"How do you want to spend your life? We all know you can ruin it. But what is more important to recognize is that you can sleep through it." The words of Jesuit scholar Dean Brackley powerfully prepare us for these pivotal eight weeks of the Christian liturgical year. The new year, as always, begins with Advent and brings a new guide, Matthew.
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But first Luke leaves us with a beautiful image of the heir to the royal house of David, whose ministry and fate is bound with that of the excluded: "For the Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). Faithful to his gospel's special focus on the poor, Luke's final image of Jesus is the suffering servant, the Messiah who saves by accepting in body and spirit the sum total of our hatred and fear, transforming it into new life.
Our introduction to Matthew and to the Advent season is as compelling as Luke's conclusion. "Stay awake!" he proclaims (Matthew 24:42); Jesus' predecessor, John, tells us to "Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:2). Matthew jolts us out of our complacency so that we will be prepared to recognize the incarnate God, for "at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come" (Matthew 24:44). Brackley emphasizes the importance of Matthew's sentiment, not just during Advent but also in the everyday world: "The worst danger is not pain or poverty. The worst danger is sleeping through the drama of life, the struggle for life and for community against the forces of death and despair." Our faith presupposes that we are an Advent people, ever alert to God's continuous attempts to be born in our lives and communities.
Fortunately, our history is filled with the examples of those who lived lives of vigilance. Their wakefulness gave them the freedom to act in partnership with God's work to build the kingdom of heaven on earth. For each week of the Advent season (which begins December 2), with the help of Robert Ellsberg's book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time, we will be accompanied by a witness, a faithful servant who, like the Baptist, shows us the way to the Messiah.
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
Luke begins our journey with the portrayal of Zacchaeus the tax collector. Found only in Luke, the story follows two critical events. In the first, a rich official, though perfectly observant of the law, refuses Jesus' invitation to full discipleship. Unwilling to relinquish his possessions, he remains possessed by them. Afterwards, when Jesus predicts his passion for the third and final time, the disciples again fail to understand him, revealing that they too are still possessed-not by riches, but by their own idea of who Jesus is and what gospel he preaches.
Which brings us to Zacchaeus. An unlikely model of discipleship, it is his faith that Luke insists is most important. He was a sinner by anyone's standards, supporting the occupying Roman government through tax collection, cheating his own people in the process, and becoming a very rich man. Jesus' words thus scandalize the crowd and stun Zacchaeus: "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house" (Luke 19:5). Without hesitation, Zacchaeus responds to Jesus' invitation with equal generosity. He opens his house, heart, and life by proclaiming that "half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor," and from those he has cheated, he will "repay it four times over."
Anyone who, like Zacchaeus, has worn their sin publicly and thus been the object of religious or social judgment knows the overwhelming joy Zacchaeus must have felt in hearing Jesus' unexpected and "undeserved" invitation. Jesus does not condemn, lecture, or ignore him but challenges him to true conversion. Unlike the rich official, Zacchaeus says yes with his whole being, transforming his life without hesitation.
Haggai 1:15-2:9; Psalm 17:1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
Questions of authority dominate the writings of Paul and Luke. In 2 Thessalonians, which is attributed to the Pauline community, the author must quiet the community after it has apparently received false information concerning Jesus' return. The author urges the community to pray that they not "get too excited too soon" by a spirit, statement, or "letter allegedly from us that the day of the Lord is at hand" (2 Thessalonians 2:2). As faith in Jesus spread to different regions, so grew the likelihood of false teachings, plagiarized writings, and impersonators claiming divine heritage. The author reminds them that they must "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught."
In Luke, the issue of authority is also addressed, but it is Jesus who is subject to the suspicious questions of religious leaders. Jesus is challenged three times, the last of which is contained in today's readings. Luke clearly portrays the Pharisees' and Sadducees' motives as impure, meant to trap Jesus "in order to hand him over...to the governor" (Luke 20:20), and their actions are thus easy to condemn. However, they-like Paul and the early Christians-may have been wary of the many false teachers and prophets that abounded at the time. Perhaps some were not motivated by fear, arrogance, or jealousy but by their devotion to the law and love for Judaism, compelling them to ensure that Jesus was not just another charlatan. Ultimately, Jesus answers their questions with greater wisdom than they anticipated, surpassing their understanding of the law and emerging as the true authority.
In both texts, real authority emerges not from special knowledge but from motivation. The Thessalonian community is warned about the one who "exalts himself...claiming that he is a god" (2 Thessalonians 2:4), and Jesus, too, condemns the Pharisees for questioning not in good faith, but in an effort to enhance their own position at his expense.
Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
With the approach of Advent, we begin to prepare for the new covenant as issued in the birth of Jesus. As Christians, we believe that God's physical intervention in time and space is the fulfillment of Hebrew prophets; in Isaiah 65, God promises that "I am about to create new heavens and a new earth." This new earth brings a relationship with humanity so close that "Before they call, I will answer, while they are yet speaking, I will hearken to them," and so peaceful that "The wolf and the lamb shall graze alike, and the lion shall eat hay like the ox" (Isaiah 65:24-25). The psalmist too, rejoices, "for he will rule the world with justice and the people with equity" (Psalm 98:9).
The joy of these scriptures is tempered by Jesus' assurance that the gospel is essentially divisive in a world where injustice, deceit, and hatred are plentiful. Not only will "nation rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom," but his followers will be persecuted "because of my name." The contrast of Jesus' words with Isaiah's are striking: the savior will bring peace between the lion and lamb, while the gospel is certain to bring persecution and hardship.
Luke's emphasis on eschatological themes was certainly influenced by the situation in his community, which expected Jesus' return at any moment, and yet his words continue to speak the truth to contemporary Christians. We still struggle with how to pursue the gospel amidst the reality of sin. The first communities wrestled with this reality and instructed, for example, that those who are "disorderly" be held in community and not rejected: "Do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thessalonians 3:15). We must continually acknowledge that we live our faith as broken people; Christianity does not make us faultless, but compels us to work together despite our limitations. Almost 2,000 years removed, despite recent events, we no longer look for signs of the end of times, but for new beginnings-the beginning of peace, justice, and true community, where one's faults do not result in exclusion, but accountability and love.
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Luke ends the liturgical year with a stunning portrayal of Jesus-fittingly surrounded in death, as in life, by the excluded and despised. Luke is the only author to give voice to the prisoners with whom Jesus dies, and it is here, on the feast of Christ the King, that the majesty and greatness of our God as king is revealed. Some reject the portrayal of Jesus as king, citing the metaphor as too hierarchical and distant for the loving shepherd. Perhaps if Jesus fit the traditional profile, the criticisms would be merited. But Jesus is not an ordinary king; he is vested not in fine silks and jewels but in garments of humility and suffering. He is concerned not with power but with liberation; Jeremiah describes him as "a righteous shoot to David" who shall be called "The Lord our justice" (Jeremiah 23:5-6). For Paul, he is "the firstborn of all creation," and the one renewing creation and the covenant, "making peace by the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:15, 20).
Indeed, the most striking evidence of Jesus' majesty, the one that clearly distinguishes Jesus' kingship from all others, is his physical location: on the cross between prisoners. Here, King Jesus is at his full majesty. The one bearing through his own free will the burden of all our fears, our hatred, our scandalous refusal to be free is our king. This broken man, rejected by God, forsaken, and reviled even by the criminal next to him, is the king whom we honor today. In this glorious act of surrender and hope, of unshakable fidelity to his people, Jesus embodies true royalty for all who shall follow him. Let no one be mistaken-if you seek worldly power and influence, look elsewhere. This is the king of surrender, who allowed himself to be broken so that he could call us to resurrection through our own brokenness. And when our little mustard seeds of faith allow us to surrender with him, "Amen, I say to you...you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Matthew wastes no time on subtleties and gets straight to the point: "Stay awake!...Be prepared!...For you do not know on which day your Lord will come" are the words of Jesus with which he greets us. Thus begins this season of preparation for the Christ. Matthew insists that the first step of waiting for our savior is to wake up. Paul, too, assures the community of Rome that "you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep" (Romans 13:11). He equates the coming of Christ with light; to darkness is relegated the "works of the flesh"-all that is temporary and all that lulls us into a contented, numbed sleep from the passion of the world.
Sisters Maura Clark, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and laywoman Jean Donovan lived their brief lives fully awake to the great suffering of the people of El Salvador. At times the horror was so overwhelming that the only faithful response they could manage was awakeness itself: "[W]e did nothing but pray and feel," recounts Sister Maura, as Robert Ellsberg records in All Saints. Their vigilance was an act of courage and defiance against a government's war on its own people. Their eyes opened, they could not turn away from the suffering, for "whose heart would be so staunch as to do the reasonable thing in a sea of loneliness and tears?" writes Ellsberg.
Despite the terror, the women were inspired and compelled by the hope of the Salvadoran people, and with them, they stubbornly clung to God's promise of peace, when "One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again" (Isaiah 2:4). Their solidarity with the poor brought the fate of the poor upon them; on December 2, 1980, they were raped and killed by U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers. Their example, however, continues to encourage contemporary Christians to truly prepare for the end of darkness: "O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!" (Isaiah 2:5).
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
From the periphery comes the announcement of the savior: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:2). Matthew is the only author to use "kingdom of heaven," a substitute used by devout Jews who could not speak God's name. It is also Matthew who includes John's words to the Pharisees and Sadducees, condemning them as a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7). Already the Baptist senses that the powerful positions of religious leaders will hinder their ability to recognize and welcome Jesus. Or perhaps it is their treatment of the lowly, for, as Isaiah predicts, the savior "shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth....Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips" (Isaiah 11:4-5). The psalmist, too, foresees the one who cares for those who suffer, and "shall defend the afflicted among the people, save the children of the poor....He shall be like the rain coming down on the meadow, like showers watering the earth" (Psalm 72:4, 6).
From the margins also came Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican who was prodded awake by God's presence in the world. Juan Diego said that on December 9, 1531, Mary appeared to him as an indigenous woman, speaking the Nahautl language. Juan Diego said that she requested that he tell the bishop to build a church on that site, so that she could "give forth all my love, compassion, help, and defense to the inhabitants of this land," according to Ellsberg. Like many before him, Juan Diego was a reluctant prophet and begged Mary "to entrust your mission to one of the important persons," for "I am nobody, nothing, a coward, a pile of sticks." She would not take no for an answer, and Juan Diego's eventual "awakening" to his mission would precipitate the awakening of all of Mexico to God's love through Christ.
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; Luke 1:47-55; James 5:7-10
This week we are privileged to read the most "awake" response to God's invitation in our history. Mary, though unwed and unprepared (who could really be prepared to incarnate God?), not only says yes, but praises God: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior...the mighty one has done great things for me, and holy is his name" (Luke 1:49). It is safe to assume that the vast majority of us would have difficulty coming to a similar conclusion were we faced with an unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, inherent with potentially disastrous social and religious consequences. Mary's decision to take God on God's word was a profound act of faith, comparable to the first great act of faith, that of Abraham's. Thus it is fitting that Mary's "yes" ushers in the new covenant, issued now in birth of Immanuel, God With Us. Mary fully trusted in the one who "sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, loves the just, protects strangers" (Psalm 146:7-9). She trusted because she knew that she would not be abandoned by God, for "With divine recompense he comes to save you!" (Isaiah 35:4).
And so God did come, through Mary, and through each one of us who also agrees to bear divine love to the world. Maude Dominica Petre, a English Catholic scholar, was also a woman who said yes and who attempted to awaken the institutional church to the beauty of human freedom. At a time when the church took a rigid and protective stance against what it believed were destructive forces of modernism, Petre's voice honored both reason and faith. Though she was persecuted for her thoughts and eventually excommunicated, Petre refused to surrender either her religious identity or her right to think freely. Despite "the cramping torture of ecclesiastical institutions," writes Ellsberg, she never became bitter toward the church, which gave her and others "support in the passage through this dark and troubled life." She remained a devout Catholic and staunch defender of intellectual freedom until her death on December 16, 1942.
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Like Mary, Joseph also responds to God's invitation, though Matthew records none of his words. We are told that he is initially fearful of the angel's promise, but when told that "it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her" and that the child "will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21), Joseph immediately does as the angel asks. His faithful response is not an isolated event, but his way of life; it is the first of four times recorded by Matthew that Joseph acts unquestioningly on God's instructions. Though he must have been familiar with Isaiah's prophecy that "the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14), he could not possibly have understood what awaited him. But he, like Abraham and Mary, acted anyway; he responded to God not by thinking or analyzing, but by doing.
His response would not have surprised another devout Jew, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who died on December 23, 1972. Heschel once wrote, "A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to surpass his deeds, to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does." What God asked of Joseph was utterly beyond Joseph's comprehension, but Joseph "leaped" anyway. He could act immediately because he was already awake and waiting for God's call.
Joseph's faith was concrete and his fidelity to God's word was fully expressed by his action in the world. Likewise, Heschel's theology was profoundly connected to the world; he was convinced that "We are not asked to abandon life and say farewell to this world, but to keep the spark within aflame," writes Ellsberg. We most honor God through our connections with others and the world. As we prepare to receive the incarnate God, we too must "keep the spark within aflame," so that when we recognize the signs of God struggling to be born in the world, we can respond with our whole being.
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
Our year appropriately concludes with Christianity's foundational truth and starting point, the incarnation of God as Jesus. The fact that God entered time and space defines and grounds our idea of God and our identity as followers of Jesus. Isaiah insists that the radical truth of the incarnation grew from God's own desire to redeem us: "It was not a message or an angel, but he himself who saved them. Because of his love and pity he redeemed them himself" (Isaiah 63:9). And this truth, Paul asserts, makes sense only if we understand that God became human in order to fully know and love us as human: "Jesus shared in blood and flesh that through death he might destroy the one who has power of death...he did not help angels but descendants of Abraham" (Hebrews 2:16). Both Paul and Isaiah testify that God could not minister to humanity except by entering into our condition. It is because Jesus fully knew human suffering, Paul tells us, that he can seek us in the midst of our suffering. Having defeated death, he offers us new life.
Benedictine monk Brother John Main devoted his life to exploring prayer techniques that would help Christians live this truth. The centering prayer he practiced helps the faithful to develop "a state of undistraction...a state of attention, a state of awareness," writes Ellsberg, so that the truth of the incarnation can be lived "from the center of our being." Main shared prayerful affinity with people of different faiths, convinced that "Our challenge as Christians is not to convert people around us...but to love them...to be ourselves living incarnations of what we believe." He died on December 30, 1982.
It is often said that, during Advent, Christians should seek ways to newly "birth" Christ in the world. But, what is first required is for Christians to simply incarnate themselves, to be utterly present in the world. Only when we are able to remain awake to the real sufferings and joys of the world can we hear God's call and act upon it.
Michaela Bruzzese is a free-lance writer living in Chile.