Sunday, November 29, 2015

Homily: Advent 1C, November 29, 2015 preached by Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD

St. John’s Convent

Jeremiah 33:14-16 Psalm 25.1-9
1 Thessalonians 3.9-13 Luke 21.25-36

Each Thursday morning a group of sisters and Alongsiders meet at 7 am for group lectio divina. Lectio divina (divine or spiritual reading) is a way of hearing scripture that comes out of the Benedictine tradition – it is not Bible study and it’s not discussion – rather it’s a prayerful listening “with the ear of the heart” as St. Benedict would say. We listen to the Word of God speaking to each of us, now, in a personal way, in our lives today, this day, this very hour. It’s a helpful spiritual discipline for an individual, but doing it as a group carries special blessings.

Each week we focus on the gospel for the coming Sunday. Three different people read a passage from three different translations. The first time we each share a word or phrase that grabs our attention. On the second reading, each of us shares something about how the passage touches our lives today. The third time we each share how we believe God is challenging us. We don’t respond to each other. We just listen. And our hearts expand as we hear God’s Word expressed in different translations and in the lives of the others in the group. For me it’s a little like hearing a symphony, where the central theme of a movement is repeated by different instruments in different keys and different harmonies. A symphony grows from the individual voices of each instrument, and in the same way this communal reflection on scripture helps us absorb and respond to the richness of God’s Word more deeply than when any one of us prays the scripture alone.

And there is a good theological reason for that. We are created to live in community. The centrality of community for the Christian life is conveyed eloquently in the reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians this morning. ”May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

Paul encourages the young Christian community in Thessalonica to grow in the Christian life through their relationships with each other. The Thessalonians, and all the other churches to which Paul and his companions travelled in the early decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were being built up and formed more deeply in the Christian life as they lived and worshipped and cared for each other and for the poor and sick and hungry around them. They believed that Christ would return in their lifetime, and that nothing was more important than living as Jesus had taught them.

The gospels were written out of that early Christian community life. All the gospel writers were rooted in one community or another, and they all took for granted certain accepted truths – including that the world would end and Jesus would return before their generation had died out. But after two thousand years of waiting, we’re still here, so what can this possibly mean for us?

To answer that, I go back to our group lectio. This past Thursday, as six of us gathered to listen with the ear of our hearts to today’s gospel, some of the words and images that came to the surface were these:

Signs . . . Stand up . . . All the trees . . .  Leaves . . . Be on guard . . . Be alert . . . Stand

As I was praying with the gospel later, in preparation for this homily, those images kept coming back to me. They bring a message of hope in a passage that actually begins rather ominously, as though Jesus could foresee what was happening today with the war on terror, violence in our cities, the frightening impact of global warming and other environmental disasters. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of sea and the waves. . . . Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

Of course Jesus could foresee what would happen in our time because it was also happening in his time. Even the star which guided the magi to Bethlehem was a sign of something unusual in the heavens, and terrorists were hardly a new thing even in Jesus’ day. So this passage is very contemporary. Except for that bit about seeing ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ – where does that come from? No one has yet seen it in 2,000 years except perhaps some people we would consider half-crazed with religious enthusiasm. In spite of the predictions the ‘son of man’ has not returned and those who prepare for the end of the world have continued to be disappointed – or perhaps relieved.

So how can this passage be a source of hope to us?

First it proves over and over again that no human being can predict the end times. Only God knows, and our task is simply to be faithful to our commitment to follow Jesus in the best way each of us can do that, and to be agents of hope to one another – to stand, as the gospel says – to stand and to put forth new shoots like the trees in spring. Hope is not an easy thing. It requires realism and compassion. It needs to be as intentional as any spiritual discipline. Stand up – be alert – hope. And we do that together, as a communal spiritual practice.

Second, there is a way in which we do see the ‘son of man’ coming in power. Wherever the church, the body of Christ, is faithful to the gospel message, Jesus is there. Jesus is there in the midst of terrible tragedy whether domestic or local or international, whether human-made or of natural causes. He is there in the response of those who invite refugees into our country. He is there whenever one human being reaches out compassionately to someone in pain. He is there in the courage of our military and police and ordinary people who risk their lives in moments of grave danger.

And most of all he is there with a message of hope. After all the terrible predictions in this gospel passage, we come back to those strong words of hope:

Stand tall – like the trees. See the leaves – new life and growth.
Don’t be afraid. Be alert – pay attention to the signs and stand in the strength of God.

All these images imply community. Leaves don’t exist alone. Paying attention to the signs always happens when people listen to each other – just as we do in our group lectio. Not being afraid happens when there are others we stand with, and the same with being alert – we need company to do that.

These are strong messages of hope in scary times. We are a community. We are the body of Christ. As we enter into this Advent time of preparation for Christmas, when we remember the first coming of Christ, we do so with the advantage of hindsight. We know Christ has come. We know Christ has been crucified and risen. We know Christ does come again and will come again. And we know it together.

”May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”