A Moment before the Third Sunday in Advent

There’s one individual, one image that sums up Advent.  He’s standing in a river and he’s got a very simple and direct message. Repent.

For me, there’s a lot going on with repent, especially when I add my personal touch to it. Making sure that I feel bad about myself, and begrudgingly changing my ways (if at all).  But my version of repenting isn’t what John’s talking about. 

The Gospel goes right to the point about repenting, and lets us know that John was sent from God. 

Which explains why he has such an impact. And why he’s getting a lot of questions about who he is, from people who were waiting for a sign. 

When that sign comes to them in the form of John, they have trouble believing it. When they ask him who he is, his answer makes it clear that he is exactly who they were waiting for. 

And not at all who they were expecting.

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Who are you again?

Last Sunday’s readings (“the voice of one crying out in the desert”) aren’t the only places in the Bible that talk about what’s going to happen before Christ comes. It turns out there are a lot of prophecies about this. Over time, this led to a lot of ideas about how it would work. And who would be involved.

Which is why John gets questioned about who he is. A lot:

“Are you the Christ?”  

“Are you Elijah?”  

“Are you the prophet?” 

John’s answer to each one?  A simple “No.” 

But he’s doing so many things that line up with the prophecies. Even with John’s direct answers, they have to ask him who he is. Again. 

So John spells it out for them. And his answer stops them in their tracks.

More on this tomorrow.

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About a subtle as a flying brick.

Last Sunday’s readings were subtle.  The first reading (Isaiah) told us how to spot the messenger (“the voice of one crying out in the desert”).  The Gospel reminded us of Isaiah’s clues, and then let us put the pieces together to figure out who John was. 

This Sunday’s Gospel also reminds us of Isaiah’s clues, then shows John calling himself “the voice of one crying in the desert.”  And, just in case we didn’t get it, the Gospel also directly tells us that John was sent from God. 

It’s about as subtle as a flying brick. 

That’s John. Sent from God. And about as subtle as a flying brick. Both the man and the message.

Which is why his message has so much impact.  But more important than John and his message is the One coming after John.

More on this tomorrow.

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And you should feel bad!

John’s message is simple and direct. “Repent.”

For me, there’s a lot going on with “repent.”  Remembering things I really don’t want to remember, sincerely regretting what I have done, making amends. So far so good. 

Then comes the part where I add my own personal touch. Making sure that I feel bad about myself. And begrudgingly changing my ways. Maybe.

But my angsty, guilt-ridden, half-hearted version of repenting isn’t what John’s talking about. 

Sunday’s first reading gives us the Spirit of John’s message.  It shows us that what John is talking about is God’s version of repenting. Not mine.

And it couldn’t be more different.

More on this tomorrow.

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One image tells you everything.

Santa Claus. 

One individual, one image that tells you everything about Christmas – childhood, nostalgia, product placement, trees, toys, product placement. At least as far as pop culture is concerned.

Santa isn’t the only one.  A lot of individuals are also symbols of something else. They’re the shorthand for, and the road into, something much larger than themselves. 

We already know the individual who is the shorthand for, and the road into, Advent. He’s standing in a river. And he’s got a message.

Last Sunday’s readings introduced us to the most unusual character in the New Testament.  This Sunday? They tell us why he’s worth listening to. 

More on this tomorrow.

 

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A Moment before the Second Sunday in Advent.

Last Sunday’s readings were all about hitting bottom and asking God for help. This Sunday’s readings show us that God’s help is on the way.

We get the message that signals the start of everything, plus how to spot God’s messenger. Who turns out to be the most unusual character in the Gospels. Someone who’s pretty rough, even by first century standards.

But it’s also clear that this is God’s messenger, and people are listening.

The message for them – and for us – is one that can be hard to hear. It’s the message of Advent. That we need to acknowledge our sins and to repent.

It’s a message that demands a response, and people are responding.

As important as the message and our response are, it’s also clear that God isn’t done. That it’s just the beginning.

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Spotting the messenger.

Advent is all about God’s loving response to our shortcomings and failures. But it’s not some vague notion or “wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if…” rambling. It’s a response that gets very concrete, very quickly.

The first reading for Sunday signals the start of everything. It gives us the message about God’s response. And tells us how to spot the messenger.

If you hired a marketing company to build awareness of what God was doing, there would be all sorts of advance work. Market research, message testing, focus groups.

Fine tuning until they came up with something catchy. Maybe even with tied-in saleable merch. Just what we’re expecting, like every other marketing campaign.

In the Gospel for Sunday, we spot the messenger. There can be no mistake. That’s exactly who we’re waiting for. And not at all what we’re expecting.  

More on this tomorrow.

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Far from humiliating.

Last Sunday’s readings start Advent with something none of us like to do. Taking an honest look at ourselves. And realizing how much distance we’ve put between ourselves and God.

We don’t like to think about it. Because none of us like to be called out on our mistakes and shortcomings. Whether it’s done privately or publicly, it’s humiliating.

So it’s no surprise that we have zero interest in owning up to our mistakes and shortcomings..

We would rather act like whatever it was didn’t happen. Or convince ourselves that it was really no big deal. Or just hope nobody makes us own up to our mistakes and shortcomings.

Which is why Sunday’s first reading is so important. Because it shows us God’s response to our honesty. When we do own up to our mistakes and shortcomings.

It’s about as far from humiliating as you can get.

More on this tomorrow.

 

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The original unusual character.

Christmas means it’s time for bunch of TV specials that have been around since forever. The longest running one (still on TV and Netflix and…) is a stop-motion version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The story is memorable if only for its unusual main characters - a reindeer with a glowing nose and an elf who wants to be a dentist. And its off-beat minor characters - a train with square wheels, a cowboy who rides an ostrich, a Charlie-in-the-box. 

We know the story. We know the songs by heart - “Holly Jolly Christmas,” etc. But the unusual characters put a face on the season. And keep us coming back. 

In the readings, we meet the face of Advent. Unlike the characters from the TV specials that are there for laughs, this one has a much deeper purpose. One that ties directly into last Sunday’s readings.

It’s time to meet the original unusual character.

More on this tomorrow. 

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Say the word.

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” You hear that at every Mass. Today’s Gospel is where it comes from.

Other parts of the Mass come directly from Scripture, usually from the big moments in Jesus’ life. Things like the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount. And then there’s today’s brief exchange between Jesus and a Roman centurion.

So why is this half-remembered moment part of every Mass?

Because of what it says about us. And about God.

Saying this before the Sacrament puts things in perspective. If we’re honest, we have no right to claim anything from God. Everything we’ve ever received is a gift, something that none of us is worthy to receive.

Following this by receiving the Sacrament also shows us God’s perspective. We get to see God’s response to our unworthiness. Where God says,

“I know. Come to Me anyway. Let Me give you what you need. Me."

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A Moment before the First Sunday in Advent.

Everybody else is Christmas-ing it up big time. And has been since Halloween. Just when all of the green in church would finally make sense, everything goes purple. Why?

Advent. 

It’s the Church’s time to get ready for Christmas. But instead of Christmas stories, or even pre-Christmas stories for a pre-Christmas season, the readings for Advent start with Salvation and the Second Coming. And that relates to Christmas how?

It’s the “why,” the backstory of Christmas.

Especially the first reading. And the perspective it offers, for each one of us. If we’re honest, it’s not a pretty picture.

But it’s a picture that can never be separated from the point of the Gospel (and of Advent).

God knows all about our messes. And God loves each of us too much to leave us that way. Which means there’s a reason to watch with hope. Because help is on the way.

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Help is on the way.

Sunday’s first reading is about perspective. About looking past all of the distractions. About seeing where we really are.

It’s also about being honest with ourselves, and admitting that we can’t handle things on our own. No matter how much we want to do it ourselves. And that makes what comes next even harder.

Asking for help.

No matter how much we want to, we can’t handle things on our own. We need help.

But there’s more to the perspective that we get from Advent. In looking past ourselves to see how things really are and just how much we need help, we also see something more. We see exactly what Advent is waiting for. 

Help is on the way.  

More on this tomorrow.

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Anything that separates us from God.

Sunday’s first reading goes negative and not just a little. It’s self-condemning and full of references to sin.

Whenever anyone brings up sin, most of us reject it outright. Or go into “at-least-I-didn’t-kill-anybody” mode. Helping ourselves to miss the point by comparing it to something we think is worse than whatever we’re doing.   

If we’re honest, neither approach really works. Because sin isn’t stuff on a list of “thou-shalt-nots.” Or about what thing is worse than something else. Sin is much simpler. And much more dangerous.

Sin is anything that separates us from God.

And when it comes to separating ourselves from God, most of us are amazingly creative. Sometimes we’re so subtle, we don’t even realize that what we’re doing has separated us from God.

Until – hopefully – something cuts through the clutter, and we see just how much we’ve put between ourselves and God. And just how much that separation has cost us.

Something that Advent can show us. If we let it. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Cut through the clutter.

At the funeral for the father of a good friend, I ran into someone I used to work with. A dedicated “none,” he’ll tell you he’s too busy to go to church. Or to be an atheist. 

But something about seeing our friend’s dad for the last time cut through the clutter for him. And afterwards he grabbed me.

Over a cup of truly average coffee, we talked. About things he knew were missing in his life, stuff that he’d kept himself too busy to think about.    

Whether we go to church or not, when it comes to being too busy to think about what’s missing in our lives, most of us have some serious skills. Skills that in the long run do more harm than good.

Which is why the Church doesn’t do Christmas without doing Advent first. Because all of us are missing something. And we shouldn’t have to wait for a funeral to cut through the clutter.

More on this tomorrow.

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Better than leftovers.

If you’re bringing food to a sick friend, you’re not going to bring them 4-day-old leftover turkey whatever from Thanksgiving. Or a half-eaten cheeseburger.

You’re going to make something, or pick up something, just for them. That’s your friend. You’re going to bring something better than leftovers. 

People have a lot of ideas about how to relate to God. Some people relate to God as a list of “don’ts” and “thou-shalt-nots.” Others see God as condemning, something to fear or avoid. 

None of which has anything to do with God, or with the relationship that God wants to have with each one of us.

That’s why Jesus is so excited about the widow in today’s Gospel. Because she knows the kind of relationship that God wants to have with her.

Which is why she’s bringing something better than leftovers.

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A Moment before Christ the King Sunday

Sunday closes the liturgical year with the Christ the King, a feast that shows us the end of things and the point of everything that Jesus is doing. We see the divine search and rescue, the Love that is looking for each of us. Even if we don’t realize just how lost we are.

But we also see what it takes to separate ourselves from that Love. We get the truth about Hell – that we aren’t supposed to end up there. Jesus also shows us how to escape the blessings that He prepared for us.

It won’t be easy.

It will be a daily struggle against your better nature. To ignore the cry for help. To tune out the glimpses of God in every created thing.

But if you really want to condemn yourself, there is a way. Sunday’s Gospel spells it out. It’s not pretty.

And it couldn’t be farther from what Christ (the King) died to give you. 

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Who is in Hell?

Some people think the Church is in the business of condemning people to Hell. It's not. And it would be completely contrary to Jesus’ teachings if it were (see Matthew 7:1-2 for all of what Jesus said). 

But even if the Church was called to condemn people, its longstanding non-efforts amount to an epic failure. 

Think about it - the Church has a process for figuring out if someone is in Heaven, and celebrates those people throughout the year - the saints. The Church also says that list is not complete, and that there are lots more people in Heaven we don't even know about. Which is the point of All Saints’ Day.

But the Church has no way of figuring out who is in Hell. And no interest in trying.

That makes sense given Sunday’s Gospel, where Jesus tells us just who Hell was prepared for (hint - it isn't people). Which tells us a lot about the King who will be doing the judging.

More on this tomorrow.

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What if I don't want to be rescued?

Sunday’s reading from Ezekiel shows God searching out the lost, binding up the injured, and healing the sick. 

That’s great - if you’re lost, injured, or sick.  But what if I'm not?  What if I don’t want to be rescued? 

In New Zealand, a sheep (named Shrek) wandered off and wasn’t found for 6 years.  With no shearing, his wool just kept growing.  When they finally found Shrek, he had 60 pounds of matted wool, could barely see, and had trouble moving.

Shrek became a local celebrity and was sheared on television (it’s New Zealand, go figure).  When they rolled Shrek on his back to start trimming, they didn’t have to hold him still.  The weight of 6 years held him down. 

Shrek and Ezekiel know (even if I haven’t figured it out yet) that even if nothing bad happens, eventually the weight of life itself will hold me down. 

Even if I don't want to be rescued. 

More on this tomorrow.

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Each and every one of us

Sunday's Old Testament reading is one of the many (483,923.41 to be exact) passages in the Bible with sheep-related imagery.  Which makes sense, because in Old Testament times, everybody either had sheep or knew somebody who did.

But by Jesus' time, shepherding was done on the margins of society, by people who were often seen as little better than criminals. 

Leading to conversations in the guidance counselor's office at Jerusalem High School like this one:

Counselor: "Thanks for coming in, we've got the results from your son's career aptitude test.  Based on his scores, it looks like he’s well-suited for a career in piracy or grave-robbing, or as a shepherd."

Mom and Dad: "Wait, what?"

Counselor: "On the plus side, you won't have to worry about paying for college..."

When you hear all of the shepherd stuff on Sunday, think of a business or trade on the margins of society. About the image of God doing that work. And what that tells us about the God who is isn't afraid to get His hands dirty rescuing each and every one of us. 

More on this tomorrow.

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"I don't get anything out of Mass"

“I don't get anything out of Mass” is something that you hear said by people who have quit going to Mass, people who go randomly, and people who still go fairly regularly. 

Imagine that the church is in a tall building, and you and I are together in the elevator on the way to Mass. 

We’ve got about 30 seconds together before the doors open.  What could I say to you in that time that would help you find what you're looking for, that would help you get something out of Mass?  “Moments Before Mass” is the answer.

A Moment Before Mass is not the homily in 30 seconds – but it will help you get more out of the homily.  It’s not a quick version of the readings – but it will help you get more out of the readings.

You want the homily?  You know where to go.  You want to get more out of the homily? Welcome to “Moments Before Mass.”

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