make better? Have I been crying out to him, “O Lord, come and save us!”? Have I also been interacting with him in this area of my life, applying his words to what I do there, consulting him “on the spot” all day long? How could I do this?


Put in a place or places where you will see it all day long some image or symbol that says to you “Jesus can make things better.” Water? A candle? A star? A manger? A picture? A small Advent wreath (or sprig of greenery)? What will work for you?

December 12, 2016
MONDAY, Advent week three:

The Responsorial Psalm tells us how Jesus saves us: “Teach me your ways, O Lord” (Psalm 25).

Numbers 24: 2-17 Makes its point with humor. Moab was being attacked by the Jews. The king summoned Balaam, a prophet, to curse the Jewish army. But on the way the donkey Balaam was riding saw an angel standing in the path and turned off the road. Balaam beat it. donkey just lay down, and Balaam beat it some more.

Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" Balaam said to the donkey, "Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!" But the donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?" And he said, "No." Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face.

Then Balaam pronounced a blessing on Israel, not a curse: “A star shall come out of Jacob… it shall crush the borderlands of Moab…”

What we hear from God is true, even if he uses a donkey to say it! So the reading alerts us to listen. We may not like the way the lector at Mass reads God’s word or the preacher explains it; but if we don’t listen, who is the greater jackass?

In Matthew 21: 23-27 Jesus tells us that we should look for the origin of what we are asked to accept and follow. Who is saying it? Do I have reason to believe that what I am hearing is inspired by the Spirit of God? Jesus asked, “Where was John’s baptism from? Was it of heavenly or of human origin?”

What about the advertisements we see on TV? Where are they from? From people who want to show us what will make us happy?

What about the desires the ads claim to satisfy? Aren’t these usually the “going trends” in our culture? The ads offer us what will make us look good to other people or feel that we are up there with the front runners.

But where is our society running to?

The ads appeal to our desires for pleasure, admiration, good looks, wealth, sex, power, prestige, even self-fulfillment according to the standards of our peer group. Are these God’s standards? Whose voice is coming through the donkey?

Initiative: If you want Jesus to save your life on this earth, use him! Consult him. Every time you are urged to do or buy something, ask what Jesus says about it.

December 13, 2016
TUESDAY, Advent week three:

To Whom Do You Listen?

The Responsorial Psalm tells us how we have to be to be saved: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Psalm 34).

Zephaniah 3: 1-13 takes note of a society that “hears no voice, accepts no correction,” that has “not trusted in the Lord” or “drawn near to its God.” Its “officials are roaring lions,” its “judges are wolves,” its “prophets are reckless,” its “priests have profaned what is sacred.” Does this sound familiar? Sound like us?

But “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” There is nothing weaker than the power of this world, and nothing stronger than the prayer of the weak. God says, “I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord…. I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones…. I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord.”

This is an invitation to choose sides. Do we place our trust in our righteousness, and in the obvious (and deceitful) security of wealth, military force, political power, advanced technology and social endorsement for doing what everyone else does? Or do we turn to Jesus as Savior and say, “Teach me your ways, O Lord”?

Those who are successful and admired, the prosperous and powerful, listen to each other. They go where the “smart money” is. But “The Lord hears the cry of the poor” because the poor listen to him. To whom do you listen?

Matthew 21: 28-32 warns us that just because we are doing all the “right” things and keeping all the rules that make us think we are “good Christians,” it doesn’t mean we really are.

We may be so quick to say, “Yes, sir” to Church rules that we never ask if we are really living by the spirit of the Church’s teaching — as found, for example, in Vatican II. We may assume we are the “good Catholics” because we don’t question. But sometimes the one who questions the most turns out to be the most obedient to the spirit of the law.

If we judge our lives, not by outward conformity, but by the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace… (Galatians 5: 22-23), we may find we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). If so, we should take courage: self-knowledge is the first step to accepting Jesus as Savior. The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

Initiative: If you want Jesus to save your life on this earth, use him! Call your life into question. Ask how what you are doing expresses the mind and heart of Jesus. (Always ask why before obeying a law. But have a wise advisor ready!).

December 14, 2016
WEDNESDAY, Advent week three:

God Sent Not Salvation, But A Savior; Not A System, But His Son

The Responsorial Psalm focuses our desire on the person of Jesus: “Let the clouds rain down the Just One, and the earth bring forth a Savior” (Psalm 85).

Isaiah 45: 6-25 promises a better life on earth. There will be justice (“Let justice descend like dew from above”) and security (“Turn to me and be safe”), and oppressive power will be dethroned (“To me every knee shall bend… saying ‘Only in the Lord are just deeds and power’”). Living conditions will be worthy of God’s children (“Thus says the designer and maker of the earth, who did not create it to be a waste, but designed it to be lived in”).

In Isaiah, God’s instrument for this is Cyrus, King of Persia, who broke the Babylonian empire and freed the Jews to return to their land (Isaiah 45:1). But the Church looks to the ultimate Savior and sees in this text the promise of Jesus: “Let the clouds rain down the Just One, and the earth bring forth a Savior.” (These words are not actually in Psalm 85. Isaiah refers to the Just One in 26:7).

God chose to save the human race by using a human: Jesus Christ, who is God himself, God the Son, the Word made flesh (see John 1: 1-18). If we want our lives on this earth to be saved from all that diminishes and destroys them, we must look to a person: the person of Jesus.

We find the fullness of life — here and hereafter — not in some movement or cult, not in any abstract philosophy or religion, not even in Christianity itself lived as a system of doctrines, laws and religious practices. Jesus came that we might “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10), and we will find that only in live, personal, experienced interaction with Jesus himself.

God promised us, not just “salvation,” but a Savior. This is what Advent focuses us on: the person of Jesus Christ in the flesh. “Let the clouds rain down the Just One, and the earth bring forth a Savior.”

Luke 7:18-23 takes us a step further: We don’t decide what the fullness of life is and look to Jesus to give it to us; we believe first in Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6) and believe we will discover what the fullness of life is by being in union with him. “Salvation” means union with the person of Jesus Christ. “Let the clouds rain down the Just One, and the earth bring forth a Savior.”

Initiative: If you want Jesus to save your life on this earth, use him! Make friends with Jesus by dealing with him the way you deal with your closest friend. What started and sustains that friendship? Act the same with Jesus

December 15, 2016
THURSDAY, Advent week three:

When Bad Things Happen, Trust

The Responsorial Psalm tells us to trust in God because of who God is: “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me” (Psalm 30).

God doesn’t keep bad things from happening to us. God made people free, and if they choose to sin they can cause terrible pain to us and others. We are free to sin ourselves, and if we do we can diminish — or even destroy — our own lives. God has to allow this. Freedom is freedom; we can use it or abuse it. But when we do abuse it, or others abuse it and hurt us, God rescues us.

Isaiah 54: 1-10 promises Israel (1-4) that a fruitless existence can become fruitful, a hemmed-in life can expand, and the mistakes and shame of the past can be forgotten. Why? Because God is like a husband: he will never abandon Israel.

Sometimes God appears to abandon us. In reality, we are abandoning him and he is letting us have our way. But this is only temporary. He promises, “With great tenderness I will take you back…. For a moment I hid my face from you, but with enduring love I take pity on you” (see John 1:14: “Grace and truth” — hesed and emet, that the 1970 New American Bible translates as “enduring love” —the key characteristics of God in Exodus 34:6. See Psalms 86:15, 103:8. Scripture uses the phrase “steadfast love” 173 times).

God will always rescue us if we turn to him “Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, my steadfast love (New Revised Standard Version) shall never leave you, nor my covenant of peace be shaken.” He will do it because of his “steadfast love.”

Luke 7: 24-30 shows Jesus “rescuing” the reputation of John the Baptizer. Jesus had to correct his expectations (see Luke 7:19-23) but then he praised John to the skies. Jesus knew John would accept his correction without discouragement, because John trusted Jesus. “But the Pharisees and scholars of the law,” did not. They “rejected the plan of God for themselves” because they sought safety in keeping rules instead of trusting in God’s “steadfast love.” That was their mistake.

Initiative: If you want Jesus to save your life on this earth, use him! Relate to him. Focus your heart and hopes on the person of Jesus. Seek the fullness of life in union with his mind and heart. And trust him to rescue you when you fall.

December 16, 2016
FRIDAY, Advent week three:

In Every Person, Look For God

The Responsorial Psalm sings the scope of God’s saving love: “O God, let all the nations praise you!” (Psalm 67).

Isaiah 56: 1-8 makes the point that authentic relationship with God in religion is not something we are just “born into.” “Let not the foreigner say, when he would join himself to the Lord, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’” For God—and explicitly in the “catholic,” “universal” Church—cultural differences simply enrich the People of God. None is “better” or “worse” than another in any absolute sense. The only question is, “What language, symbols and ceremonies will most effectively communicate the faith to these particular people? What customs, practices, laws and liturgy will help them enter more easily into intimate knowledge and love of Jesus Christ?” God says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” We respond, “O God, let all the nations praise you!” — each according to the richness and diversity of its own tradition.

John 5: 33-36 alerts us to the sad fact that “cultural prejudices” extend to more than national customs. We have our little litmus papers by which we judge whether someone is “liberal” or “conservative.” We measure people by the devotions and practices they do or do not embrace. We judge them by whether they are adhering externally to Church laws — without knowledge of their interior disposition. Jesus rejects any judgment that does not look to the heart. Many believed the testimony John the Baptizer gave to Jesus because his way of life was so austere, but Jesus said (Thursday’s Gospel) “the least born into the kingdom of God is greater than he.” What John did was evidence he was graced, but his holiness consisted in his gift of sharing in the life of God, not in his works. When we judge others, we have to bear in mind that it is the invisible gift of grace that sanctifies, not external performance. And we cannot see into another person’s heart.

When Jesus says, “I have testimony greater than John’s… the very works which I perform testify on my behalf” he is not saying we can judge peoples’ hearts by their actions. But when we can’t find any explanation for why people would act as they do except deep faith in God’s words, hope in his promises, and a love for God without human rewards, this is strong evidence of a graced heart. The love Jesus showed, combined with the “works” of his healing miracles, were evidence that he was sent from God. We accept anyone who shows signs of grace. “O God, let all the nations praise you!

Initiative: If you want Jesus to save your life on this earth, use him! Be open. Look beneath behavior and customs for signs of graced faith, hope and love.

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