December 15 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Third Sunday of Advent
Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Theme: Something about dark places perhaps – particularly if we are sticking with John the Baptist this week. Possibilities include "When the Light Goes Out" (or "When the Power Goes Off"); "From the Depths of Despair", or "From a Dark Place". Or perhaps "Is He the One?". Anything that can rescue us from Santa sentimentality and reminds us that Christmas is ultimately about Ultimate Reality.
Introduction. Once again the formula this week is the same. Isaiah gives us the overarching framework as he looks far, far into the future God has had in mind from the beginning. John the Baptist reminds us that we live in the Now – particularly when we are in pain or distress. And the ever-practical James exhorts us not to get too far ahead of ourselves – or too lost in lofty dreams and tempting illusions. Patience is required – without too much grumbling!
Background. Some rather disjointed reflections to get us underway this week. I begin with some more helpful insights from Fr Thomas Keating, in a short but powerful collection of mini-homilies he has published under the title of Awakenings. [That title in itself is worth pondering.] Fr Keating talks about the Christmas-Epiphany experience, for which Advent is the Season of Preparation, and he reminds us what we are about as we follow the liturgy through this period:
The purpose of the readings in the liturgy is not so much instruction as demonstrations of the power of grace. They are parables of the power of grace as we experience it now. We are exposed in the liturgy to sapiential teaching, that is, teaching that is designed to awaken our awareness of the grace of Christ at work within us. As the liturgical community celebrates divine light and life, our participation presupposes that we are experiencing it. In the lessons we hear our own biographies.
At Christmas, we celebrate the event of the Word becoming flesh. The historical implications are predominant in that feast. At the Feast of Epiphany, which is the transmission of divine light, we are celebrating the spiritual significance of the Christmas event. Epiphany is the celebration of our union with the Word made flesh and our experience of that union. The liturgy presents us with readings that are historically disconnected but which describe our assimilation to the mystery of the Word made flesh, our awakening to the divine life within us and our capacity to transmit it. "Today" in the liturgy means the transmission of the mystery as immediate spiritual experience. The Christian religion is a life to be lived. It starts, falters, fails, rises, grows, and eventually matures through all kinds of vicissitudes. We must know how to listen to the liturgy not only as inspiration and encouragement, but also as empowerment.
There is far too much in this passage to comment on here, but I do urge you to take time to ponder it carefully. I can think of no better introduction to a new liturgical year than this teaching from one of the founders of the modern school of Centring Prayer. Week by week the challenge to each one of us as participants in the liturgy (not spectators or auditors of it!) is to truly hear OUR story and to reflect on OUR spiritual experiences. To seek to learn how to hear God's will for us and for the world as Isaiah did; to acknowledge that the doubts and questions that troubled John the Baptist in his place of darkness are our doubts and questions in our places of darkness. And to know that James is talking directly to us and urges us to develop the virtue of patience and lose the vice of grumbling.
A second, related source of reflection for me this week has been the death of Nelson Mandela, and his extraordinary life story. Like John, there must have been times in his prison cell where darkness threatened to overcome him. As a young man he sought justice through the law and through peaceful protest; but that didn't work. He turned to acts of sabotage and violent struggle and that didn't work either. He went to prison bitter and angry and defiant. He emerged 27 years later to demonstrate to his nation and to the world the power of love and forgiveness. He had learned patience; he had renounced all forms of grumbling – he had learned through experience and proceeded to teach out of that experience. His words carried conviction because they were incarnated in his flesh. Like Isaiah he kept his eyes on the vision of a better future and a better world; like John he had periods of darkness; like James he was able to root all this in the here and now. How appropriate that his passing came in this Season of Advent.
And thirdly, and more surprisingly, I have found myself reflecting on the marvel of time-lapse photography, much loved by makers and presenters of Natural History documentaries. I am not a photographer, and I certainly can't pretend to understand the technology involved in these miraculous productions; but somehow they can show us in 20-30 seconds natural processes that in real time took hours, days or even longer to complete. And as I have once again marvelled at the prophecies of Isaiah it seems to me that his prophetic vision can best be understood as a form of time-lapse visual recording, made all the more remarkable because it is seeing that which has not yet happened! In short beautiful poems taking no more than a minute or two to read he describes what is to happen over a time-span of hundreds of years. And John's problems are precisely our own: we try to understand such teaching as if it were set in real time. "Last week" John announced the arrival of the Messiah – the coming of the Kingdom of God. "This week" he is doubting himself by doubting Jesus. Why? Because he hadn't understood that the Messianic prophecies were time-lapse visions, speeded up thousands of times to make it seem that what will in real time take thousands of years to reach final fruition will all be over before the next advert break.
Through time-lapse photography we can see a seed germinate, grow to maturity, blossom and fruit in seconds. As a gardener who hates delayed gratification I only wish that was possible. James knew better. A priestly colleague once assured me that Centring Prayer was a waste of time: he had tried it once and it didn't work. He obviously believed in time-lapse prayer! As the famous cheese ads used to remind us, "Good things take time." (Come to think of it, that would make a good theme for Advent, don't you think?)
Isaiah. Taken by itself this passage would not seem to be a voice crying out in the darkness, as we have today from John. But it most certainly is, as a brief glance that chapter 36 will tell us. This wonderful vision of ultimate redemption, wholeness and salvation is proclaimed as the storm clouds of Assyrian invasion are about to break over the people of Judah. Notice that the vision is both an assurance of a wonderful future and an exhortation to stand firm in the horror of the present. Notice, too, that this vision is not only about the immediate future – the Assyrians did not succeed in this invasion; but no sooner was that threat over than a fresh threat arose from the Babylonians. Defeat and exile were to follow. The vision looked far beyond even that catastrophe. Some believe it did not reach its fulfilment until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948: others believe it hasn't reached its fulfilment even now.
Taking It Personally.
· Can you recall being in a dark place, assailed by doubt and fear? How did you emerge from it? What was your source of hope? Who encouraged you and how?
· Is it helpful to focus on the "afterwards" when you are in a crisis, or does it strike you as escapism – a denial of the reality of your present circumstances?
· Reflect on the life and times of your grandparents; did they have it tougher than your parents? Now reflect on the life and times of your parents; did they have it tougher than you? If you have children and grandparents, continue this exercise through those generations. Is there a general pattern or direction? Are things getting better or worse, or staying much the same?
· Do you hope that things will be better for the people of this country in 100 years time, or do you give them no thought? What about in 500 years time?
· Reflect again on the passage from Fr Keating. In what way is this reading from Isaiah describing your own experience, or telling you a part of your own biography?
James. Always a man of (relatively) few words, but always worth paying attention to. Notice how he picks up some of the themes of Isaiah. "Until the coming of the Lord" reminds us that the waiting goes on, after the birth, death, resurrection and ascension. We are still awaiting the coming of the Lord – a coming that is not yet complete. So we require patience – the patience of the gardener who knows that in real time there is always a period between sowing and harvesting. This interim period is also a time to "strengthen our hearts" – to grow in love as well as patience. And to quit grumbling at the manifest faults of our fellow travellers – to leave the task of judging them to the One whom we are awaiting. We shouldn't just read the prophets, we should follow their example. Barack Obama made much same point to those who are willing to eulogise Nelson Mandela without following his example.
Taking It Personally.
· How patient are you with yourself? How patient are you with others?
· What have you learned about yourself during the week as the news media have focused our attention on Mandela? Has he made you "want to be a better person", as Obama put it?
· Are you given to grumbling – particularly about others in your local church (yes, including the vicar!)? (Or if you are the vicar, do you grumble about some of the parishioners?)
· In what way might you "strengthen your heart" this Advent Season and beyond?
· Reflect again on the passage from Fr Keating. In what way is this passage from James describing your own experience or telling you part of your own biography?
Matthew. What a contrast between the bold, blunt character we met last week as John appeared, ready to take on the world, and the doubting, questioning one we hear from indirectly this week. From hero to zero, to quote the modern headline. Last week he was so sure of himself that he took on the religious elite who turned up among the huge crowds that were hanging on his every word. (Again, my mind drifts back to the memorial service this week: how many of the world leaders who attended are quite so in favour of liberation and justice in their own lands?) This week John is a voice crying in a different sort of wilderness. He sends emissaries to ask Jesus the same question each of us must ask from time to time. Is he the one or is there some other? And notice what Jesus does in response. He invites them to look at what he is doing (not listen to what he is saying). And then he turns to the crowds and asks them a good Advent question: what are you looking for?
Taking It Personally.
· What are you looking for? Where are you looking for it? What have you found so far?
· If someone asked you if you are a follower of Christ, what would you say? What would you point to in your life to show that you are?
· To what or to whom are you most looking forward this Christmas?
· Reflect again on the passage from Fr Keating. In what way is this passage from Matthew describing your own experience or telling you part of your biography?