Third Monday in Advent

Balaam by Ben-Zion (1897-1987) “This Advent, forgive, forgive, and forgive. Draw others close to you. Draw yourself near to other people. In bridging gaps we draw nearer to God who this season draws ever closer to us.”—Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“Balaam did not go as before to seek omens but turned toward the wilderness.”Numbers 24:2

The story in Numbers 22 of Balaam and his ass is a favorite for Sunday school. The antics of the donkey who can see the angel of God while Balaam remains blind lends itself to classic comedy. In fact, it is the donkey who is actually the prophet because God speaks through her to correct Balaam.

Balak, the Moab king, is surrounded by Israelites who are prepared to attack. Balak has decided to fight fire with fire. He calls for Balaam, a Yahwist priest, to curse the Yahwist army. Balak thinks he’s got Balaam in his pocket because Balak can’t imagine anyone refusing money. But Balaam’s curse on the Israelites cannot be bought. Instead, God stuffs Balaam’s mouth with poems blessing Israel, which he then spews over the gathered army.

In this instance, the Moab king recognizes defeat and withdraws. The battle is won with poetry and without a single death.

The Christ-figure in this story is the donkey. She obeys God. She does everything in her power to keep Balaam on the path of righteousness. She submits to unjustified violence when Balaam beats her. And she speaks the words of God honestly. Filipino priest and activist Karl Gaspar would say this story exemplifies the “weapons of the weak.” The slave animal acts with honor and the war is won with weapons of beauty.

Pay attention today to the most overlooked living creature or person in your path. What example might they teach?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Third Sunday in Advent

“Christ used the flesh and blood of Mary for his life on earth, the Word of love was uttered in her heartbeat. Christ used his own body to utter his love on earth…In this the Christian life is a sacramental life. This Advent God invites you to touch, and taste, and smell. Listen to your body this Advent. Stretch your senses and taste and see that the Lord is good.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’ Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.’”Matthew 11:2-6

This is Guadete Sunday. We light the third Advent candle as a sign of joy. It is to remind us that when we dream like God dreams—wild visions flowing over with grace, and justice, and mercy—then our road will be lit by this third candle.

Sometimes it is hard for us to feel the scriptures in our bones until we see them acted out. In Venezuela I met a nun who for twelve years had worked in a poor neighborhood located on a steep hillside high over Caracas. Her name was Sr. Begoña. She had been a religious Sister of the Sacred Heart for many years in Spain before moving to Venezuela.

Sr. Begoña talked about the change that she had seen in the self-image of the poor since the government began prioritizing social programs for “the least of these.” Initially, she was very skeptical of the Venezuelan president. He had a military background and she’d grown up in Spain under General Franco. She had no use totalitarian leadership. She was also skeptical of how successful government programs could be in helping the poor. Would they create dependence? What happens when a new administration comes into office? “But,” said Sr. Begoña, “I have lived in this neighborhood for a long time and the poor were for the government programs and for the president. I decided that I would take my chances with the poor, with the people. They were first to understand the new national project.” She said that if the government programs were a mistake she would still rather err with the people than against them.

Not long after making this decision, the neighborhood people invited her to a big march in support of the national agenda to give preferential option to the poor. The day arrived and hundreds from her neighborhood walked the two hours down the hillside into the Caracas city center. Along the way they were joined by thousands of other very poor people from the slums that ring Caracas. There was singing and chanting and laughing—a palpable energy of joy, hope, and possibility. “I always wondered what it meant in the Gospel that the blind saw, the deaf heard and the lame walked,” said Sr. Begoña, “but on that day I was walking with poor people who were blind and deaf and lame. Suddenly, I began to understand—because they were seeing and hearing and walking.”

Where do you see the gospel brought to life?

Ad……vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

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Second Friday in Advent

Fire Dance by Elena Kotliarker

“Till like a fire there appeared the prophet Elijah whose words were as a flaming furnace. Their staff of bread he shattered, in his zeal he reduced them to straits; by God’s word he shut up the heavens and three times brought down fire.”—Sirach 48: 1-3

The book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) is a collection of folk wisdom interspersed with songs of admiration for great figures in the Hebrew tradition. The scientific era has taught us to devalue folk wisdom, but the bible demonstrates that the common wisdom of poor people should be valued alongside the learned wisdom of the priests and prophets. The book of Sirach is a storehouse of shared stories. Stories are the bones of a culture. Without stories, things fall apart. Life no longer makes sense.

Sirach 48 is a praise poem honoring the prophet Elijah who used what might be called natural magic or earth-based science to defeat the priests of Baal. Elijah’s dedication to Yahweh opened him to receive Yahweh’s wisdom on how to win this particular battle. To win the hearts and minds of the people who worshiped a rain god it was necessary to defeat the rain god at his own game. So Yahweh demonstrated superiority by controlling water. When the priests of Baal lit a fire to sacrifice a bull, Elijah called down rain to put it out. And when the priests of Baal called for a downpour of rain, Elijah “shut up the heavens” causing a drought in the land.

The setting of these power struggles and the weapons used are foreign to us—but the basic dynamics are not. Some people interpret these Old Testament battles as the One True Religion against the Other. Jesus, however, drew the line differently. There are those who use power and institutions to oppress the poor and those who do not.

In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, Jesus’ students ask him, “Why do the scribes say Elijah has to come first?” In typical Jesus fashion, he ignores the narrow-mindedness of their question and goes to the heart of it. It is not important what the scribes have said in the past. Elijah has already returned and the Messiah is now among them. This is what they must realize. This is what they must open their hearts and minds to understand.

What power struggles are present in your own life? What wisdom do you need to face them?

Ad … vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Second Wednesday in Advent

"The Holy Thing" by Bruce Manwaring
“The Holy Thing” by Bruce Manwaring

“Everyone should open their heart very wide to joy, should welcome it and let it be buried very deeply in them; and they should wait the flowering with patience. Of course, the first ecstasy will pass, but because in real joy Christ grows in us, the time will come when joy will put forth shoots and the richness and sweetness of the person who rejoiced will be Christ’s flowering.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.’”Luke 1:26-28

The eight-day Jewish “Festival of Lights” called Hanukkah starts next week. It commemorates the victory of the Maccabees in reclaiming the temple in Jerusalem’s from the Greek-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. As the people prepared to dedicate the temple, they realized they only had enough purified oil to kindle the menorah for a single day. Miraculously, the light continued to burn for eight days. Each evening of Hanukkah one more menorah candle is lit with a special blessing. The candles are not to be “used” for light, but only for enjoyment, savoring their beauty.

“We will prevail through the dark night,” sings Rabbi Shefa Gold in her Hanukkah song from Zechariah, “but not by might, and not by power, but by Your Spirit. These are the words of God.”

Jewish midrash tells an interesting story on how the first menorah was made. Apparently, Moses had a difficulty remembering God’s instructions on menorah making. Every time Moses left the mountain he would forget the pattern, so God engraved the design into the flesh of Moses palm. Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg says that after this experience Moses’ hands took on new power. Later, when Moses instructs Joshua to lead the Israelite force against Amalek, Moses does not direct with his staff but only his open hands. “In this gesture, according to one midrash,” writes Zornberg, “ Moses models prayer to his people fighting below. In a surrealistic description, their involvement in battle is refigured as a miming of Moses’ prayerful gestures: ‘they saw Moses kneeling down, and they knelt down, falling upon his face and they fell upon their faces, spreading their hands to heaven.’” Whenever the people modeled Moses, they prevailed.

What a powerful image of nonviolent resistance! In the midst of a battle, all the Israelites knelt down to pray as Moses instructed them. “As long as the Israelites gazed upwards and submitted their hearts to God in heaven, they would prevail,” says the Mishna Rosh Hashana, “and if not, they would fail.”

What healing of the masculine to you need in your life?

Ad … vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Guadalupe Ramirez: Our Lady of Guadalupe (video)

A 9-minute video with Sr. Guadalupe Ramirez, MCDP, on Our Lady of Guadalupe. It’s part of the Catholic Women Preach video series.

“I have come to the conclusion that whenever I am presented with a new challenge, I want to ask ‘why me?’ I need to change that and ask, ‘Why not me?’ So I ask you, ‘Why not you?’”–Sr. Ramirez, MCDP

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

"Our Lady of Louisiana" by Rick Delanty
“Our Lady of Louisiana” by Rick Delanty

“Christ has lived each one of our lives. He has faced all our fears, suffered all our griefs, overcome all our temptations, labored in all our labors, loved in all our loves, and died in all our deaths. Through Jesus, God knows our hidden selves, and still God delights to be one with us.”—Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain, their tongues are parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the broad valleys; I will turn the desert into a marshland, and the dry ground into springs of water.”Isaiah 41: 17-18

It was a cool, dry day with a breeze when I walked through the market that surrounds the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Everything related to Guadalupana was for sale. T-shirts, bumper stickers, ash trays, rosaries, plastic roses, 3-D posters with eyes that followed you as you passed by. I passed under an allee of riotous red, pink, and orange bougainvillea into the Cathedral plaza and finally into the church itself. Downstairs is the painting of the Virgin that appeared to Cuatitloatzin (Juan Diego), a Nahuat Indian in 1531.

To view the painting you must stand on a moving walkway that takes you past the painting. That day several viejitas were riding the walkway on their knees, then returning to the front and riding it again. My friend told me that I had to prepare my heart before passing before the painting. She translated the message engraved on the marble wall. Among other things, it said that one must not approach the Virgin of Guadalupe with a list of demands. On the contrary, one must approach her with an open heart and a clear mind so that one can hear and fully receive the message of the Holy Spirit.

“That light, does it rise from the earth or fall from the sky?” writes Eduardo Galeano in his reflections on Cuatitloatzin and the Virgin of Guadalupe. “Is it a lightning bug or a bright star. It doesn’t want to leave the slopes of Tepeyac and in the dead of night persists, shining on the stones and entangling itself in the branches. Hallucinating, inspired, the naked Indian Juan Diego sees it: The light of lights opens up for him, breaks into golden and ruby pieces, and in its glowing heart appears that most luminous of Mexican women, she who says to him in Nahuatl language: ‘I am the mother of God.’”

What healing of the feminine do you need in your life?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Second Sunday in Advent

“The law of growth is rest. We must be content in winter to wait patiently through the bleak season in which we experience nothing of the sweetness of the Divine Presence, believing that these seasons when we feel most empty are most filled with a still small Christ-life growing within us.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”Romans 15:4

Youngest Child: What does the second candle mean?

Oldest Person: We light the first Advent candle to remind us of the promise of the prophets that a Messiah would come, bringing peace with justice and love to the world. We light the second candle to remind us, and God, that we are still waiting for the Messiah, patiently and actively like a farmer waiting for the sprouting seed.

“There is great virtue in practicing patience in small things,” writes the 20th century English mystic Caryll Houselander, “until the habit of Advent returns to us.” The disciplines of Advent are ones that teach us to do small things greatly, to do few things but do them well, to love in particular, rather than in general. This habit of small “successes” generates creativity, a sense of well being, a generosity of spirit rooted in satisfaction. It generates hope.

The Greek word for hope is elpis. In the Greek pantheon of spirits Elpis was the female personification of hope. When Pandora opened the jar given to her by Zeus, the spirits of disorder flew free into the world. Elpis remained in the jar, thus preventing humans from suicidal despair. Hope is depicted as a young woman carrying lilies in her arms.

Christians engaged in social transformation often get discouraged. We are acutely aware of the evils of the world. Sometimes we despair. Sometimes we allow our anger at injustice to be the source of energy in our lives. Sometimes we actually create despair and depression in our lives when we only fight losing battles. It is mandatory that we yoke ourselves to disciplines that generate hope.

Walking on the streets of a Las Vegas suburb, I met an 8-year-old boy out riding his bike. The bike was a clunker and the boy was wearing hand-me-downs. I asked him, “How’s it going?” “Great!” he replied. “I’m in my ninth week of having fun!” I laughed and laughed. Then I took out my date book to mark out my own nine weeks of fun.

Having fun is not the same as having hope, but they are related. Dipping in the deep refreshing pool of joy and contentment is one reminder that the world and everything in it—good and bad—belongs to God. It is our work to live in “day-tight compartments”—receiving our daily bread, doing good, offering hospitality, choosing compassion and forgiveness, serving the “least of these,” singing, praying, and, when night comes, giving our bodies and souls over to sleep.

What habits do you have that generate hope?

Ad……vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

First Saturday in Advent

“The story of Joseph’s bewilderment when he realized that his future wife was going to have a baby is well known, and it is well known too that Mary did not explain. Sometimes there is little to be gained by trying to explain, especially when misunderstandings arise from Christ conceived in us. At that time, in that Advent moment, God’s voice is silent within us; it is simply the sound of our heartbeat. Love is more effective than words.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.”—Isaiah 29:18

In Jose Saramago’s allegorical novel Blindness he uses a quotation from the Book of Exhortations as the epigram: “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.”

The metaphor of “giving sight to the blind” is meant to be used as just that…a metaphor. Isaiah is not talking about physical blindness or deafness. Often when one physical sense is lost then acuity is heightened in other senses. There are however other kinds of blindness and deafness that both Isaiah and Jesus address. For one, the blindness of ignorance, specifically ignorance of Torah (“the scroll”). It is important to study scripture. You don’t have to be a “master” or academic, but you need a hunger for the text. There are many things that dull our hunger, our desire, for the Word. There are many things that we allow to prevent us from exploring the question “Who am I really?

Near the end of Saramago’s novel, when the blind people are getting their vision back, a character says, “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind. Blind but seeing. Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

In Advent we brave the darkness. In Advent we ask God to give us “second sight” or true sight. In Advent we dare to open our ears to the deep song of prayer that under girds all creation.

Take time today to gaze at something beautiful.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

First Thursday in Advent

Near San Salvador, 2011.

“Trust in the LORD forever! For the LORD is an eternal Rock. He humbles those in high places, and the lofty city he brings down; He tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust. It is trampled underfoot by the needy, by the footsteps of the poor.”–Isaiah 26:1-6

“Our baptismal vocation to holiness is intensified by God’s creative life hidden within us this Advent, while at the same time more and more things are demanding our time and energy. More shopping. More travel. More planning. Pressure builds, and it is increasingly difficult to find quiet time for our Advent-life. As we brush elbows with more and more people who are more and more anxious for the season, we hear again our call to simplicity. The great mystery of this Advent is that our personal holiness touches the lives of all those with whom we come into contact. When we are made holy as individuals, it is the whole world the reaps the reward. Being faithful to our baptismal vocation is an honest gift of self that we can share with our family and friends this Advent. Be faithful to God who has called you by name. Other blessings will follow.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

First Wednesday in Advent

Moses on the Mountain of God (1991) by Albert Herbert.

“Our alternative to dehumanizing, scientific, economic objectivity is not sentimentality or shapeless love. It is objective love—a dispassionate passion. It is the passion of God for all people—regardless of habit or custom, race or disposition, gender or economic status. It is a daring and brave position, but it is one that sides with God who stretches our hearts and minds this Advent to see the stranger, the dispossessed, and the outcast, and invites us to love. O God, enlarge and warm the caverns of our hearts this Advent.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine … And the Lord will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.”—Isaiah 25: 6-7

The God who creates and destroys is fundamentally ambiguous to our human mind. It is an assault on our attempt to create moral order and coherency in the world. It is an assault on our need to control.

The mountain of God is sometimes compared to a nursing breast. The people are entranced by it. It is their whole world. It provides essential nourishment. They can’t live without it. They are completely vulnerable and dependent on this mountain. It is this dependency that creates fear. What if the life-giver becomes the life-taker? This fear may then generate separation and, eventually, individuality.

It is this process, which is repeated many times through one’s life, which makes us distinct and unique.

How can you learn to embrace creation and destruction, life and death, certainty and doubt?

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s Ad……vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..