Archive for advent

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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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
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