The Joy of Companionship

"For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt 11:30).

There is nothing we cannot accomplish in partnership with someone we trust. Jesus invites his disciples to get in the harness with him, which shares the load and lightens the heart. We are in this together, and the kind of intimate friendship Jesus offers us is totally trustworthy.

How many pilgrims at the end of their strength and self-confidence have come to this truth on the road of life? When we cannot take another step, Jesus is there -- has always been there -- ready to show us how to let go of our regrets about the past and anxieties about the future to simply live in the moment with him. Each day becomes an adventure, step by step taken with confidence that God is truly in all things.

We live in the "Age of Anxiety" where everyone is in a hurry, running toward or away from something, fearful of the unknown and competing with others. Jesus says that there is another way to live, in which trust in God makes even our difficulties and losses part of the larger mystery of God's plan for us. Don't be afraid. Step out into the light. Get up, show up, do your best, and God will provide the rest.

God Comes for the Lost

"It is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost” (Matt 18:14).

In the Christmas story from Matthew's Gospel, it is no small detail that the first visitors to the Christ child were shepherds. These simple hill country people who followed and protected the flocks of sheep and goats were attuned to the night skies and the presence of angels. When told of the birth of Jesus, they came without hesitation, no doubt bringing their entire flocks with them.

Jesus would later describe God as a shepherd who never gives up on a lost sheep but goes in search of it until he brings it back to safety. This image is the essence of the Good News the lowly shepherds heard that first night. God was coming into the world for them, and for all the poor and those without power and status. This is heart of Pope Francis' year of mercy and his letter "The Joy of the Gospel." The image with this short reflection is of the cross the pope wears.

Healed and Forgiven

"Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?" (Luke 5:22).

As we continue through Advent, the gospel today reminds us that Jesus came not just to improve our material or physical existence, but also to transform our inner lives.

The story of the paralyzed man who is lowered through the roof to Jesus turns into a confrontation between the religious leaders and Jesus over his claim to be able to forgive sins. To show that he has the power to forgive sins, Jesus links forgiveness from sin with the healing of the man's paralysis. He is completely restored from the inside out. He rises, picks up his sick mat and walks home.

Preparation for Christmas involves thinking about what we will give and what we ask for from others. As we make our list of gifts, what will we ask of God? Why not complete healing? What would it mean to our bodies to be set free from some deep regret or from a hurt that severed a relationship? What if we could be freed from the paralysis of fear or anxiety? How would it change our lives to be forgiven and healed of impatience, judgmentalism, criticism of others?

Jesus has the the power to do all of this. Now is the time to ask for what we need most of all.

Letting Go, Going Forward

“I am baptizing with water … but the one who is to come will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt 3:10).

In days past, preachers who went around giving parish missions quickly learned that the most attended night was the sermon about “other people’s sins.” Good Catholics took great satisfaction in hearing in great detail about what other people were doing and what punishments they should expect. In the scholastic manuals for confessors there was even a category of sin for overdoing this interest. “Morose delectation” was taking pleasure at the thought of someone else getting what they deserved.

The God who kept score was the God preached by John the Baptist. His message on the banks of the Jordan River was that judgment was coming. An axe was ready to strike the root of every tree that had not borne fruit. A winnowing fan was about the separate the wheat from the chaff on the threshing floor. His baptism was a baptism of repentance, and people flocked to John to escape the coming wrath of God. The long-suffering virtuous were eager to see divine vengeance come at last.

How confusing then for John to realize that Jesus was not about vengeance but about mercy. The old dispensation of strict justice was being surpassed by a new dispensation of grace. Anyone who heard Jesus preach was astonished to hear him welcome sinners through the open gates of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Tax collectors and prostitutes were taking them by storm. The new baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire was not to purge the guilty but to transform them with love.

Advent challenges us to examine our own justice with one another. How many lives are paralyzed by unresolved hurts and bitter resentment over past insults, family feuds, broken trust. How many lifelines are knotted and blocked for lack of forgiveness, the refusal to be the first to seek reconciliation? Who goes free when victim and perpetrator settle? Both do. Who benefits from letting go and moving on? Everyone does.

The pilgrimage to Christmas is for those willing to shed their baggage and to travel light into the new covenant of mercy. Everyone is off the hook. All are welcome. The only people left out will be those still trying to sort of out the unworthy from the unworthy, the bad from the good, them from us.

The Blind Shall See

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

Today's gospel about two blind men emphasizes the futility of any situation in which "the blind lead the blind." Only a miracle can restore both sight and insight to such a calamity. Imagine whole nations and cultures in which blind leaders are guiding a blind populace, whose biases and prejudices are cultivated to distort everything and promote false goals and values.

Jesus responds to the cries of the blind men by first probing their faith. Do they understand the implications of what they are asking. If they are granted "sight", their entire lives will be changed and new choices will appear. Physical sight in the gospels is always linked to faith, and faith leads to discipleship. How far are these men willing to go? The more they see, the more responsible they will become to follow, or imitate, Jesus, whose ultimate goal is not miracles but transforming the world.

The adage, "Be careful what you pray for; you might get it," is relevant to this story. Do we really want to see as God sees? Do we really want to leave behind our self-affirming blindness to become disciples of justice and love in a troubled world? Advent prepares us to welcome the light that reveals God's active presence in our lives. Do we really believe that God can do this? If we do, Christmas is about to come true for us.

Justice as Foundation

"The lofty city ... is trampled underfoot by the needy, by the footsteps of the poor" (Isaiah 26:6).

A national protest over low wages for service workers is in the news. Thousands of advocates for a "livable" minimum wage went to the streets to push Congress and the large corporations that factor cheap labor into their profits to "hear the cry of the poor." A wealthy nation that builds its economy on a permanent underclass of fulltime workers living in poverty is eroding its moral foundations and the hopes of millions of its citizens for a better life.

The Prophet Isaiah warned those who ignored the poor that even the great city of Jerusalem could not survive injustice, but would be "leveled to the dust" and "those in high places would be humbled."

As we enter Advent, we will hear the song of Mary issuing the same warning. The child she was carrying would grow up to proclaim that the "poor will inherit the earth." In today's gospel, Jesus compares two houses, one built on sand and the other on rock, to declare that God's will is the only sure foundation for our lives.

Christmas will come this year filled with the same message. A poor man and his pregnant wife travel a hard road, are denied lodging, then flee as refugees in order to protect the child sent by God to save the world.

Will they find welcome today in our cities and in our nation? We prepare for God's coming with a foundation of justice in our world. This is true preparation for Christmas, the only kind that really matters. Our own fate depends on it.

Casting Wide the Net

"How can they hear without someone to preach?" (Romans 10:15).

St. Paul knew well how faith in Christ spread. Preachers filled with faith were sent to audiences primed by the Holy Spirit to hear deep in their hearts the eternal questions about human identity and purpose before God. When Word and Spirit came together, hearts overflowed with joy and confidence. "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10:9)

St. Paul had witnessed the growth of communities of faith across Asia Minor when he proclaimed the Good News both Jews and gentiles longed to hear. Today's commemoration of St. Andrew, one of the original Apostles, tells the same story. Jesus called fishermen to cast a wide net into the sea of the world. Andrew, a follower of John the Baptist, was on the first to hear, and he invited his brother Peter to come and hear Jesus.

We are all evangelists. Pope Francis has emphasized that people are not argued into believing but attracted by believers. This is our role, to make our faith visible and attractive, a life worth living because it is beautiful and true. Even to attract a single person can have unlimited potential to attract others, as evidenced by the rapid growth of the early church.

Who attracted you to faith? How deep is your faith? Is it visible to others? Will you be beautiful and true today? The Holy Spirit will do the rest.

Never Alone

"A little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:7).

In the midst of crisis, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed God's promise that history would guide the Chosen People through suffering and displacement to a future of peace and security. "There will be no harm or ruin on my holy mountain." The sign that peace has come to even natural rivals in the animal kingdom is that a little child will guide them.

Jesus invoked this same dream when he burst into praise and thanked his heavenly Father for revealing to the childlike what the learned and clever have failed to understand. God's grace is at work in the innocent. Blessed are the poor of heart, for they shall see God. The little ones who depend entirely on God will be the first to be lifted up and embraced by mercy.

Advent invites us all into this wisdom. If we want to find peace, become childlike again in the trust that God keeps promises and will never abandon us. Even in the midst of adversity, don't be afraid.

In a recent conversation with the Jesuits gathered in Rome, Pope Francis confessed that there are times when he feels pessimistic. But at the end of each day he is able to look back and see God's love at work in his life, and this renews his confidence. In life's ordinary struggles, disappointments and even in our failures, God is still blessing us and advancing good through us. This is the confidence that Advent renews in us.

Paralyzed No More

"I will come and cure him" (Matt 8:7).

Hope release new energy in us. We enter Advent with a familiar gospel story about Jesus' eagerness to share the renewed life with us that flows from his Incarnation. God is in the world, and nothing can prevent us from accessing the creative possibilities that come from being in touch with Jesus.

In today's gospel, a centurion, the Roman commander of 100 soldiers, begs Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant. When Jesus offers to come immediately to his house, the man shows his respect for the Jewish prohibition about entering a gentile house, and then expresses his faith that all Jesus has to do is issue a command, as he does with his soldiers, and it will be done. From this scene we get the words we say before Communion: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; say but the word and my soul shall be healed."

In fact, our faith rests on an even greater assurance that Jesus is already in our house because he is now one of us, our own human brother because the "Word has become flesh."

This Advent, national tensions and global fears have many feeling paralyzed. Yet, our faith encourages us to take up the transforming work of discipleship, for Jesus is already with us.

Be Prepared

“Be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matt 24:44).

The First Sunday of Advent briefly holds us in the darkness before dawn. The scripture readings emphasize our absolute need for God as one liturgical year ends and another begins. Christian hope assures us that as difficult as life can get, God is always present and in control. Yet hope must be embraced. Faith is not passive; it asks us to put our lives on the line.

Ancient Israel was formed in an encounter with the God who “hears the cry of the poor.” The Hebrew Exodus from slavery to freedom was remembered at every Passover. Even in exile, Jews sang the songs of God’s faithfulness. The promised messiah would bring the peace they dreamed of when nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4).

For Christians, Jesus is the fulfillment of every prophecy and promise. The early church faced persecution after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE. Matthew interprets history with the words Jesus spoke when he wept over the city before his death: “Stay awake, you do not know the day or the hour.” Jesus recalled the foolishness of people before the deluge when Noah built the ark. He warned of calamity so sudden that one person would be spared, another taken, and compared judgment to the shock felt when a thief breaks into an unguarded house.

Advent puts us on notice. Something new is about to happen. Be ready. Be open. Even our theology and 20 centuries of religion do not prepare us for God’s surprises, which are always more than we expect or can control. We do know this, that we will be drawn into the same mystery Jesus passed through when he entered his glory by way of the cross.

Hope is not escape from adversity but the assurance that whatever happens, we will meet every trial and that God will always be with us. The "work of the people” that is the very meaning of liturgy calls us to do our best, to listen to the Spirit and to act on what we hear. Advent is Good News. God is coming closer to us, so let us meet God in the depths of our human struggle, where the Word appears like the first light of dawn.

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