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Dec. 14, 2014: Third Sunday of Advent

Posted on 13 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Indeed the Lord is near” (Phil 4:4).

Last Sunday we got Mark’s portrait of John the Baptist. Today we get the evangelist John’s image, basically Mark’s again but with more details layered on. John the messenger is now John the witness to the light. He is not the light, only one who will introduce the light. John the Baptist is like a figure walking toward us as the sun rises behind him. He is so backlit we can barely recognize his features, for he is less important than the brilliant source approaching us behind him.

John’s shadow rolls over us. His message is an urgent warning: "Repent, get ready, change your heart and your ways so you can receive the light that is arriving behind me, like the dawn of a new creation."

We call this Gaudete Sunday, Latin for “rejoice,” because the promise is near, just 11 days from now. Something wonderful is about to happen that will change everything. Most of all, we will be changed. The former limits of existence, the certainty of death that so stunned the ancient philosophers and gave rise to religion as a desperate wager against mortality, is now revealed as the darkness before dawn, the silent interval before the real music begins. It is the offer of eternal life, filling the universe, then transcending it, the pulse of divinity in our DNA, a new destiny revealed by the One who is coming, the Light.

John, the greatest prophet the world ever saw, the greatest person ever born, yet he barely understood what he would again witness to on the banks of the Jordan. Later, sitting in a dank cell awaiting his own death, he would send messengers to ask Jesus if he was the promised one. Word came back that the blind were receiving back their sight, cripples were dancing, the poor were hearing good news and prisoners were being set free. The scriptures were being fulfilled, but not in the way many had expected. God’s light was pure mercy, not punishment.

This is why we rejoice on this Third Sunday of Advent. As we open our hearts to the Light, we will be able to see, hear, walk and know that life with God is our present reality and forever future.

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Grace in Motion

Posted on 12 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).

The amazing story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is prophetic in ways yet to be understood and accepted in the Americas. Beyond its religious and cultural importance in Mexico or its spiritual power to subvert the history of conquest of the New World, the image of a pregnant mestiza siding with the indigenous people already here when Europe arrived to enslave and loot contains the promise of an even greater reversal to come over the global designs of neoconservative money and power.

The Church of the Poor has its seeds in this vision. God’s preferential love for the poor, first whispered by John XXIII in 1958, then said out loud at the 1968 meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellin, will again drive Catholic social teaching and pastoral outreach. An Argentinian pope will complete the revolution when he formally recognizes the martyred Monsignor Romero of El Salvador as the model for all the church’s shepherds. A wave of hope and joy will stir throughout the developing world, beginning in the Southern hemisphere, and, despite all efforts to stop it, complete a demographic shift from white Eurocentric dominance to a new multi-cultured and -colored world order that will emerge to guide the planet through breakdown to breakthrough, chaos to community.

The message of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego was to ask that a church be built on ground already consecrated by the blood of the conquest. The house of humanity is that church, a new structure that respects the dignity of all peoples, new policies that restore right relationship to every system and society centered in fairness and the common good. The dream becomes a vision becomes a movement becomes a reality when we believe it and put our collective shoulders to the task.

Poets know it, musicians sing it, young people see it, those who oppose it understand its implication and will try and stop it, distract us from it. But like a river rolling downhill, it will happen. It is an idea whose time has come. We rejoice to witness it, welcome and work for it.

May I Have Your Attention, Please

Posted on 11 December 2014 by patmarrin

"The violent bear it away" (Matt 11:13).

The late Southern Gothic writer Flannery O'Connor once said that her stories were shocking because she was like a cartoonist drawing large for blind people.

Insight and conversion do not come easily to people numb with self-satisfaction. Only crisis awakens us to choose life passionately and decisively. The curious phrase Jesus uses to describe those who were seizing the moment to enter the kingdom of God -- "the violent bear it away" -- was in contrast to the cautious complacency of the so-called righteous people of his day, who responded neither to John the Baptist nor to him when the call to conversion was given.

The scribes and Pharisees stood outside the gates of the kingdom while prostitutes and tax collectors, outcasts and simple people stormed in to receive God’s mercy like holiday shoppers after bargains. Jesus was up-ending the conventional hierarchy and meritocracy of religion to reveal a God who opens wide the eternal banquet to the streets, offering abundant, extravagant life to anyone willing to risk the fiery embrace of Love. It is pure paradox.

Your invitation to the party of paradox is in the mail. Do not hesitate to RSVP. Come as you are, but ready to change everything that hinders you from welcoming others. Take dancing lessons if needed. Sharpen your appetite, give your heart over to the sleepless anticipation only children really understand. Don't be afraid. Something wonderful is about to happen. It is about you, about all of us together, entering God’s House.

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Let's Go Together

Posted on 10 December 2014 by patmarrin

"Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt 11:28).

A recent news story reported that a major corporation known for its research and development prowess used a management experiment to increase innovation, telling its employees that those who came up with new ideas would get bonuses while those who did not would be fired. The result was a company-wide contraction of sharing ideas as employees competed to survive. A company known for its open collaboration was paralyzed. Over all innovation slowed, production fell and company morale plummeted.

Rugged individualism and self-sufficiency are characteristically North American values, reinforced by so much of our media, beginning with the myth of the Old West and pervasive to warrior video games like "Army of One." It isolates and debilitates people and postpones real maturity. Its appeal to personal survival preempts the natural instinct to find community and obeys perfectly the felt need to have "our own of everything" that drives our consumption economy.

Going it bravely alone takes a hit in today's gospel reading. Jesus invites us into the "yoke" or harness of relationships as the secret of self-renewing strength and effective living. Teamwork is a counter philosophy that has made some headway in education and the workplace, but it is challenging, requires communication and conflict resolution, and competition often overrides the proven benefits of collaboration.

Christian spirituality and sacramental life are all about relationship. Our very consciousness is communal, an ongoing conversation with God, self, others. We awaken each day to a supportive network of voices that encourage, correct, inspire us. To be true to yourself is be accountable to this cloud of witnesses. Make it your default setting and, when your need it, it will also be your sanctuary and place of rest. Welcome home, pilgrim.

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The Good Shepherd

Posted on 09 December 2014 by patmarrin

"What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?" (Matt 18:12).

Today a picture is worth a thousand words. Here is what Pope Francis wears around his neck, a pectoral cross depicting the good shepherd carrying the lost sheep. Does this not define his papacy and its goals?

Francis added emphasis to this image in his remarks at the end of the Synod on the Family. He told the gathered bishops to welcome the lost sheep, then added, "I make a mistake. Not just welcome, but go find them!"

We rejoice to have such a leader, and we honor God by following his example.

Just Say Yes

Posted on 08 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28).

Today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the Catholic teaching that, in preparation for her role as the mother of Jesus, Mary was conceived without "original sin." The theological concepts and biblical images that come together in this feast encompass the whole narrative of salvation history, beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden. The effects of their disobedience were inherited by the entire human race, except for Mary, who signals the second Genesis, the new creation made possible by Jesus, the new Adam, the Son of God. Mary’s holiness derives from her relationship with Jesus.

What can this teaching possibly mean for us? Such theological and biblical ideas seem so distant from our ordinary experience, including our sense that we could never meet so high a standard of perfection or claim freedom from sinful thoughts, motives and actions. Yet this feast is in fact also about us. What Mary received from the first moment of her existence, we receive at baptism. We are filled with grace — the gift of God’s life — to the measure that we open ourselves to it.

From the moment of her conception and birth, throughout her childhood and young adult life, Mary lived in the presence of God. But her external, visible life must have been typical of a young woman living in Nazareth in the first century. Her daily choices, like our own, were natural and practical in nature. What characterized her was her openness to the Spirit guiding her toward the day when she encountered God’s messenger and said Yes to God’s will for her.

Isn’t this the same for us? Our yes to God, like Mary’s, is to welcome the Christ within us, bearing his life and giving birth to him in our every word, gesture and purpose.

Happy the Feet that Bring Good News

Posted on 06 December 2014 by patmarrin

"I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” (Mark 1:7).

John the Baptist's job was to proclaim the Incarnation. If that sounds overwhelmingly theological, consider that God’s entry into world was the body of Jesus, complete with hands and feet. Tiny to begin with, but nonetheless intimate and familiar to us for whom he came.

John ends his announcement with awe: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.” This was the task of a slave. In the ancient world, slaves went barefoot while serving the powerful, who wore footwear.

Google "shoes" and learn that only 20 percent of the world’s population today wears shoes. Some by culture and choice, but many because the shoes they assemble in sweatshops for first world consumers are too expensive to buy. Search further to learn that Americans spent $48 billion on shoes in 2012, at 29,000 shoe stores employing 189,000 people.

Aside from John’s assumption that the Messiah would wear sandals, there is no mention in the New Testament that Jesus wore shoes. When the soldiers gambled for his garments at Calvary, there were no shoes mentioned. A barefoot Jesus is possible. Moses was told to remove his Egyptian-made shoes before the burning bush (Exod 3:5). Jesus made the ground beneath his feet holy wherever he walked. Women loved his feet, could not keep their hands and kisses off of them. He returned the gesture by washing the feet of his dusty, reluctant disciples at the Last supper, including the feet of his betrayer.

If you are in church this weekend, consider the joy of Psalm 122, recited by pilgrims arriving at the temple.“Our feet are now standing at your gates, O Jerusalem.” God is coming to us this Advent. Can you hear the divine footsteps? Open wide the gates of your heart to welcome this Emmanuel.

One small step for you; one giant step for all of us.

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Can't You See?

Posted on 05 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Do you believe that I can do this?” (Matt 9:28).

Misery loves company. The Gospels offer several instances where distressed people band together, the 10 lepers being the best example. They have something in common in a sea of rejection. But today’s story about two blind men describes both their solidarity and the hopelessness of their situation. The they are the blind leading the blind.

They hear that Jesus is near, passing by, and they somehow make their way to the house he has entered, crying out, “Son of David, have pity on us.” This a messianic title that evokes Israel’s hope for full restoration to past glory. Jesus engages them to determine whether the essential ingredient in all his healings is present — their faith. “Do you believe that I can do this?”

The two blind men say, “Yes, Lord,” and Jesus touches their eyes and says, “Let it be done for you according to your faith.” It is a central Gospel theme that “faith” is about “seeing” at several levels. We say, “My eyes were opened” to describe insight or sudden revelation. So it is in this story. The two men, formerly blind, now can see, and, despite Jesus order to keep this healing secret, they become evangelists.

We who read and entrust our hearts to this living Word today are invited to deeper faith that leads to even deeper faith, new sight that leads to insight, then mission. Until we make this move, we are blind together, wandering in a world blind to the presence and purpose of God. Our Advent prayer starts here, with the courage to cry out in our darkness, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on us.!”

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Bridges Not Walls

Posted on 04 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matt 7:24).

What is the rock foundation that survives the storm? The history of Christian theology shows a long back-and-forth dialogue to achieve the precise balance in our understanding of God, right relationship with God, self and with one another. Extremes collapse, while patient dialogue leading to consensus stands firm and becomes the common ground for authentic teaching.

St. John of Damascus (676-749), a Syrian monk called “Golden Mouth” for his eloquence in helping shape church doctrine, was a bridge figure between East and West, Christian and emerging Islamic theologies, between ecclesial and civil interests. He is known for his defense of icons, aids to help people access divine mysteries in a human way, thus affirming the sacraments as our way to know God, incarnate in Jesus.

In our own world of profound polarization and ideological divisions on a global scale, holy people like John stand out as fearless models for openness to dialogue. In his recent visit to Turkey, Pope Francis echoed this approach by declaring his willingness to seek common ground even with the Islamic State now fighting Western forces throughout the Middle East.

Each of our lives reveal faultlines over race, status, wealth, religion and politics. More bridges are needed and fewer walls. Who will step into the breach between sides poised for conflict? Who is brave enough to challenge the demonization that makes community impossible by declaring the truth that God is in all things?

Find more images of John on the Internet like this Arabic icon.

Come to the Mountain

Posted on 03 December 2014 by patmarrin

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples” (Isa 25:6).

“Jesus went up on the mountain, and sat down there” (Matt 15:29).

Today’s Advent readings give us a clear look at how Matthew’s Gospel matches Old and New, images from the prophets with their fulfillment in Jesus.

Yahweh communed with his people through Moses on the mountaintops. Food, water and healing flowed in those encounters to sustain Israel on its pilgrimage across the Sinai to the Promised Land. Jesus goes up the mount near the Sea of Galilee, and the crowds come to him for healing and food. We glimpse here the reign of God. Seven loaves and a few fish satisfy everyone, and seven baskets show God’s abundance. Creation is complete. The covenant is fulfilled. The community has arrived on God’s holy mountain.

Advent renews the promise for us. We sharpen our anticipation and stir up our faith. Despite the evidence of division and suffering, want and violence in our world, God is affirmed as the source and destination of our human pilgrimage. Advent is desert time, winter in our hearts, darker, shorter days as the sun moves lower on the horizon. These are the worst of times, but also the best. As eyes grow keener in the shadows, so our hearts lean into the silence, listening, waiting, trusting.

Advent is a birth announcement. Out of death and despair will come new life and fresh hope. Come to the mountain. Heaven will come to earth in the Incarnation, Word made flesh, God among us. Every dream, wish and need will be met in the One who comes in the name of the Lord.