Saturday, December 6, 2008

Begin Again

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 7, 2008:

“John the Baptist appeared in the desert…[and] he fed on locusts and wild honey.” This Sunday, after a week of turkey sandwiches, turkey casserole, turkey-a-la-king, turkey burgers, turkey pot pie and turkey surprise… locusts and honey might just sound pretty good. Today, as we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent our Scriptures find us in the desert, with a strange and disheveled figure, John the Baptist, dining on strange food and proclaiming that we need to make ourselves ready for the Lord.

We tend to think of John the Baptist as “The Voice” – the forerunner, the prophet, the one crying in the wilderness. And he is. But I’d like us to think of him another way today. Not merely as prophet, but profoundly as a figure of great hope. More than an ominous, fearsome figure, he is also, to my mind, the Saint of Second Chances. He wanders into the desert of our lives and invites today us to start over, to begin again.

It is appropriate that as we begin a new Church year, we will be listening this year to the Gospel of Mark. This is the Gospel that most scholars believe was the very first one written. And we start today with the same words that start the book of Genesis, “The beginning.”

And what is the message from the beginning? The message is: make yourselves new. Begin again. Something is about to happen that will change everything. This is your chance at a fresh start, to make things right with God. That is John the Baptist’s message – the message of the Saint of Second Chances.

And like all of the second chances we’ve probably ever experiences in life, John doesn’t necessarily appear when or how we expect him to. This preacher isn’t Joel Osteen or Jimmy Swaggart in a silk suit and an air-conditioned arena, with a flashy presentation and 30 piece worship band. No, John the Baptist is instead rough and wild and even frightening – perhaps a madman yelling in the desert. But then again, God doesn’t always enter into our lives when or how we want him to either.

I recently came across the story of a 16-year-old Korean boy named Philip Kim. During the Korean War, he was one of many boys rounded by and arrested for refusing to join the People’s Volunteer Army of North Korea. They took him to prison and were going to execute him. Philip Kim stood there, lined up with other boys, facing a wall, and he closed his eyes, waiting for the gunshot that would end his life. But at the last minute, an officer yelled for them to stop. The soldier noticed that one of the other boys lined up against the wall was holding a rosary, and was praying. Because of this, the execution was called off and the boys lives were spared.

That moment changed – that unexpected second chance – everything. At the time, Philip wasn’t a Christian. But he never forgot what happened, what had saved his life. Not long after, he converted, and came to America. He married, raised a family, became active in his local Catholic church. He settled in San Antonio, Texas, where he opened his home to other Korean immigrants to hold Mass. Those Masses led him to help establish the first Korean Catholic church in San Antonio.

His love for the church led him eventually to being ordained a deacon and he served for many years. Several years later, his wife died after a long battle with cancer. Before she died, she gave Philip her blessing to become a priest. And he did. He was ordained a Catholic priest at the age of 72 and served until he died just a few weeks ago. Fr. Philip owed his remarkable life to a second chance nearly 60 years ago. And he didn’t let it get away. He used that second chance to make his life matter.

What about the rest of us? During this season of Advent, John the Baptist calls out to us, imploring us. You have another chance, he tells us. Seize it. Repent. Prepare. To paraphrase Isaiah: level the mountains and fill in the valleys. Make what is crooked straight. Like that boy facing a wall, and facing death…we too can have a second chance and start over and make our lives matter – deeply.

So, think of those mountains and valleys, those winding roads that cut through every life. And think of the wild and untamed man in the desert. He tells us it’s not too late to change. He is the saint of “I’m sorry. Let’s talk.” He is the saint of “Where did I go wrong?” and “How can I make this right?” He is the saint of “I’m addicted and I need help.” He is the saint of “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” He is the saint of the slammed door being re-opened…the phone being picked up…the fences being mended…the wound being healed.

Last week, we began not just the season of Advent, but a new Church year. So consider this a time for making New Year’s resolutions. For resolving to live differently. Resolving to make room for God. Listen to the Saint of Second Chances – and take hold of every one that comes your way. The dark days of December, after all, are not an ending. As Mark reminds us, they are “the beginning.”

May God give you peace.

(based on reflections from The Deacon's Bench.)

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