Archive for the Advent Category

O Come Emmanuel: Everyday Incarnation

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 23, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

incarnationO Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.

There is only one Incarnation, but there are infinite signs of emmanuel.

I am struck today by the text from Isaiah that is the source for this antiphon: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). The name of the coming Lord was foretold, but it wasn’t a proper name so much as a description of what God was about to do and what God has intended from all eternity.

The pregnant young woman, Mary of Nazareth, was a sign that fits the description of Isaiah, but she hasn’t been nor remains the only sign of emmanuel, God-with-us. If we are able to open the eyes of our hearts to see the presence of God around us, we know too can see signs of a divine love so powerful that it could not be contained simply to Godself, but must overflow into creation and in the ultimate expression of love in God’s becoming one with us.

Some years ago I wrote an article titled, “A Newborn and St. Bonaventure’s The Tree of Life as Incarnational Encounters.” In it I talked about how the experience of meeting and holding my godson, the firstborn of my two best friends from college, had been for me an experience of the Incarnation, of emmanuel. I saw reflected in the preciousness of this new life the reality of a mystery beyond words, a mystery that lies deep within each of us in the very contingent existence we experience. We didn’t have to be. Nothing did. Yet, God loved each of us and all of creation into existence.

In addition to experiencing the Incarnation in meeting this newborn child, I also recalled how St. Bonaventure in his treatise The Tree of Life offers a mystical reflection that would later serve as the foundation for and become popularized by Ignatian imaginative prayer and reflection. Bonaventure invites his readers to enter into the Gospel and imagine themselves there at the crib, alongside Christ, at the cross, and to experience what is being experienced in particular moments of God’s history with us as one like us.

Bonaventure’s reflections on the nativity are particularly striking for their vividness and beauty. His is a guided meditation: “Do not now turn away from the brilliance of that star in the east which guides you. Become a companion of the holy kings… adore, confess and praise this humble God lying in a manger.” He then invites us to “embrace that divine manger; press your lips upon and kiss the boy’s feet.” To kiss the newborn baby’s feet like parents admiring the new life they’ve co-created is something that has always stayed with me. It is real and lovely and far-less-abstract than talking about “keeping ‘Christ’ in Christmas.”

This sort of reflection helps me to think about the everyday experiences –- like new parents with their child or the love between partners or the beauty of creation –- that helps reveal and remind us of emmanuel. Christmas then is not simply a once-a-year time for presence and songs and “keeping ‘Christ’ in Christmas,” but is the starkest reminder of how Christ is already in Christmas and the day after Christmas and the day after that!

How better could we celebrate what we believe about the Incarnation than shifting our awareness to the presence of God-with-us still? May this Christmas be the beginning of putting “Christ” back in the “everyday!” And may we all bear witness to the infinite signs of presence and coming of Emmanuel.

Photo: Stock

O King of All the Nations: We Are Not One

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons with tags , , , , on December 22, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

international_flags2O King of all nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of humankind, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

Anytime there is a tragedy or a triumph the expression “We Are One” seems to appear on placards and t-shirts, perhaps second only to the phrase “never forget.” Yet, I don’t believe that there is a less-truthful expression of reality out there. Rather than turning toward our inherent unity, that which we all share in common by way of source and future, we tend to bicker, fight, steal, maim, and abuse. This happens within the human family, but it also happens beyond it — a reality starkly aware to those paying attention to our ecological crises.

The reason that “We Are One” is so disingenuous has to do, I believe, with the second part of the first phrase in today’s antiphon: “the only joy of every human heart.” The reason that we are not one stems from, as Augustine would say, our disordered affections, the loving of things in a way disproportionate to their value. Augustine’s perennial concern was that things and people are mistakenly loved in this life as if they were God. God is be loved above all else, to be the only joy of every human heart, yet we subordinate God to material things like money and power or we subordinate God even to good things like those close to us.

Augustine does not think that we should only love God and disregard other people, creatures, and things in this life. Instead, the question is how do we love when we love God? Or, put more directly, what do we love more than God?

What the life of Jesus Christ reveals to us, what we anticipate in the quickly approaching feast of the Incarnation, is how we are to love God as if God was the only joy of every human heart. What Christ shows by demonstration is that to love God with all our heart and strength is to love others. To love God with all our heart and strength is to do that when it’s difficult, when we don’t want to, when we’d rather love someone or something else first, more, or rather-than.

While it is true that we are not one, I believe that today’s antiphon calls us to reflect on how we might become more unified in shifting the objects of our love and affection. Loving God with a singular joy means loving others in concrete and identifiable ways. Only then will today’s O Antiphon come to fruition: God can then be king of all the nations, a sign that we know our source and our goal, the object of our greatest love that is made manifest in our care and concern for others.

Photo: Stock

O Radiant Dawn: The Circle of Life

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 21, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

earthsunriseO Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

The catchiness of Disney’s The Lion King‘s opening song notwithstanding, I’m thinking of a circle of life having to do with a little more substance in light of today’s antiphon: “O Radiant Dawn, Splendor of Eternal Light.” Light itself is the source of life, at least that’s the case in this world. Without our Sun, there would be no life nor would there be an ecosystem capable of sustaining the life that finds its origins in that gaseous star closest to us. Each dawn marks the cycle, the circle, of light and darkness, of life and death, that completes the circle of life on this planet: Photosynthesis, consumption, decomposition, metabolization, regrowth, and so on.

Like all other living creatures — human and nonhuman alike — we are dependent on light to live. But like the bread about which Jesus speaks in the Gospel, we do not live on planetary light alone!

There is another light that dispels the darkness of death, a light that shows the way to go, a light that brings another kind of life. This is Christ the Light, the God of Light. What is interesting about what constitutes the Radiant Dawn, the Light of Life, is that this light is also the sun of justice. The life that Jesus Christ came to bring, that life that he desires us to have and live to the fullest, is a life of justice and peace. It is a life that is perhaps best reflected in the words and actions of Pope Francis when he calls our attention to the plight of the poor and downtrodden, the marginalized and forgotten, the voiceless and those thrown away.

The circle of life calls us to move in a direction away from the darkness of the night brought about by injustice and abuse, suffering and subjugation, to recognize that only in addressing these sins — individually and socially — can we begin to live in the light toward which we are called. This is why we celebrate Christmas. This is why we celebrate what the Hebrew Prophets and John the Baptist foretold. This is what it means to call ourselves Christians.

The imagery of light is used frequently throughout the Gospels to describe what it means to announce the Kingdom of God. We are called to reflect that light, which comes from the sun of justice, such that we can shine God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and good news on others. We don’t do this with empty words and vapid platitudes, but with our feet and our hands and our actions.

Today’s antiphon includes a petition on our behalf: “Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,” but it implies a response that we might not want to hear — a response, I believe, that most of us usually ignore.

The response as laid out in Scripture and modeled by the holy lives of saints and women and men of good will over the centuries is that the light of justice only shines when we are willing to be bearers of that light. Christ is not a helicopter savior who pops down miraculously here and there to help this or that person. Christ is the fullest revelation of who God is and simultaneously reveals to us who we are. We are the bearers of that light, we are those whose lives are nourished and sustained by the sun of justice, we are the ones who must do something.

Photo: Stock

O Key of David: Unlocking Life, Freedom, and Light

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons with tags , , , , , on December 20, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

keyring and keysO Key of David, O Royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of heaven: come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

There are many terms and images we use and invoke to describe Christ. There is emmanuel, God-with-us; there is the Son of Man; there is the Incarnate Word; there is The Lord.  But how often do we pause and reflect on the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, and think: “Key of David.” In Latin the word clavis is literally a key that one might use to unlock a door. It connotes, like today’s O Antiphon names, a “power” that “controls” a passageway, a gate. But what might it mean for us to think about the coming of the Lord, the Advent of God in terms of a key?

I wonder if it isn’t one of the more appropriately literal images among the varied antiphonal terms. Unlike the Eastern Sun or Morning Star of tomorrow, or the Root of Jesse earlier this week, the key (clavis) has a singular and clear purpose: locking or unlocking something. While the other images lend themselves to a broader interpretation and metaphorical application, the Key of David begs to be seen for what it is — odd.

It’s odd to think about the Word-Made-Flesh as a key, but the second part of today’s antiphon points to what sort of locking and unlocking the Christ provides: Life and Death, Freedom and Captivity, Light and Darkness.

I get the feeling that so much of our world is conditioned by an attitude of death, captivity, and darkness. It can be difficult amid real suffering and pain, true injustice and abuse, to see life, freedom, and light in this life. Yet, the Key of David has entered the world to unlock this reality, the reality that Jesus of Nazareth called the Reign of God (Basileia tou Theou). And it is the reality that God has called each of us to announce and unlock as well (“Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will Be Done…”).

Whereas the Christ, the Key of David, comes to unlock those who need life, freedom, and light (“I have come to proclaim good news to the poor…”), we are also keys of a sort. However, we can turn ourselves far too often into gates that exclude and divide, that bring darkness and captivity. Perhaps we are not acting in such a way as to lock others out or cast a shadow of darkness or death over others, but when we aren’t walking, acting, and unlocking the Kingdom of God in the footprints of Jesus Christ, what other option is there?

Today’s antiphon has me thinking about the ways that we respond to the daily choices to lock or unlock, to work toward freedom or enclose others in captivity, and to reflect the light of God in the world or contribute to casting a shadow of darkness. The choice is ours, we are the key.

Photo: Stock

O Root of Jesse: The New Family of Christ

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 19, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Family_Portrait_O Root of Jesse, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

My maternal grandfather was a big fan of genealogical research. I remember being a boy and going with him and my grandmother to libraries all over Central New York where he would read through hundreds of old newspapers on large microfilm machines, looking at obituaries and news articles for information about this or that person or potential relation. When he finally got a computer, one of the first programs he installed was family tree software and my brothers, my cousins, and I would often serve as his tech-advisors. While I loved that he loved this hobby so much and I learned a lot from it, family trees and genealogical research never interested me in themselves. What I loved was spending time with my grandparents and, as my work and ministry in academia has since reflected back to me, I think I loved being in the library and the process of research.

Such has been the case with the genealogies at the beginning of both Matthews’s and Luke’s Gospels — I find them to be rather boring, at least on the surface. Their points, although emphasized differently, are understandable and I don’t begrudge the evangelical redactors for the inclusion of these family lines, but I think I’ve always been much more interested in what follows in the Gospels about Jesus’s family than what opens them respectively.

No offense to Micah and Isaiah, who prophesied that the Messiah would come from the lineage of King David, the son of Jesse. But Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection establish a new family, one that transcends these earthly limitations and linear structures. And the new family of Christ helps to redefine how we understand the human family and the kinship of Christianity.

We begin to see this, for example, in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus has this famous encounter:

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:46-50).

The key is not the blood or biological or genealogical relationship, but the relationship established by doing the Will of God, which announces the in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Reign of God.

We also get a glimpse of this new vision of family when Jesus, dying on the Cross, turns to his friend and to his mother and confirms another form of familiar relationship, a community of faith that stands for support, love, care, challenge, and embrace.

The Body of Christ, which is the church, is the new family of Christ, the lineage and inheritance of the Root of Jesse. It is not so much from whom you came as much as for whom you live! Are we part of this family tree? Do we do the will of God? Do we announce the in-breaking of the Kingdom?

Photo: Stock

O Holy Lord: The God Who Hears Our Cries

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons with tags , , , , , , , on December 18, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

bt-sufferingO sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

Today’s O Antiphon invokes the Lord (Adonai), the God of Israel, who appears to Moses and reveals God’s own identity to the prophet in a direct and personal way. When many people think of the identity of the God who reveals Godself to Moses in the burning bush on Sinai, they think of the line from Exodus 3:14 “God said to Moses, ‘I am Who I Am.’” At this point it seems sufficient to accept this as the name of God. But the theophany continues; the name of God has not yet been fully revealed.

If we keep reading, we note that God explains further:

God also said to Moses: ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites,
“The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name forever,
and this is my title for all generations (Exodus 3:15).

Rather than the Western, Greek, philosophical “I am,” what Thomas Aquinas will theologize as God’s interchangeable name and identity (esse = “being”), we see that God explains God’s own identity in relational terms. God is the one who has been there for all of Moses’s ancestors, for all times, for all generations. Who God is can only be understood in terms of for whom God is. And like for Moses, God is the Lord (Adonai) who is there for us!

But it doesn’t stop there. The identity of the Lord, Adonai, who reveled Godself to Moses in the burning bush explains that in addition to having been and always being there for Moses and his fellow Israelites, God explains that the Lord hears the cries of the poor (Ps 34). The next two lines of the Book of Exodus (vv 16-17) convey this when God explains to Moses that the suffering of the enslaved Israelites has not gone unnoticed by the Lord.

“I have given heed to you and what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt,” God explains.

Yesterday I listened to the weekly New Yorker podcast after I began reading James Carroll’s lead article this week on Pope Francis. The former priest and best-selling author, Carroll, participated in a conversation about the pope who is making such an impression on the world stage. In passing Carroll, who defended the idea that Pope Francis’s so-called “symbolic actions” are in fact much more significant than the demeaning qualifier symbolic means to suggest, made the point that our whole faith as Christians (and this is true for our Jewish sisters and brothers) is not centered on a God who first sees sin. Rather, our God is a God who hears the cry of the poor and first recognizes our suffering.

As we get closer to the Solemnity of the Incarnation at Christmas, we should take close note of this truth as it appears to us in Scripture. Far too often people hold the “Mel Gibson” approach to Christmas, projecting the suffering of the Passion onto the Birth of the Lord — Jesus entered this world because we had to be “saved” from sin.

No. The Word Became Flesh because God loves us and wants to draw near to us (the relational “God of your Fathers” has sent you…) and hears our cries of lament, of suffering, of injustice, of pain, of loss, and of the experience of sin.

Yes, through the Incarnation we have indeed been redeemed, but our sin is not what God first sees. The suffering of individuals and communities is what God first sees!

We know this because Jesus proclaims this at the beginning of his public ministry, reading from and fulfilling the oracle of the Prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Favor
 (Luke 4:18-19).

Nowhere does the Lord say, “I have come because you have screwed up.” Nowhere does the Lord say, “Your sin is what I’m most concerned with.” Nowhere does the Lord say, “O happy fault!”

Instead, the Lord, the one who reveals Godself to Moses on Sinai in the burning bush, comes because of divine love and in response to the suffering of those in the world. Our task, our call as Christians, is to do what Pope Francis has been reminding us to do and what Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, demonstrated with his life, death, and resurrection.

We need to become more God-like, become like the Lord who hears the cry of the poor, responds to the suffering in the world, and draws near to announce the good news that we’re going to do something about it!

Photo: Stock

O Wisdom: The Christocentricity of Creation

Posted in Advent, O Antiphons with tags , , , , , , on December 17, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

creation_redemption_carmichael-braun_cropO Wisdom, O Holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.

It is that time of year again and I can hardly believe it. December Seventeenth ushers in the beginning of the “O Antiphons.” These last seven days of the Advent season are marked by the seven antiphons prayed before the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours at evening prayer (vespers). These short snippets of prayerful anticipation and prophecy continue to be something I look forward to every winter as we call to mind, live out and anticipate the coming of the Lord. As has been my tradition each Advent in recent years, I offer a short reflection each day.

Typically, when considering the governing of creation, it is the Holy Spirit that comes to mind. One thinks of the ruah of God bringing order to the tohuwabohu (the cosmic “chaos”) of the first creation account in Genesis or the ruah of God that is the breath of life given to both humanity and all creation in the second account. Yet, today’s Marian antiphon focuses on the wisdom and word of God. These terms are, like the spirit or ruah mentioned above, symbols of Divine Immanence traced back to the Hebrew Scriptures and adopted to refer to Christ after the Incarnation.

But that’s what makes the antiphon somewhat odd, at least at first glance — Isn’t it the spirit that governs creation? Isn’t it the spirit that leads all of creation back to God, what we more casually call salvation? What does the word, the dabar, the logos have to do with that?

Perhaps this is an opportunity to consider what Irenaeus of Lyons talks about in his Trinitarian theology when he discusses the spirit and the word as the “two hands of God” (Adversus Haereses 5.17.4). For Irenaeus, drawing on Scripture, creation is always the act of the Triune God. To assert this necessarily requires explication about the role of the Second and Third personae of the Trinity: Son and Spirit. In other words, you cannot talk about creation without, at the same time, somehow talking about all three personae of the Trinity. Irenaeus’s reflection on the Son’s (word/logos/dabar) action in the act of Creation plays what we might call a cardinal role and strongly echoes today’s O Antiphon:

For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made human, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that He might sum up all things in Himself (AH 5.18.3).

This is not a novel concept, for the famous Christological hymn in the Letter to the Colossaians proclaims this Christocentricity of Creation and Salvation, the exitus and reditus of God’s Divine Action.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace throughout he blood of his cross (Colossians 1:15-20).

While Irenaeus presents this reflection on the role of Christ at the center of creation and the creative act of God in a clear and Trinitarian frame, it carries on through the Christian tradition — particularly in the medieval Franciscan school exemplified in the thought of Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus.

Today, as we begin the annual “O Antiphonal Christmas Countdown,” we are given the chance to reflect on what the coming of the Lord means not just in terms of the Incarnation and earthly life, but in the cosmic scope of God’s loving action, intention, and plan. Creation, Incarnation, and Salvation are not individual, discrete doctrines, but aspects of a richly interrelated whole that give us particular glimpses into who God is and what God desires for all creation.

Christ, the wisdom and word of God, stands at the center of creation, through him all is brought into existence and unto whom all will return to God. There is much to celebrate in these dark days of wintery Advent, for unto us a child is born — God-with-us from the beginning and until the end.

Photo: Charis Carmichael

Mandela and John the Baptist

Posted in Advent, Homilies, Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 15, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Nelson-Mandela-at-Robben-Island-prison-in-South-AfricaIt is understandable that this week I’ve been thinking a lot about Nelson Mandela, the now-late former President of South Africa, Nobel Prize laureate, and leader of the anti-Apartheid movement. His death and the celebrations of his life and legacy have offered the world much to consider and much to reflect on given the storied decades the 95-year-old civil rights leader and politician witnessed and helped shape. But I think of him in a particular way today in light of the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday from the entrance antiphon taken from the Letter to the Philippians: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord Always!”).

Today’s Gospel (Matt 11:2-11) features two major figures of first-century Palestine: John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. John, the cousin of Jesus, is in prison having spoken out against the unlawful marriage of Herod. Having been called by God from before his birth to be a prophet to the nations and the forerunner of the Lord, John is getting word from his disciples that something new is underway and his own life’s work might be vindicated. Might.

Unsure of what and whether to believe, he sends his aides to Jesus to find out what his cousin has to say. The response is telling.

Like John the Baptist, Mandela spent time in prison awaiting the hope of something new, something just, something liberating, something that God promised in the way all people should be treated. However, unlike John, Mandela’s imprisonment wasn’t the result of just innocent prophesying. Whereas the ANC had originally sought to achieve their goal of overturning the white-supremicist Apartheid regime by nonviolent means, Mandela and others began to become impatient. They became convinced that the only way the oppressive leaders would hear them was if they used force. His taking up of arms and embrace of violence means was the cause of his imprisonment. Mandela was not the innocent prophet we might like to imagine today.

But in prison something began to change.

Conversion happens in various ways, especially in prison. Such was the case with Francis of Assisi, a prisoner of war who came to hear the call of the Lord when the sounds of his worldly allurements ceased behind bars. During the grueling twenty-seven years as a prisoner, Mandela’s approach began to shift. Hearing of the violence and chaos into which South Africa was falling from the outside, Mandela came to realize that nonviolent and peaceful means of compromise and negotiation were the only ways forward.

While he might not have entered prison a prophet in the biblical sense — though, he was surely a prophet in the social sense, rightly calling out injustice and racism in his day — the shifts in his worldview overtime appear to illustrate what our Second Reading from the Letter of James admonishes:

Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it
until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. (Jas 5:7-10)

And if there was one thing Mandela was while in prison, it was patient. James encourages all Christians to look at the prophets — from the Hebrew Scriptures and John the Baptist alike — to witness what it means to bear the hardships with patience that are necessary to seek justice and announce the in-breaking of the Reign of God.

Enduring the hardships of imprisonment for nearly three decades, the elder Mandela emerged a modern example of “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” His call for justice and righteousness, his call to end violence and discrimination, this was the “precious fruit” that the farmer waits for in the field, this was more like a sign of the coming of the Lord.

The coming of the Lord, what we celebrate today and all during Advent, is not just about putting the baby Jesus into the manger on Christmas Eve. It’s not about putting the “Christ” in “Christmas,” or putting Christ anywhere for that matter. It is about recognizing what the coming of Christ means.

The coming of Christ means that justice reigns and peace prevails. And it looks a little something like this:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing…

they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.

When Jesus sends this word back to John in prison, the hope that he conveys is that God’s Reign is now breaking into the world and it does not bear violence, it does not act impatiently, it does not always seem logical according to the wisdom of the world.

I believe that this word was somehow sent to Mandela in prison as well, which is why he was able to do so much to bring about good in our modern world. Gospel patience, peaceful waiting, a message of hope and healing — this is what it means to be a prophet, this is what it means to await the coming of the Lord.

Working for justice in our world with the spirit of Gospel patience and nonviolence is the surest way for us to live the call of this Third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord Always!”)

Photo: Stock

The Advent or ‘Invention’ of Christ?

Posted in Advent, Scripture with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

advent-wreathAdvent. It’s a new church year, a new liturgical season, and the beginning of the month-long countdown until Christmas.

Few people realize that with the beginning of Advent the church celebrates a new year, which includes a switch over to a new synoptic Gospel (this year it’s Matthew) that will guide the selections throughout the liturgical year. While Christmas far-too-often overshadows the Season of Advent in the social and even ecclesial imagination, those who do recognize the independence and importance of the Season of Advent nevertheless do not usually pay much attention to the word we so closely associate with this time of year: Advent.

I don’t think that the word Advent, at least as it is understood classically, is the best word for this season. And our readings this Sunday make that abundantly clear!

The origin of Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which literally means “arrival” or “coming.” And so, in one sense, it’s a logical term to describe the liturgical season in terms of the coming or arrival of Christ. This is, I presume, how it was adopted and intended. But the way in which adventus was used in the past should give us some pause and raise some questions about what it is we celebrate and why.

The word adventus was used in the Roman Empire when the emperor was officially welcomed into the city, usually after a military conquest or victory (typically when the Emperor would return to Rome after some military success). The emperor’s staff would send an envoy in advance and let the city, village, or town know that the victorious ruler was coming or would arrive soon — the “head’s up” was used to signal the loyal citizens to ready the welcome of the emperor, roll out the proverbial red carpet, and greet the leader appropriately with ceremony and pomp. They knew he was coming and they, we can presume, knew what to expect.

This arrival, this Advent, has classically meant two things in this original sense: (a) There was a celebratory, powerful, triumphant and, at times, violent dimension to the term Adventus, centered as it was on the military actions and royal reception of the Roman Emperor; and, (b) The use of the term Adventus always bore a sense of anticipation, expectation, and foresight – those in the city knew the emperor was coming – otherwise, they would not be able to roll out the “red carpet” and line the streets in a formal celebration.

While this might not seem like a big deal, I actually think that the term Advent does not serve us well when we begin to reflect on the profound truth of the type of coming or arrival we mark with this liturgical season.

It is really a historical and theological irony that the word “Advent” has come to describe the time that is dedicated for us to “prepare the way of the Lord” and ready ourselves for Christmas.

One the one hand: Many people were indeed expecting a messianic figure not unlike an emperor to come from God.  There was a sense in which a military and political leader was to arise from the Jewish people. But what the world got was a tiny, totally vulnerable baby. The baby would grow up, not to be a powerful political leader, but – in many ways – a simple man who had no “place to lay his head” and was constantly on the move. He and his followers were poor, itinerant, and the closest thing you could have to the opposite of military and political might. There was no one to “roll out the red carpet” for the coming of the Christ. There wasn’t even, as we are so familiar with recounting this time of year, “room at the Inn.”

On the other hand: There was utter surprise and confusion, which was hardly the well-planned and advanced notion of “Advent” that Adventus originally meant. While now we can look back at the Prophet Isaiah, for example, and understand that there were in fact sorts of “forerunners” to the Coming of Christ, the real truth was that few actually understood what Jesus was all about. Even his family and followers were confused and mislead – they were at times indignant, embarrassed, uncertain, doubtful, betraying, and abandoning… It’s very difficult to imagine a “true Adventus” in which the citizens of Rome did not fulfill the civic expectation to celebrate the return of their victorious leader.

What God had in store was something that nobody could really anticipate, nobody could be completely ready or plan for this in-coming of Christ, therefore there really could – in the most literal sense – not be a true Adventus, a true “Advent.” It should be obvious how “Advent” as a word could be seen as problematic, even if we don’t consciously associate the word with the politics and violence it originally meant.

I’m not saying we should “do away” with the word “Advent” (plus, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon), but I do think it might serve us well to think about the word, to think about the season, and to think about what it is we’re really supposed to celebrate during this time of year.

What we do celebrate is a coming, an arrival. But what kind?

I believe the word “invention” makes more sense. The word, “invention” actually makes more sense in terms of the Christmas event — not because it is “made up” as in “that story is quite an invention,” but in the literal origin of the word “invention” itself.

It has the same root as the word adventus in Latin (venire), but unlike adventus,the word inventus means “found” or “discovered.” The root of invention has to do with “coming upon” rather than fabricating. This is true with inventors too, think of the movie Back to the Future when Doc Brown slips and hits his head on the toilet and has that “a ha” moment… the Invention of the time machine is a spark of insight seemingly from nowhere.

Christ entered our world seemingly from a place of nowhere, certainly in a surprise unlike that which the people might ordinarily expect.  It’s like a golf ball hit toward your head and somebody shouting “IN COMING!”  It’s a surprise that shocks us into reality, a mystery out of the blue. The word invention taken apart, can also be understood as in-coming (or in the French, á venire). Interestingly enough, the in-coming, the á-venir in French, actually means future, which is precisely a description of the mystery of God that we presently await during the Season of Advent.

Our readings this Sunday on the First Week of Advent also support our thinking about this season less like an adventus and more in terms of an inventus or á-venir. 

Our First Reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (2:1-5), taken from the beginning of the text, bears a lot of the meaning latent in understanding what the Season of Advent is all about in terms of inventus.

In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”

But what is most interesting here is that this anticipation, this awareness of what is to come is not the adventus of a Roman Emperor or powerful figure. It is not the victorious coming of a violent God who has triumphed in the way human beings imagine. It is the coming or arrival of the end of such a reality.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

This is hardly reflective of the original meaning of adventus. No violence, no weapons, no military victory. Instead, we cannot imagine or conceptualize of what God has in store for us with the in-coming, the invention of Christ into our lives!

Likewise, this Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 24:37-44) unsettles the Roman meaning of adventus in yet another key way. Jesus warns us in the Gospel according to Matthew:

Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.

We do not know when the Lord will come. There is no red carpet, there is no planning, there is no trumpet blast alerting us to the arrival or coming of the Lord. In fact, the opposite is the case. People will simply be doing their normal, everyday activities:

In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.

Like the flood, the invention, the in-coming of Christ will be a surprise.

Some can and do read this passage with fright, but it seems rather hopeful and comforting if we listen carefully to the Gospel. We should not fear, but live our everyday lives according to the model Christ has laid out for us. Then we need not worry.

Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation this week, Evangelii Gaudium, lays out a beautiful and challenging roadmap to live the Gospel today such that we can be read for the invention, the in-coming of Christ. If we just do what we are called to do in light of our baptism, we will have no fear. Those, meanwhile, who are waiting for an adventus, with triumph, grandeur, violence, and rapture, well… they will be disappointed. They’ve been missing what the season of Advent and the celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas is all about.

It is with great hope that we pause to consider what this season is all about. On the one hand we ready ourselves to celebrate what God has done, yet on the other hand we continue to await the future, the in-coming, the á venir, the in-vention of Christ in our lives!

Photo: Stock

Dating God Podcast #22 — Mary DeTurris Poust and ‘Cravings’

Posted in Advent, Dating God Podcast with tags , , , , on February 5, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Cravings-Deturris-Poust-Mary-9781594713057Happy New Year! This episode of the Dating God Podcast, the first of the year 2013, includes an interview with author and journalist Mary DeTurris Poust about her new book, Cravings: A Catholic Wrestles with Good, Self-Image, and God (Ave Maria Press, 2012). She is the author of several books including another book released in 2012,Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality (Alpha Books, 2012). In addition to writing several popular books about faith and prayer, Mary blogs at http://www.notstrictlyspiritual.com and is a co-host of the television program, Guided By Gracewhich is produced by Telecare and is available for streaming online if you don’t live in the broadcast area.

Listen to the podcast online (streaming)

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes (iTunes website)

Photo: Ave Maria Press
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