Tag Archives: Advent

Symbols of Light and Water–3rd Sunday of Advent

Today’s gospel passage begins two themes, expressed through symbols, that recur throughout John. Take this opportunity to trace the references to light and water. In the prologue, Jesus is the light which enlightens everyone. The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel describes a relevant experience in the Nazi concentration camps. Trudging through darkness after exhausting labor, prisoners saw the light in a small cottage. “Ah,” they remembered. “Even in the worst dark, the light still shines.”
In John 8:12, Jesus calls himself the light of the world. In John 9, he cures the blind man and criticizes those who think they see light, but are really blind.
John’s baptizing with water is no accident. In the magnificent artistry of this gospel, the symbol connects with the Samaritan woman, to whom Jesus promised water gushing up into eternal life (4:4-42). He walked on water to his frightened disciples (6:16-21). On the Feast of Tabernacles he promised, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and…drink” (7:37). From him, living water would flow into believers.
Jesus told protesting Peter at the last supper that he must have his feet washed in water or he could have “no share with me” (13:8). Jesus refers not only to the foot washing, but also to standing within the long flow of love that began in Genesis and continues through our day.
In a terrible irony, the source of refreshment was himself thirsty on the cross (19:28). When the soldier pierced Jesus’ side, “blood and water came out” (19:34).

Advent, Part 3

Our Advent yearning is not for Christ to come: he already has come in history. We long for our world to be saturated with the gospel, permeated with Christ’s presence, and our hearts to become more compassionate. His unpredictability then directs us to embrace events that may disrupt our routines.

If we dread the season which alerts us to All We Haven’t Done for Christmas, we’re missing wonder unfolding before our eyes. The four weeks scroll through the magnificent history of human hope, and we concentrate on catalogues. Or we clip recipes, watch the sales, and agonize over what to get Aunt Lucy. Advent asks us to take a deliberate stand that says, “Over centuries, people yearned for Christ’s coming, so I won’t take it for granted. I’ll never let his incarnation be rubbed away by busy-ness.”

Some surprises that should astound us: peoples’ kind efforts to help us, even when they are busy or tired themselves, the discovery of many options in a situation that seemed dead-ended, a sympathetic friend in a wildly dysfunctional office, a window of time in a packed schedule, a flash of beauty, a check in the mail, or a stimulating conversation in an otherwise empty day, someone’s contribution of last night’s leftovers the day we forgot to bring lunch to work. Hunting for the surprises tucked into each day eventually builds a perennial hope, a stubborn refusal to believe that God brings us anything but ultimate joy. If we know that the story ends happily, why waste time on worry?

Poet Mary Oliver in “The Kingfisher” qualifies that small surprises don’t mean unmitigated bliss, but make fine stepping stones through the ordinary:

–so long as you don’t mind

a little dying, how could there be a day in your  whole life

that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?

What if Advent isn’t an exhausting list of duties, but a marvelous scavenger hunt where we keep discovering tantalizing clues of a good master? What if God shares our delicious delight and high expectation in planning a surprise for a dear friend or child? What if God’s coming is like that of someone deeply loved, for whom it is sheer joy to bake, clean, shop and decorate? What if all the preparation time vanishes as nothing to the enormous relief of seeing and holding that loved one? “What ifs?” attune us to surprising promises—what Advent is all about.

Advent, Part 2

One reaction to Jesus mentioned fairly often in the gospels is astonishment. He so often breaks the mold of How the Messiah Ought to Be. He certainly disrupted Mary’s routine—even before he was born. Even now in the middle east, women pregnant before marriage are stoned to death. She faced that possibility—and certain shame. All surprises aren’t pleasant: some have the potential for disaster.

But the angel reassures Mary, whose natural response is shock. As Fran Ferder writes in ENTER THE STORY: “A life of fear is not what God has in mind for Mary, or for any of us…Mary and God change her tragedy into a love story of epic proportions. But not right away.” (28, 31)

The last phrase is significant. The vision Isaiah holds up throughout Advent is one of dead stumps flowering, harmony among enemies. If we look at the world scene today, we see how such change comes in slow increments. And yet as Habbukah reminds us “the vision will surely come…”

We are treated to brief glimpses of the lion and lamb resting together: Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ brings warring gang members to co-operate in his Los Angeles Homeboy Industries. Those who once fired bullets at each other now fire text messages. Such dramatic change can happen on a large scale, or when estranged family members reconcile, or we welcome less comfortable parts of ourselves. The lion doesn’t sprout fur or the lamb roar: each animal remains itself, distinct, yet not drowning out the  other.

Commenting on the “peaceable kingdom” theme of Advent, a woman who’d watched the pecking order of lions at their watering hole in Africa observed: “the larger ones definitely go first. But once the lion is satisfied, he won’t attack randomly.” St. Francis of Assisi knew this too. When the citizens of Gubbio were terrified by a marauding wolf, he advised: feed the wolf. So too for our inner hungers: if they are satisfied, we can begin the long, slow process of disarming the heart.


Advent: A Season of Surprise (in 3 Parts)

This chapter from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC, originally published in ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER, takes on new meaning as Pope Francis calls God a surprise…

During an Advent session at Mater Dolorosa Parish in San Francisco, one lady stoutly maintained she hated surprises. During a raffle afterwards, she won the turkey!

Such unexpected events help prepare us for Advent, the season of a surprising spirituality. God who could have become human as a respected philosopher like Plato, a military leader like Alexander the Great, or a beautiful queen like Cleopatra, comes instead as a helpless baby. All the Beauty and Power in the universe becomes vulnerable and dependent. Furthermore, God pitches a tent, not only “among” us, but “in” us, as some translations say. What an odd residence for the King of Kings!

As Gaudium et spes says, God “has in a certain way united himself with each individual. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will and with a human heart he loved.” (22) Advent is meant as a time of preparation for that incarnation event, but how can we prepare for something so impossible to imagine?

One answer lies in the direct interplay between scripture and our lived experience. It seems as if God always make an entrance through the door behind us, the place where we weren’t looking. That pattern, also found in the Bible, sensitizes us to look beyond the tried-and-true, socially sanctioned, boring, repetitious rut. As some say, God lurks in the cracks between certainties.

Promise came to the Samaritan woman in a surprising way (John 4: 7-42). She trudged to the well as she had nine million other times, but there she met a stranger who snagged her attention. His request was preposterous: this guy without a bucket wasn’t supposed to use the vessel of a less orthodox Jew! Nor was he supposed to talk with a woman in public. He didn’t make a demand, but suggested a possibility: if only you knew the gift of God…

It’s the kind of tantalizing potential children suspect before Christmas. If only you knew what was in that large box with the intriguing tag… How could the woman at the well resist such a mysterious invitation?

Until then, she’d probably done what she had to do to survive: endless drudgery, reliance on men since she had few rights, enduring the sneers of self-righteous, married-only-once women. The stranger offers her another way, an inner source of vitality that will never dry up or disappoint. He presents God’s life in terms she understands. Who appreciates a fountain more than a desert dweller? She can practically taste fresh drops on her tongue.

Jesus himself isn’t immune to the effects of a long, hot walk. Angels don’t rush in with iced pitchers and shading umbrellas. Like us, he depends on human beings to relieve his human needs. In the architecture of John’s gospel, the request recurs during the crucifixion (“I thirst.” –19:28). Furthermore, he doesn’t use flowery camouflage, but speaks the need, simply and directly. As St.   Augustine pointed out, Jesus’ weariness may spring symbolically from his long journey into humankind, with its flaws and evils.

We all function in familiar grooves; it’s how we organize our time. Especially during this super-busy season, various chores compete for our attention, screaming, “Attend to me!” “No, me!” “I’m next!” Like a chorus of toddlers, all those jobs demand time and energy. It’s tempting to strangle those who want us to be still and quiet in Advent prayerfulness.

And yet. Scripture scholar Thomas Brodie in The Gospel According to John says the woman at the well was too preoccupied with daily necessities. She had to learn to relax and enjoy God. For people obsessed with responsibility, as many are before Christmas, it’s wondrous relief to let God be God. And one of God’s hallmarks seems to be this propensity to surprise.

In the final judgment scene, both the “sheep” and the “goats” are surprised by the king’s words (Matthew 25: 31-46). Apparently what they thought important isn’t, and vice-versa. “You mean that pbj I made my daughter? That tea I gave the repair man? That’s where you were? Not in the church attendance, the solemn committee meetings, the dutiful donations?”

What may block our awareness is the same demand that swamped the Samaritan woman: intense, seasonal. Picture them jostling, all contenders for our attention, but ultimately imposters. Someone must muscle them aside if the King is to claim the throne, centrality in our lives. Then, as the Buddhists say, if we think we’ve achieved that, we probably aren’t there yet. Surprise!

To be continued…