Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Messiah is among you!

HOMILY FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT, Gaudete Sunday, December 11, 2011:
Patrick went to the mall to do his shopping just two days before Christmas. He drove around the parking lot for an eternity, but there wasn’t a space to be found. Finally, he prayed, “Lord, you know that I haven’t really practiced my faith in many years, but if you find me a parking spot I promise I’ll stop swearing, give up whiskey and gambling and I’ll go to church every Sunday!” Suddenly, lightning flashed and a parking space opened up right in front of him! And Patrick looked up to heaven and said, “Never mind, Lord. I found one.”

There is a story about a certain monastery that was going through a time of crisis. Some of the monks had left the monastery; no new candidates joined them in years; and people were no longer coming for prayer and spiritual direction as they used to. The few monks that remained became old, depressed and bitter in their relationship with one another. But, the abbot heard about a holy man; a hermit living alone in the woods and decided to consult him. He told the hermit how bad things had become and that only seven old monks remained. Praying on this, the hermit told the abbot that he has a secret for him: one of the monks currently living in his monastery was actually the Messiah, but He was living in such a way that no one could recognize Him.

With this revelation the abbot returned to his monastery, and recounted what the holy hermit told him to the community. The aging monks looked at each other in disbelief, trying to discern who among them could be the Christ. Could it be Brother Mark who prays all the time? But he has a holier-than-thou attitude toward others. Could it be Bother Joseph who is always ready to help? But he is always eating and cannot fast. The abbot reminded them that the Messiah had adopted some bad habits as a way of disguising His true identity. This only made them more confused and they could not figure out who was Christ among them. At the end of the meeting what each one knew for sure was that any of the monks, excepting himself, could be Christ.

From that day the monks began to treat one another with greater respect and humility, knowing that the person they were speaking to could, in fact, be Christ. They began to show more love for one another, their common life became more brotherly and their common prayer more fervent. Slowly people began to take notice of the new spirit in the monastery and began coming back for retreats and spiritual direction. Word began to spread and, before you know it, candidates began to show up and the monastery began to grow again in number as the monks grew in zeal and holiness. All this because a man of God drew their attention to a simple truth: that Christ was living in their midst as one of them.

Advent is, of course, a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord: recalling His coming to us as a Baby at Christmas; and His coming to us collectively at the end of time. Now, suppose that we were told, like the monks in our story, that the Christ whom we are waiting for is already here in our midst as one of us, what difference would that make?

In today’s Gospel John the Baptist tries to announce the same powerful message to the Jews of his time who were anxiously awaiting the coming of the Messiah. John tells them: “There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”

The reason the Jews of Jesus’ time could not recognize Him as the Messiah is that they had definite ideas on how the Messiah was going to come. The Messiah would suddenly descend from heaven in His divine power and majesty and establish His reign by physically destroying the enemies of Israel. No one would know where He came from, humanly speaking, because He came from God. So when finally Jesus came born of a woman like every other person, they could not recognize Him. He was too ordinary, too unimpressive, and so, for too many – they missed the very presence of God right in front of them.

The challenge remains to this day for us as well. We too have our definite expectations of what the presence of God in our midst should look like. This might be different for each one of us. And, it is good for us to anticipate God in our midst. But, not to the exclusion of seeing God as He is right in front of us in Word, in Sacrament, and perhaps where we miss Him most often - in ourselves and in every man, every woman we meet. After all, this is what our new translation of the Mass hopes we will see more clearly when we respond, “And with your spirit,” a recognition of God’s presence in those around us.

A group of young children were asked to answer the question: what is love? They gave many interesting answers, for example, 5 year-old Karl answered, “Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on cologne and they go out and smell each other.” But, my favorite answer came from 7 year-old Bobby who said, “Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”

We all know that “love” is just another word for God. St. John reminds us that “God is love and all who dwell in love dwell in God and God in them.” So, as our Christmas preparations perhaps take on a more hectic pace in these next few weeks, I have a secret for you, one of the members of our community is actually the Messiah, but they are living in such a way that they aren’t quickly recognized. So, how will we recognize this Godly presence in our midst? Let me paraphrase young Bobby and say that God is in our midst when we stop the hustle-and-bustle and just listen expecting to find Him all around us.

“There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” My friends, do you see what I see? Let us all pray that God will continue to open our eyes, our minds, our hearts, our very lives to see His presence in us and around us today, as we approach the Feast of Christmas, and always.

May the Lord give you peace.

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