Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Word of God comes to us


A newly ordained priest was sent to work as an assistant to an older priest. The young priest went to the older priest for some advice. “What should I preach about?” asked the young man. The only reply he got was, “Preach about five minutes.”

As a priest we are often faced with the challenge of trying to not let our Masses go to long. I have been in parishes where people even call the office to find out when the quick priest is saying Mass. That has never been me. People don’t want to sit for longer services. They get bored or they don't have much time. But it can be surprising that the same people who can’t sit for an hour long Mass will have no trouble going to a three hour concert or sporting event and still want more at the end. It causes us to wonder, how can people can sit in one place for three hours or more and listen with joy to music or watch sports but they cannot do the same when it comes to listening to the word of God at Mass?

I think the answer lies in something that we hear in today's Gospel. Why don't people hear the word of God with joy? People need to have a personal experience of God in their lives before they can hear the word of God with joy. Proclaiming the word of God to people who do not know God in a personal way, and who do not have a personal relationship with God, is like reading poetry to people who do not know what poetry is all about. They get bored very easily and are in a hurry to leave. How can such people move from a situation of being bored by the word of God to a situation of joy and enthusiasm in hearing the word of God? Today, John the Baptist gives us an example.

As we read in today's gospel, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In this short passage we find the three steps necessary to us from being lukewarm to enthusiastic in the faith. The three steps are (1) John went into the desert, (2) the word of God came to him, and (3) John left the desert and went about proclaiming the faith. We also must pass through these three stages to arrive at the point where we begin to live the life of faith with joy.

Stage 1 - We go into the desert. The desert is a place of being alone with God. We go into the desert when we take time off our normal job and household occupation to be with God in church, in prayer, in reading the word of God. The desert is the place where we encounter God. The desert is the place where we eliminate all of the more superficial things that distract us from our relationship with God, so we can truly listen to Him and have the clarity to tell Him what we need. But, we ourselves must take the first step to go into the desert, to reach out to God, to look for God. If we make that first step, He will meet us there.

Stage 2 - The word of God comes to us. Once we open our hearts to God, in the desert God Himself will come and fill us up. A saint once said that when we take one step to God, God takes two steps to us. At this stage God takes the initiative to come to us, to fill us, to renew us, to transform us, to remold us into God's image that we are supposed to be. This is the stage that some other Christian communities often refer to as being “born again”. If we have been lucky enough to have this type of experience with God, everything changes – we want to spend more and more time with God; we would spend the whole day alone with God in church, in prayer, in Bible reading. But unless we are going to embrace the life of a cloistered monk or nun, like John, we must go on to live our lives and carry out our duties in the family and in the society.

This brings us to stage 3. With this overwhelming love of God in our hearts, we are compelled to go about proclaiming the faith. Having experienced the goodness of the Lord in our own lives, our next desire is to share this experience with others. It's like we are wearing a tee-shirt with the inscription, “Wow, God is great!” People look at us and see the joy and peace and serenity that radiates from us and they would like to be like us. They would like to be our friends. And then we can in turn help them by showing them the pathway to the desert, the place where they, in their turn, will encounter God personally. The experience of God is like the experience of love. You can tell people about it but they will not understand what you are talking about until they themselves experience it.

In the opening prayer for this Mass we said, “God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy.” In order for this to happen, we must resolve, in this season of Advent, to take the first step, to head to the desert, to make room for God, make time for church, for prayer, for hearing the word of God, so that we too can be transformed into people exploding with love and joy for God and for each other.

May God give you peace!

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