Looking for Fire, Longing for Christ | 1st Sunday of Advent 2020

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent
Cathedral of Saint Raymond Nonnatus and Sacred Heart Parish
29 November 2020

As you know, the priests here were in quarantine for the last 3 weeks. It’s hard to believe that I celebrated my last public Mass before now on Monday, November 9th. Much like the first shutdown in March, the time has really flown. Advent, I must admit, was nowhere to be found in my mind on November 9th, and I feel like it sort of snuck up on me.

It’s funny how a season of waiting can sneak up on a person, but here we are.

I really was moved by the first reading. I tried to spend my time in quarantine well. I slept a lot, drank way too much coffee, but took the time to catch up on reading and especially on prayer. Jesus was so good to me in these weeks of exile, and I found myself coming face to face with parts of myself, my personality, my weaknesses, and my past that I’m not particularly proud of. I caught myself more than a few times, just like the prophet Isaiah, saying,

You, Lord, are my father; my redeemer you are named forever. 
Why do you let me wander, O Lord, from your ways? 
Behold I am sinful, I have become like unclean people, 
all my good deeds are like polluted rags (this image is especially potent with the memory of Thanksgiving dishes so potent in our memories)
I have all withered like leaves, 
and my guilt carries me away like the wind.

But then I would stand in the colonnade looking at Raynor Avenue and watching the sun go down, or receive a phone call or email with messages of prayer and support, or there’d be a box of Home Cut on the front porch, and just like that I’d be brought to the same conclusion that Isaiah comes to:

Yet, O Lord, you are my father;
I am the clay and you are the potter:
I am the work of your hands.

God is faithful and good. God is faithful and good. God is faithful and good.

One great outcome of having been in quarantine is that I now have a much better appreciation for how hard our office staff works, especially Karen and Linda at the front desk. In their absence, I took over many of their duties. As I mentioned to many of you on the phone, for whatever I am or am not as a priest, I am a much better priest than I am a secretary!

This afternoon while I was printing baptism certificates, writing the prayers of the faithful, searching for the Advent Wreath blessing, setting up for Mass, taking vestments out of dry-cleaning bags, sorting the mail, and answering the phones 105 times, I had an Advent playlist from Spotify on in the background.

A song I had never heard before caught my attention. It goes like this:

We thought you’d come with a crown of gold,
a string of pearls and a cashmere robe.
We thought you’d clinch an iron fist,
and rain like fire.

But without a sword, no armored guard,
but common born in mother’s arms.
The government now rests upon
the shoulders of this baby Son.

Gloria, alleluia,
Christ the Lord,
We’ve longed for you.
(“Baby Son” by John Mark McMillan)

Christ the Lord, we’ve longed for you.

This has been a difficult year, and I think that goes without saying. We’ve said over and over how we long for things to go back to normal; we long for “normal” so badly that sometimes we catch ourselves dubbing all of this the “new normal.” We are a people who love our routines, our calculations, our expectations.

That’s the key word, I think: “expectations.” That’s the word that has helped me, anyway, identify my own struggles with the year 2020. I had my expectations of how things would look, how they would go, and nothing has looked the way I’d hoped it would or expected it might.

You probably know that the term for a priest’s first assignment in a parish is three years. As hard as it is to believe, I’ll reach 3 years at St. Ray’s in June 2021. I have heard (almost) nothing about plans for me to move to another parish, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened. And whenever it happens, I promise it will be extremely difficult and sad for me. Needless to say, I did not expect my last year to go this way.

That’s only one example in my life, and I know there are so many examples of expectations getting blown to pieces in each of your own lives.

The thing is…we Christians are used to having our expectations of how things ought to go blown to pieces, since it’s been happening from the very beginning.

We thought he’d come with a crown of gold, a string of pearls and cashmere robe (although, I don’t think I’ve ever imagine Jesus wearing cashmere…). We thought he’d come with an iron first, but that isn’t what happened.

In the midst of our getting all worked up about everything in the world, like in the first reading, sometimes we miss this ultimate truth: God is faithful, and he is good. He comes in stillness, and darkness, and silence. He doesn’t change this simply because our culture has becoming frantic and filled with noise of every kind; because every culture has been frantic and filled with noise. He doesn’t change this because it seems that more people than ever are abandoning God in the name of being “woke”, in the name of “justice and equality for all”, in the name of “autonomy and living a less oppressive life.” He doesn’t change this because every culture has had characters who abandon God so they can do whatever they want.

But we are distracted. Where is God? What is he like? Does he still come to us?

I love this church. Some of you…the really old ones…remember when it was built. I think you have a better appreciation of what went in to making this place beautiful than most of us.

But there is one detail in here, that becomes more obvious during Advent, but can often be missed. It’s small, and “expected,” and maybe taken for granted.
So let’s adjust the lights for a moment and take a look at it.


Now that it’s dark, focus anew on this flame. This is the only week that we’ll bless the wreath; for the next three weeks, it will already be lit when you get here. Will you still notice it?

Look at the way it just chills here; bouncing around, giving off light, reminding us, filling us with hope, and giving us a new kind of expectation.

This Advent I have two challenges for us, as individuals and as a community:

First, stop thinking in terms of expectationS, and more in terms of expectation. We have never been promised a conflict, pandemic-free life; we’ve never been promised economic prosperity or healthy bodies forever and ever; we’ve never been promised “normal” Thanksgivings or that school would always be in person. Just because things have always been one way, doesn’t mean we can or should expect them to stay that way.

But there are more ultimate, more meaningful things that we have been promised: life, hope, joy, peace, salvation; light. Forget the expectations the world has cultivated for us, and beg for the grace to live with the expectation of Mary and Joseph, of the whole created world, for the coming of the One who will deliver these promises.

The second challenge is this: look for the flame. Everywhere you go, look for the flame. In a world filled with bright light and noise, and distraction, it will be hard to find; but look for the flame. Look for the signs of the presence of the one who, despite it all, is present; chilling here in our midst, bouncing around, giving off light.

We await the coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory, but don’t forget that he’s already here. He’s here in the Eucharist, which will really change you if you let it. He’s here in confession, and the other sacraments, which will really change you if you let them. But he’s here in his people, who will really love you if you let them. He’s here in his creation, which will really fill you with wonder and melt your heart, if you let it.

God is faithful, and he is good. And he is here.

Jesus, we love you and Jesus we need you. Jesus we wait for you with great expectation. Jesus, gives us eyes to see you and a heart to know you.

We thought you’d come with a crown of gold,
 a string of pearls and a cashmere robe.
 We thought you’d clinch an iron fist, and rain like fire.

Gloria, alleluia, 
Christ the Lord, 
We’ve longed for you.

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