Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent
7 December 2020
Cathedral of Saint Raymond (Joliet) and St. Patrick Parish (St. Charles)
While I was on quarantine, I was able to get A LOT of reading done. I was able to finish a book by Erik Larson called The Splendid and the Vile about Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister during the Battle of London. When people ask me the famous, “if you could meet anyone from history besides Jesus, who would it be?” I always respond, “Winston Churchill.” When the book came in the mail, it turned out to be over 800 pages! Then I opened to the first page and discovered that silly me had purchased the LARGE PRINT edition instead so, if any blind people out there are interested in Winston Churchill, let me know.
The other book I was glad to read was a short novel by my one of my all-time favorite authors, Michael D. O’Brien. His novels – with regular size print – are usually 800 pages but his latest book is just over 200, called The Lighthouse. It’s a fictional story about a lighthouse keeper named Ethan, who lives off the coast of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. He grew up in a big city with a difficult family life, and went to work at the lighthouse one summer just to see what it was like to live out in the middle of nowhere, but while he was there the lighthouse keeper died and they asked him stay on until the found a replacement…in time, he would become that replacement.
Living in the middle of nowhere, he spent most of his life by himself and over time learned to love it. Here’s a passage from the book:
There were times when he was overwhelmed by a quietude so profound that all noises ceased, and then he sensed the overarching awakeness of existence. He would have spoken with out, if he could, but there was nothing he could find within himself to say to it. It was enough to sense a presence in the world around him, a listeningness he called it, and to think about what it would mean if this were not there – though he had no precise words for it, and fell into silence.
Winter, spring, summer, autumn, the seasons turning and turning again, the patterns complex, not mechanical, often unpredictable, but giving form to something larger, as the years slipped into another.
We learn later in the book that Ethan is rather ambivalent about the existence of the Christian God, and that whole thing is a subplot that runs throughout the whole book. One of the main themes is that as one who lives the kind of life he does, one that is dripping with the consciousness of something “awake”, of a presence which he calls “listeningness” all around him, he is actually more disposed to a relationship with God than those he meets when he travels into town who actually are going to church and praying.
Don’t worry – this is not another homily about slowing down and quieting our lives. It’s about learning to listen and, by listening, learning to see.
One of my greatest fears as we approach the long-awaited opportunity to say goodbye to 2020 is the idea that 2020 will come and go, and we will have missed the point of it.
One the most striking images from the Gospels is just before Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Remember that Israel was waiting for a Messiah who would be great like David, and wise like Solomon; they expected a warrior king to come riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on a great white horse, someone who would restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory.
Instead of riding triumphantly into the city on a grand white horse, surrounded by his victorious army, Jesus approaches Jerusalem slowly and on foot. He pauses on a hill, which overlooks the Temple and the whole city, and instead of racing toward it in glory he stops, and he starts to cry. Earlier in the Gospel, when speaking about Jerusalem, Jesus cries out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many time I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate.” (Mt. 23:37) Then as he actually rides into Jerusalem and stops at that place on the Mount of Olives, Luke’s Gospel tells us:
As he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you…They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the hour of your visitation.” (Lk. 19:41-44)
That phrase, “the hour of your visitation”, has been ringing in my heart this year. Remember in March when the shutdown was first announced? A lot of people were hopeful not only that it would slow the virus but that this time to slow down, recalibrate, and try life differently for a little while would be of so much benefit for us.
My greatest fear is that 2020 will come and will go and we will not be any different because of it.
“But Fr. Ryan,” you’re saying, “open your naive little eyes! Look around the world! Everything is different! Everything was taken from us this year! Our loved ones are gone, I lost my job, I watch as my child approaches her mental limit trying to learn to read and write on a screen, the nation is divided! How can you say things are not different as result of 2020!?”
These are valid questions.
I’ll respond with the words of the second reading.
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day.
The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,”
but he is patient with you,
not wishing that any should perish
but that all should come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be,
conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,
But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
My greatest fear is that we as a culture have lost the sense that God is powerful, that he is passionately in love with us, that he is constantly, even in 2020, sharpening us and bringing us back into himself. Yet how many of us, myself included sometimes, live like practical atheists? Sure, we come and worship and pray; sure, we do works of charity and service. But are we waiting for the coming of Jesus? Is the very pit, the very core, the very foundation of our whole personhood yearning, pining, groaning, wondering, waiting for the coming of Jesus?
Is there even a conception in my heart that Jesus is real, and tangible, and personal, and aware of me? That what I do and how I live matters to him? That what I do and how I live makes a difference in how I receive and know him?
We are asking questions, and the questions are not bad in themselves. When will COVID be over? What is happening to our country? Will the economy recover? Will schools be open like normal again?
But for the Christian, who knows in the depth of his or her soul what it means to say that there is a “listeningness”, an “aliveness”, an “awakeness” to all of reality, and that this “awakeness” is not an impersonal, artificial intelligence sent from Silicon Valley, but is actually God himself, the center and creator of the whole cosmos…the Christian knows that these questions are worthless in bringing about the fulness of life not only that we crave but also that has been promised to us.
As we prepare for Christmas, the day on which the whole world remembers the becoming-flesh-and-blood of God himself, God among us, God with us, God for us, God in us….let’s commit ourselves to switching the questions. Not, “when the world ever get better”, because we know that the world is passing away and won’t get better, not ultimately.
Let’s switch the question to something like this:
Lord, my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you. Lord, if you are not here where shall I look for you in your absence?
Or who will lead me and bring me into it that I may see you there? And then, by what signs and under what forms shall I seek you? I have never seen you, Lord my God; I do not know your face.
Lord most high, what shall this exile do, so far from you? What shall your servant do, tormented by love of you and cast so far from your face?
Lord, how long will it be? How long, Lord, will you forget us? How long will you turn your face away from us? When will you look upon us and hear us? When will you enlighten our eyes and show us your face? When will you give yourself back to us?
-St. Anselm in the Proslogion
Then, having reawakened our longing for him, for him who is coming and does not delay, let us turn back and allow our the desolate quietude of our hearts to be overwhelmed not by absence, but instead by a voice which, from the wilderness of our hearts, cries out: “PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE STRAIGHT HIS PATH”