Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Advent Reflection

“Advent” is a word formed of two Latin words “ad” and “venio”.  Literally translated, it means, “to come to”.  According to Church teachings, Advent is a time to prepare for the annual commemoration of Jesus’ coming to Earth as well as his second coming. 

This year the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website offered a calendar suggesting one Advent activity per day for such preparations.  The bishops’ specific suggestions are listed at the end of this article but can be summarized as follows:
  • 12 personal piety activities (43% of suggested activities)
  • 12 activities for personal and/or spiritual development (43%)
  • 2 activities to indoctrinate yourself in the bishops’ political lobbying efforts (7%)
  • 1 activity to pray for someone else (3.5%)
  • 1 activity for the church’s benefit (3.5%)
  • 0 activities to help other people (0%)

This list of activities confuses me…greatly.

Jesus came into the world to live and preach the two great Commandments: Love God, and love people.  He instructed the disciples to follow and actively imitate him – not follow and passively watch in awe and hushed reverence like spectators hiking a golf course adoring their favorite master.  He never told them to get down on their knees and worship him.  Actually, at the Transfiguration when some of the disciples wanted to initiate pious rituals, God redirected their enthusiasm, saying “This is my beloved son, listen to him (MT 17:5, MK 9:7).”  Note: God did not say, “Stand here in paralysis and worship him.” 

If you listen, you hear him teach that the Kingdom of God is at hand (MT 10:7) because God dwells among us (John 1:14).  God is not some distant, detached, unreachable concept but a reality in our midst, very integrated in our very selves and daily lives. 

The Kingdom of God is realized when the poor, whether or not you think they are “deserving”, receive needed food, clothing, shelter or simple human compassion.  It is when the sick receive care and compassion without judgment or qualifications.  It is when the lonely or imprisoned receive companionship and compassion.  It is when the marginalized are included and treated with compassion even if you don’t like them.  It is when erring people receive compassionate, unconditional loving forgiveness rather than judgment or dismissal, and they receive this not because we believe we are better people than them, but because we realize we are no better people than them (MT 9:1-7, MT 9:18-26, MT 9:35-36, MT 15:21-28, MT 15:29-31, MT 18:1-5,MT 20:29-34, MT 25:31-46, MK 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17, Luke 18:35-43, John 8:1-10 plus many, many more references). 

Jesus taught that when he comes again, our judgment will not be a written or oral examination on dogma as though we are defending a master degree thesis or a doctoral dissertation.  It won’t be an evaluation of our performance of piety rituals, as though scoring a gymnast, diver or figure skater on execution and technical difficulty.  It will quite simply be this: Did you compassionately feed the hungry, welcome strangers, clothe people, care for the sick, accompany the lonely, and include the marginalized (MT 25:31-46)?  And did you do this especially for those whom you disliked, who hated you, and with whom you disagreed (LK 6:27-32)? 

Jesus prayed, not in pious paralysis or as an end in itself; he prayed unceasingly to know what to do.  Then he did it.  And the things he did were focused on caring for others, not on himself.  He calls us to do likewise.  Why don’t the bishops?

As I look at the bishops’ recommended activities, I see a lot of inwardly focused activities.  I see a lot of personal piety.  I see activities that exploit Advent, trying subtly to manipulate people to join the bishops in their secular political lobbying activities.  I see only one activity that focuses outside of self or church.  I see no recommended actions to help people other than retired religious, which is an inward assistance to the church.  Why is this? 

Amongst the orthodox and conservative crowds, including the pope and many clergy, there is renewed focus on various piety rituals venerating Jesus.  Eucharistic adorations, perpetual adoration chapels, and other pious devotions are being re-emphasized.  For example, yesterday I saw a YouTube video of a California parish that took the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance to a shopping mall and waved it around while people dropped to their knees in adoration.  However, they did not feed the crowds by distributing communion.   They worshiped Jesus, but did they follow him?

It is good and fitting if staring at the Eucharist inspires people to “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor (MT 19:21, MK 10:21, Luke 18:22)”, “Cure the sick (MT 10:8), “Judge not lest ye be judged (MT 7:1)”, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (LK 6:27)”, or forgive others “seven times seventy times (MT 18:21-22)”, etc…  However, I’m afraid more and more often it is becoming an end in itself as many Catholics and most Catholic leaders increase piety efforts while decreasing efforts that truly care for fellow humans.  They seem to increase judgment and decrease unconditional forgiveness.  They make excuses to cleave to their personal wealth and possessions rather than “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (MK 12:17)”, or relinquishing their wealth to care for others - outside of token gestures that assuage consciences.  They vilify their enemies rather than love or help them.  Sometimes they even seem to invent enemies to vilify.   

The priest, Aaron, fashioned a golden calf (Ex 32:1-8) that the people worshiped.  Moses, who was not a priest, smashed it.  Are today’s priests imitating Aaron their priestly predecessor or Moses?  When we stare at a monstrance or tabernacle fashioned of gold, are we listening to God’s instruction so as to actively imitate Jesus?  Or are we repeating the error of the early Israelites by piously worshiping these tools as golden calves? 

I appreciate that we believe these tools hold the real presence of Christ.  But, when Christ comes again, will he find us worshiping our own golden calves, worshiping his deceased corpse entombed and imprisoned in gold, or will he find us following him, alive freely working amongst all people?  Keep in mind Jesus warned, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather (MT 24:28).” 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Recommended Advent Activities
Personal Piety Activities (I categorized them)
Use an advent wreath
Pray the Rosary (2 times)
Pray the Immaculate Conception prayer
Pray the Juan Diego prayer
Bless your Christmas tree
Pray the Our Lady of Guadalupe Prayer
Pray the St. John of Cross Prayer
Set up your Nativity set and bless it
Pray the O Antiphons
Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Personal and/or Spiritual Development
Read the Bible (2)
Learn about a saint (2)
Read Benedict XVI reflections (3)
Learn about Human Rights Violations
Learn about Catholic Social Justice and how you might include it in your daily life
Learn about Catholic teaching on criminal justice
Learn about Fair Trade shopping and consider adopting these practices
Read and reflect upon the Christmas Readings

Promoting the bishops’ political lobbyist agenda
Learn about “Faithful Citizenship”
Learn about “Catholics and Religious Liberty”

Pray for someone else
Pray for those with HIV/AIDS

Do something for the church
Donate to the religious retirement fund

Do something for someone else
No activities listed

1 comment:

  1. While I do think constant spiritual development important, you are right to point out the absolute need to respond to the "love your neighbor" side of the great commandment. Early Church father Origen, commenting on MT 13: "because of the sick they were sick and because of the hungry they were hungry...
    Dorothy Day knew the right way by instinct, don't you think? We're better off if we do, since we haven't been led to this much lately by our spiritual leaders.