Advent


First Sunday of Advent
Year A
The homily below is intended for the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2007, as the church opens the scriptures to Matthew's Gospel and so begins anew the three-year cycle of readings. It asks us to take the season seriously on its own terms. What has Advent to say, for example, about the questions raised this year by the pope's seeming encouragement of the Tridentine rites? By the struggles over the best way the vernacular language should sound in our rituals? What has Advent to say about the deep tensions among us regarding immigrants? The truth is that the Advent and Christmas seasons, as they are observed by the commercial world around us, want nothing at all to do with tensions like these. This "happy holidays" time may sometimes move us to acts of kindness, but what public holiday would be so pervasive if it didn't turn the wheels of the economy? That's reality, but we have to question it, have to see the waters in which we Christian fish are swimming.
Gabe Huck

We just heard from the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Luke, whose book we've been reading this past twelve months, has been put away. The move from reading one Gospel writer Sunday after Sunday to steady reading of another Gospel writer tells us: Ready or not, we are in Advent.

But what does it mean to us to say to ourselves: We are in Advent? Or: We are in Lent? The subject is "we," we ourselves, the church. We are in Advent. This little preposition "in" makes for a simple but challenging way of saying something in English: We are in ___. It can mean something as informative as: "We are here! We are in the kitchen!" But it also can imply more: We are in-trouble. We are in-love. We are in-pain. We are in-mourning. It is the same construction to say: She is in labor. Or: They are in shock. Or: He is in remission. To say "We are in Advent" is far more like "We are in shock" or "We are in love" than it is like saying "We are in the kitchen." It isn't only location; it is condition we are talking about.

And what is the condition of the church when we say: We are in Advent? The bits of scripture that we read together on Sundays help us think about this. For one thing, these Advent scriptures can appear almost to have a split personality. Consider the difference between the tone of today's Gospel and today's reading from Isaiah, and consider that we read them both at this same liturgy. In today's Gospel, Jesus is using the familiar story of Noah and the ark and the flood to talk about how God deals with the world. We tend to hear about Noah from the rainbow perspective. It becomes a great tale of how this fellow Noah got told to build a boat that would hold two of each creature, and we focus on all those cute animals marching in or marching out of the ark. Then the rainbow appears as a promise from God never to do it again. But likely we miss what "it" is: "It" is a flood that drowned without mercy all human beings and all animals except those few who entered the ark. It is a catastrophe we cannot imagine and that is exactly what Jesus and those who listened to him knew.

So Jesus can then say, "As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away." This is no cute story of Mr. and Mrs. Raccoon and how they sailed on the ark and lived happily ever after. This is genocide. And God does it. For Jesus it is a story of warning: "Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left."

The Advent Gospel is grim. It sees what's wrong in our lives and our times. It sees that we are sinners in what we have done and in what we have not done. It is a call to stay awake if we want to be ready for God's judgment. But Advent is both bad cop and good cop. This tough warning from Jesus is heard next to Isaiah. Isaiah is also talking about God's judgment but here the judgment leads not to genocide but to a change of heart. Is this change in the heart of God or in our own hearts or both? Listen to Isaiah: "God shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again." Do you hear in that last phrase, "nor shall they train for war again," the words behind the well-known refrain of the spiritual? "I ain't gonna study war no more!" What a radical vision this is-especially now, especially here.

This is the tension of Advent's scriptures. Next Sunday we juxtapose Isaiah again but with John the Baptist. John is saying there is one coming who is going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, one who will clear the threshing floor and too bad for the chaff! We hold that in our hearts along with Isaiah claiming that the poor will get justice, but then the prophet claims much more: the oppressor and victim are going to live side by side in a just world. He says it this way: "The wolf will be the guest of the lamb, the cow and the bear shall be neighbors, the lion shall eat hay like the ox." Two visions. Both Advent. We are in shock. We are in love. We-are-in-Advent. And there is no resolution of the tension: the terrible waters of the flood and the clearing of the threshing floor are part of the truth by which we shape our lives, and the swords into plowshares and the lion resting beside the lamb are part of the truth by which we shape our lives. We are people in Advent.

And when we come to Christmas, is it all going to be tidy? When we keep these seasons in our hearts and in our lives, we know: Never tidy! Except in our sentimental cards and cribs, never tidy! This ever-wondrous birth of Jesus will be played out within and against the occupation of Rome, the occupier decreeing a census; the child wrapped in swaddling clothes can't be separated from the crucified one wrapped in tight bands and left in the tomb; the infant Jesus will be taken to Egypt and will survive, but the infants of Bethlehem will be murdered. The power and the beauty of these seasons come not from ignoring the tensions but in taking them on. Otherwise, we are merely sentimental.

Perhaps then Advent offers a way for us to grapple with the tensions within the church these days and the tensions within the national society we live in. Can we view as tension, not as victory or disaster, these matters of language and rite in the liturgy of the church? More than forty years ago a council of the church, the highest authority the church recognizes, decreed that there be sweeping reforms in the liturgy. Not just the vernacular languages instead of Latin, not just the liturgy celebrated around the altar table, but it ordered that work be done to make the liturgy of Roman Catholics become the deed of those Roman Catholics. We were to be spectators and consumers no longer, but the liturgy was to be ours to do, our right and our duty because we are baptized people.

Now the efforts to make this happen often fell short. That is understandable but it did much harm. And to some, the whole notion of reform of the liturgy became the reason why their church no longer seemed the safe and beautiful place they wanted it to be. We have been for years now in the midst of a time when the reform has been on hold and the Roman authorities have been trying to figure how to appease those most unhappy and hold the whole thing together. So we have the pope allowing any priest to return to the rites as they were before the council, hoping that will somehow put it all to rest. And we have the body of American bishops going along with changes in the English-language liturgy intended to make it seem more "holy," more remote from everyday speech.

We in Advent can and should speak also of other tensions within the church: about whether we do justice to women, about the responsibility of bishops and other authorities for the horrendous and illegal deeds of some clergy, about whether it is right to focus so strongly on a few issues (abortion, for example, or immigration rights) both inside the church community and in the realm of local and national legislation, and to speak very softly about others. The dialogs with other churches and other faiths that began with the council have been only limping along: Here the tension is between John XXIII's embrace of all the world, and the fear of many that we will lose whatever it is that we believed made us unique.

We the church are up to our ears in Advent all the year long in these times. How in our living as the church are we to recognize that tension, even when we know it to be destructive? How are we then to keep living and keep moving and keep faithful to our baptism and to the vision of the church in today's world that the council began to embrace four decades ago? These are questions for this Advent and this Christmas season.

Being in Advent is not only about church matters. As citizens of the United States we are entering a year when elections will be both obscuring and clarifying issues that, because we have wealth and power, have everything to do with justice locally and worldwide, issues that have everything to do with the survival of peoples and cultures and even perhaps of life on this earth. This is not only a question of where the Gospel leads us Catholic Christians to take stands, it is a matter of getting our own hearts and minds - individually and as the church-to live in the tension that Advent invites. For us, this is about holding together the urgency of Jesus when he speaks of God's judgment on us all, and the poetry of Isaiah when he tries to imagine what is perhaps beyond imagining: that the cow and lion are going to browse together and swords are going to be remade into plows, and we mean even the big expensive swords being swung so ignorantly around the world today. The catastrophe of the flood and the peaceable kingdom. We are in Advent. In love. In labor. In trouble. In readiness.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.
Originally written for Celebration the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
First Sunday of Advent
Year B
What follows is cast as a homily for December 1, 2002, the First Sunday of Advent, Year B.
This homily, and similar efforts to follow, is an exploration of how the rites we do, as well as the scriptures we read, are integral in preaching. This effort should be considered, month by month, a work in progress that invites your comments (gabeandtheresa@gmail.com. In some congregations, these texts might make useful discussions for those involved in preparing the liturgy (the committee or board or whatever entity or individual takes that responsibility).
Gabe Huck

What does it mean to name this day the beginning of something called Advent? What does it mean that we call all the days until Christmas by this "Advent" name? Will this time called Advent matter to the way I think, work, speak, spend time these four weeks? Is Advent only a name we Catholics have for the way gift-giving and card-writing and various kinds of parties happen in the weeks before December 25?

It is hard to live by more than one calendar, though most of us have to try because we have a calendar of work and a calendar of school, or a calendar of extended family and a calendar of church and community involvements. And each household can have multiple calendars running at the same time: work schedules, vacations, school examinations, medical needs, finances coming in and going out, entertainment, just plain survival. On top of all that, here comes the church saying: Excuse me, but it's Advent. Sure, we know it is the Christmas shopping season in some parts of life, and it is post-Thanksgiving recovery in other parts of life, and it is for some the stresses and joys of the extended family coming and going, and schools each have their break schedules to deal with, and what are our gift and our social obligations for the coming holidays? But excuse me, it is Advent.

So what? Am I supposed to walk differently? Get up at a different time? Eat different foods? Make decisions about my time or money different from the way I did last week? Am I supposed to hum different tunes, watch different shows on TV, volunteer for more things than I have time for? Am I supposed to be more kind to my spouse, children, co-workers, and boss? Am I supposed to do something really radical and just ignore all the Christmas windows, Christmas shows, Christmas pressure, Christmas parties-until Christmas actually gets here? Am I supposed to get one of those wreaths with four candles and try to remember to light it every night? Or one of those calendars that count down to Christmas?

These seasons of ours weren't invented by scholars or committees then imposed on all the churches. They came from the ways Christians devised to deal with living in and loving the world, with living from their scriptures and knowing that these were not just some lovely stories about what happened a long time ago but were always, every time, about today. The seasons came from people's own need for times that are more gentle and times that are more raucous, from coping with cold and heat, from food in abundance and food in scarcity. They came from the way it seemed right to open the Bible to some various stories every year at the same time. They came too from the flow of life in the community, especially the initiation of new members.

In time, the seasons took hold. It was good to do some things each year at the same time: to sing the same songs but only for these weeks each year, or to read these certain scriptures but only on these days, or to have the blessing of the seeds or the blessing of the harvest or of the fishing fleet, or to remember all the dead. Ways to do these things became more fixed, and the Christians of the generations that followed took them on.

How a community kept a given season, an Advent or a Lent, continued to evolve, but life changed too, and the church went to places where the rhythms of life were quite different. Some of the easily done parts of the seasons remained, but often they lost all that surrounded them and held them together and filled them with meaning, all that had once made an Advent or a Lent a whole way of life for the community during its December or during its springtime. Some Christians decided that these seasons like Advent and Lent now added nothing to being good Christians and they got rid of the seasons; other Christians tried to hold on.

We are some who held on, but where are we now? Do we call these weeks Advent because our grandparents and their grandparents and their grandparents called it Advent, even though we can't quite figure out why or what it might mean to the twenty-first century person living in this culture?

Start with this: The ancestors who drew together certain scriptures and songs and customs and foods and ways of living in the weeks before Christmas were working with their culture and their needs, yes. How else could they work? But what they found was perhaps a way to express or confront a whole lot of big and specific things about living as a baptized person. What happened, for example, when they began to juxtapose scriptures that seem to be about those last things like death and judgment with scriptures about the coming of the messiah? Or to juxtapose beautiful Images from Isaiah with the preaching of John and the stories from Luke or Matthew about what led up to the birth of Jesus? What happened when they chose to associate these weeks with certain tunes and words, sounds and melodies that were sounds and melodies of longing, incomplete sounds, and lyrics whose Images came from all over scripture and beyond?

Here is what seems yet true: In the soul of this assembly, this congregation, this parish, as in the spirit of congregations all over this city and world, is something that is not complete and longs to be complete. In the soul of this assembly is something that will stay awake, will keep watch, if that is the exhortation we give to one another, because we know-we know - that things are terribly out of joint in the world where we spend our days, terribly out of joint despite all the good people doing good deeds. In the soul of this assembly is something that needs to cry out, but mostly does not, in the name of justice against injustice. Injustice big and injustice little. Like the way the tax system benefits the very rich and penalizes everybody else. The way the land and water that belong to us all and to God are dealt out to those who will exploit it for their own wealth. The way the prison population of our country has grown to be largest in the world, overall and as a percentage of the population. The way that schools get their money by bake sales and military contractors by taxes and the way teachers get no respect but the sports and entertainment figures are made into idols.

Each of us and all together can make a long list of what the soul of this community needs to cry out about, but does not, what the soul of this community longs for. And that is getting close to what Advent is. The poet e.e. cummings said it concisely if curiously:

King Christ this world is all aleak;
and lifepreservers there are none*

That could be Advent in two lines.

King Christ this world is all aleak;
and life preservers there are none

Isaiah said: "[W]e have all withered like leaves, / and our guilt carries us away like the wind. / There is none who calls upon your name, / who rouses himself to cling to you; / For you have hidden your face from us" (Isaiah 64:5–6).

You have hidden your face, O God. And so we will have an Advent here and that means that we shall follow you, God, into your hiding place. We shall dwell in the dark with you. We shall stay awake, count the stars. In the beautiful, embracing dark of December we shall consider these things that have dried up our lives like leaves of last summer's trees. And we'll sing, moan some, ponder a few lovely texts of scripture, and really not worry much about Christmas. It will come-to this assembly, to our households - in its own good time.

One of our church's most ancient poems for this season is the Conditor alme siderum, "Creator of the stars of night." One of the verses reads:

As this old world comes on toward night,
you come, but not in glory bright;
as groom to bride, as bride to groom,
the wedding chamber, Mary's womb.

Advent is not a silver lining season. That's not how Images of light and dark are used by us this season. Advent is a dark womb season in a wedding season. Advent takes the darkness and loves it, knows it is good. In the darkness, seeking God's hidden face, we know the harshness of the world - not so much to us perhaps, but to so many, many, many. And day by day we see how easily we are distracted from this harshness of the world to our brothers and sisters, and we get busy with the odds and ends that, we know it well, will dump us on Christmas's doorstep and we'll never know where Advent went. It isn't easy to submit to Advent and realize that it is we who "mourn in lonely exile here," we who need to be ransomed. Us? We're number one. Secure. Rich. In charge, more or less of our lives, more or less of the world. So we're not lonely. We're not in exile.

The scriptures through these weeks will be like promises - promises that only exiles and needy can hear. We won't hear except by slipping quietly into Advent today-and together. We have to practice the art of listening for promises, listening like those who depend on God and God's promises. We need Advent because most of us don't do well at all at depending on God's promises. We depend on the economy, the job, the routine, the family maybe, and for it all we depend-it has never been more clear-on the poor of the world and on the weapons we wield. But where else can we be secure? Oh, that is the question Advent is truly all about.
* from "Jehovah buried, Satan dead" in E.E. Cummings Complete Poems 1913–1962, ©1972 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Third Sunday of Advent
Year B
On December 11, 2005, we are already keeping the Third Sunday of Advent. Advent has its full four weeks this year, as Christmas is on a Sunday. This Third Sunday means half of Advent is behind, half ahead. It is perhaps a good Sunday to look in both directions and consider why we need such a season at all.
Gabe Huck

At this point in the year, our season called Advent is half past and half to come. Christmas falling on a Sunday gives us the full Advent, all four weeks. But with the scriptures just now proclaimed, we have heard nine of the 12 Sunday readings for this Advent that begins the middle year of the church's three-year cycle of readings. Each Sunday so far we have heard Isaiah the prophet; twice we have heard from the Gospel of Mark and today from the Gospel of John; pieces of three different letters have been read in our midst. What sort of an Advent tent are we putting up for ourselves from these scripture texts and from the songs and the prayers of the season?

We need to ponder the scriptures of a season not only one at a time but as they echo against one another, as an image is put down over here, a word heard over there, a story told or an urgent exhortation read. The church that is assembling here each Sunday is both the speaker and the listener for the scripture texts. This church of ours has made the round once more, and once more it is turning the pages of our book and tracing a hand along the lines marked Advent. Whatever we find, whatever we hear, we do this finding and hearing first as this church. No one is doing this alone. We depend on one another here. Isaiah isn't being read for my edification or for a bunch of individuals to mull over. Isaiah is being read here so the church may listen and consider and take to heart, that church that is here today to give God thanks and praise and to share as one at the table of the Lord.

So it is with Advent. The season doesn't sit out there for some among us to take seriously and for others to ignore, to go on about their business. Advent is really one way to name the Christian heart, the church ourselves. Advent isn't an option or a frill, something I can take or leave. It is a way to name who we are and what we are to be. So we give ourselves to listening to its scriptures, singing its songs, praying its prayers.

Two Sundays back, we heard: "Jesus Christ will keep you firm-to the end." To the end of what? What is this Advent talk of the end? That same day, the beautiful poem from Isaiah was saying, "Oh, that you would rend the heavens-tear open the heavens!-and come down!" And one week ago the second reading talked about "the day of the Lord" that will come like a thief, and when that day arrives, "the earth and everything done on it will be found out." This morning, the letter to the Thessalonians talks about how we are in spirit, soul, and body-all three together-to be without blame, to be holy, for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

All this talk about "the end," of God coming down, of "the day of the Lord," all of it seems to say there will be a period put to the sentence of human life on earth. The show is going to fold, the tent collapse, the carpet roll up. So be ready. "Watch," Jesus told the disciples in the Gospel two weeks ago. Be watchful and be alert! Each Sunday all year we say these words: "as we wait in joyful hope." Advent is dress rehearsal for the waiting and the hope.

We know there are some Christians who understand this language to be about some exact future moment when all of the conditions will have been fulfilled, and then comes the end with the good among us separated from the evil. This expectation of such divine intervention to end the world and the human story has become, for some, a real event. They wait anxiously for the day. There is nothing new about Christians trying to figure out the time and the place for some bringing down of the curtain; it began to happen as soon as Jesus was gone.

But Advent has nothing at all to do with this literal reading of a few scripture texts. The end that Advent announces is not in the future. It is in the present! It is now, always now. Listen to Isaiah: "We have all withered like leaves" - think of the leaves with all their softness gone, brittle, scratching along the ground-"and our guilt carries us away like the wind … You have hidden your face from us …" Isn't that now? And when Mark's Gospel reports Jesus saying, "You do not know when the time will come," can we doubt that this time is now? When we proclaim in our Creed that Christ "will come again in glory," are we saying something about the future or about the present? When the scriptures say, as one did last Sunday, that "the elements will be dissolved by fire," did that ever mean to describe cosmic warming, the crackling and hissing of the air itself? Or does it mean to say that right now and every right now, how we conduct ourselves matters, what we do to one another matters, how dear we hold one another and all of creation matters? The prophets and the poets sometimes needed to say this in language that said: See, see what we do when we tear at one another, when we let fear make us greedy and greed make us fearful! We cut away the future. Don't you see it?

"The fire next time" is just a desperate, attention-getting way to say: Don't you see right now the fire that is burning away your world and your lives? Right now-now!-there is this awful fire when you organize your cities and nations and your very hearts and minds to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, to keep peoples bowed down because they were born the wrong sex or color or in the wrong part of the world?

And that is another truth of Advent: It is not about life inside the doors of the church. It is not about busy preparation for the feast we keep two weeks from today. Advent is in the big world as the Gospel is in the big world. It isn't locked inside the church, ever. Listen to what Isaiah says: "Bring glad tidings to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners." Where do we think we'll find the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and the prisoners? And how does the prophet sum all this up? It is the image of a bride and groom all dressed up in justice. This is the wedding that the world needs and longs for. But who has the courage for that?

But we are so used to what we are used to, aren't we? We are so embedded in the way things are that we do not lift our eyes. An old Advent chant had the answer: "Arise, Jerusalem, stand tall! Throw off the harness that keeps you prisoner!" It is a hard image for us. Are we, whether rich or poor, somehow harnessed? Are we like beasts of burden, harnessed to various powers that determine who shall go to school and who shall not, who shall share in good health and who shall not, who shall have plenty and who shall have want? It should startle us that Advent speaks so persistently not about pie in the sky when we die but about upending what we have come to take as just the way things are. But here are two Advent Images to help us through-Mary, and a tree.

Tomorrow, December 12, all of the Americas keep the feast of our Lady of Guadalupe, when these Gospel ways of Advent once came to be told. The woman seen by Juan Diego was no European, nor was Juan Diego himself. She looked nothing like the conquerors who had come a generation earlier and subjugated the native population of what is today Mexico. She looked like one of the conquered people. She was dark-skinned. In any case, the bishop would have none of Juan Diego's stories. He knew where the powers that be were and they weren't out on the road talking to people the likes of Juan Diego. Now, no doubt this bishop prayed vespers every evening, and every evening this bishop recited the Magnificat, the prayer of Mary. No doubt this bishop, like so many of us, never listened with all his heart to the words that the Magnificat puts on Mary's lips. Listen now:

The mighty arm of God
scatters the proud in their conceit,
pulls tyrants from their thrones,
and raises up the humble.
The Lord fills the starving
and lets the rich go hungry.

Mary's words-many of them echoing a woman named Hannah in the First Book of Samuel, are far less gentle than Isaiah's. God will toss out the tyrants and bring the ordinary people at last to stand straight and with dignity. Hungry people are going to be fed and fed well, but those who have been rich are going to have to do without. A bit extreme? Yes, it is. But it is also dyed-in-the-wool Advent: not the fire next time, but the fire of justice now.

Next Sunday's Advent Gospel will tell of Mary, and so will every Gospel of the Christmas season from Nativity to Epiphany. But we have to struggle against the sweet Images and find instead what that transplanted bishop in Mexico saw: the Advent image of this woman. The Mary of the Gospel is Advent embodied. Hers is not a sentimental waiting for a picture-perfect birth of a picture-perfect child. No. She's the one society regards as nothing, a nobody, but she sees clear as day that those who wait upon the Lord do so by making justice and judgment now, tearing prison walls down and sharing and sharing alike what earth has given and human hands have made. That was her song. That's why we tell of her on the road talking to Juan Diego.

In the final days of this Advent, many here will be busy with trees. Trees, real or not, will be brought into our homes, and on them we will place lights and strands of food and bright objects and treasures from our past. This is best kept for just before Christmas, just the moment when the story is told of light in the darkness and food for all the earth in the Bethlehem manger. But whenever that tree is raised in our homes, let it be done in this Advent spirit: We raise this tree as a proclamation that we intend this world to be a place of beauty and bounty for everyone. The tree echoes Genesis: Here we would make a paradise. Here we would go beyond the day-by-day grinding down of so many poor and oppressed and ailing people, the day-by-day grinding down even of the earth itself. And so the Christmas tree also echoes Calvary: The tree on which Jesus died becomes a tree of life for all the world. Thus does Advent transform us.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).

Third Sunday of Advent
Year C
What follows is a homily for Sunday, December 14, 2003. This is the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C. It might be adapted to any of the first three Sundays of Advent. The focus of the homily is the juxtaposition of Advent itself, the scriptures of this particular Sunday, and the fortieth anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the first document of Vatican II. Like other homilies in this series, it attempts to explore what mystagogical preaching might sound like. The homily of December 2002 would also be useful this year as an example of opening up the meaning of Advent within the assembly.
Gabe Huck

What does it mean when someone tells me over and over, "Don't be afraid!"? These Advent Sundays in the third year of our three-year cycle of scripture readings have many variations on that simple command: Do not be afraid. At the beginning of Advent, we had Jeremiah talking about days to come when the people will at last live in safety, without fear. We had the letter to the church at Thessalonica talking about strength for our hearts, and the gospel text where Jesus talks of terror to come, people actually dying of fright. Today the prophet Zephaniah says, "Fear not, be not discouraged." And Paul writes, "Have no anxiety." Instead, he tells the church at Philippi, be filled with thanks, and then fear will give way to a peace that surpasses all understanding. Note well: This peace will surpass all understanding.

The exhortation "Do not be afraid!" binds together Advent and Christmas. The angel Gabriel says this to Zechariah and to Mary and to Joseph. Angels say the same to the shepherds. And thus do Advent and Christmas transcend so many of the things that would preoccupy our hearts and heads these days. "Do not be afraid. Fear not." These words make a home for us -for who needs to hear "Do not be afraid" except those who are afraid?

Advent expects us to be afraid. The scriptures and gospels expect it. They know this life of ours, they know what humans are always doing to one another. O come, Emmanuel. Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. These are the songs and cries of honest hearts in fearful times. We are the church, and it is our business to keep our eyes fixed on the world-and you can't do that without being afraid. Even the condition of our sad, hobbled institutional church is frightening. So Advent brings this tension. Look, Advent says, look clear-eyed at the world, at the church. And when we do, we tremble at what is happening. Listen, Advent says, listen to God's promise. God calls you from fear to-what? Some would say to foolishness, to believing the promise, to lives built not on fear but on the sturdy word of our God.

After what our church and our world have been like these recent years, Advent gives us room and time to stop rushing about and to ask: From what are we running? What do we fear? What do we fear about our church, what do we fear about our world, our community, our household, ourselves? Those who know their fears can then ponder the hard words of Advent and of Christmas: Do not be afraid. Baptized people live in this tension of fear and promise.

Before we leave this year 2003, we can ponder our fear and God's promise by summoning two memories. Just days ago we marked the fortieth anniversary of a great turning point in our church. On December 4, 1963, the bishops of the world approved the document called Sacrosanctum Concilium. This was the first work of the Second Vatican Council, and it is usually called The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Some of us remember that day. The New York Times not only made the liturgy document front-page news, it printed the English translation in its entirety. The vote in the Council had been overwhelming (only four of the world's bishops opposed the final document).

But most of us here this morning don't remember, so the story needs to be told. When Pius XII died in 1958, the cardinals choose an old man to be pope. Angelo Roncalli was already in his late seventies. After five or so sleepy years, they thought, we can gather again and it will be clearer who should be our next long-lived pope. They were right about the five or six years, but wrong about everything else. Angelo Roncalli, now John XXIII, called a Council, the first in nearly a century. He stood up to the church bureaucracy that wanted no part in any such meeting. He called the naysayers "prophets of gloom," and he called for the stuffy church not to be afraid, but to open its windows to the fresh breeze of the Holy Spirit. The world's bishops assembled, unsure of what they might do. For starters, the bureaucrats - who wanted this whole Council business over with quickly - gave them a blah-blah document on the liturgy that put them all to sleep. But somehow the window was open. They rejected the document in the fall of 1962 and by December of 1963 they had, with expert help, crafted a new document whose vision would be the work of several generations to come.

By the time this Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was finished, it called for some of the reforms that we've all grown up with, such as liturgy in our own languages, but beyond this, it called for a liturgy that was the work of the people themselves. It said every baptized person had the duty and had the right-both!-to do this liturgy fully, consciously, actively. It said that when people did the liturgy in this way, the whole assembled church doing its hard work, then their liturgy would, little by little, put a Christian shape to their lives. It called for all the rites of the church and the calendar of the church to be reformed according to these principles.

By the time the bishops of the world said their "yes" to this, good Pope John was dead. He had died in June of 1963. Shortly before his death he wrote to a friend: "By God's grace, I haven't behaved badly: so, not a day more. If the Lord wants me to remain a little longer, well and good, otherwise - we're off." Perhaps only a person with such lightness of heart could have borne the turmoil and the disdain of those who took their power in the church so seriously. Pope John was one who knew there was much to fear, and he looked those fears in the face because he believed God's promise.

So it was that two months before he died, John XXIII had done a final beautiful deed for us, and that is the other fortieth anniversary we have celebrated this year of 2003. In April, he wrote a letter to the whole world, an encyclical called Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth. In a way, these two deeds, the liturgy constitution and John's last encyclical, set the path for our generations of Catholics.

Pacem in Terris did many things. It was 1963, the heart of the cold war, the age of nuclear standoff, the world dominated by two superpowers who played out their rivalry in various wars around the world. Catholics in the United States had come more and more to equate their religion with their anti-communist patriotism. John XXIII looked hard at the conflicts, at the injustices that thrived at the heart of one system and those that thrived at the heart of the other, at the injustices suffered by the poor of the world while the rich grew richer and the armaments of the powers grew more and more fearsome. This is the Advent wonder of John XXIII. He saw all there was to fear and he knew how real and awful it was. But he did not keep silent, and when he spoke, he did not speak as a prophet of gloom. He said: Face up to what is unjust in your systems of power, in your economies, in your treatment of the world's poor. He said that it will be immensely difficult to change-change ourselves, change our economies, change our relations-but we have to do it.

That is the Advent word of promise, God's promise and our own. Here, for example, is what John XXIII wrote forty years ago about the relations of sovereign nations:

There has been a great increase in the circulation of goods, of ideas and of persons from one country to another, so that relations have become closer between individuals, families, and the intermediate associations belonging to different political communities, and between the public authorities of those communities. At the same time the interdependence of national economies has grown deeper, one becoming progressively more closely related to the other, so that they become, as it were, integral parts of the one world economy. Likewise the social progress, order, security, and peace of each country are necessarily connected with the social progress, order, security, and peace of all other countries (#130).

He calls for a worldwide public authority that seeks the universal common good in concrete form. He says that such an authority must be set up by common accord and not imposed by force, and that the purpose of this world authority must be "to create, on a world basis, an environment in which the public authorities of each political community, its citizens and intermediate associates can carry out their tasks, fulfill their duties and exercise their rights with greater security" (#137). He praises the United Nations as the bare beginning of this.

We are forty years down the path. Forty Advents away from John XXIII and these two documents. This Advent summons us Catholics to face up to the fears we have and should have, to the promises we are baptized into. The documents of 1963 put direction on our age. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy said we had to get this Sunday eucharistic deed into our hearts and souls, our muscles and our bones. We had to come together here and together work hard that God's word might be heard and pondered by the church, by us; work hard that the needs and troubles of the world might here be clearly seen and loudly voiced in homily and intercession; work hard that our hearts be shaped by our giving of thanks to God for all, doing so in Jesus who grappled to the death with the powers of greed and destruction and who is each Sunday our paschal meal.

Doing this Sunday by Sunday, what kind of a people shall we be? A fearless people? Hardly. Perhaps a people with the wisdom to fear what is indeed fearful. We should fear the gap that separates the way we few live from the way the many of the world live. We should fear a nation, our own, that has rejected Pacem in Terris for Pax Americana, and a politics that sees fear as a way of control and manipulation. Doing what we do here Sunday by Sunday, doing it seriously, will ready us to hear: "Do not be afraid." That is what John XXIII heard. There is much to fear; know that. But, knowing that, believe what God is doing with us.
Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Third Sunday of Advent
Year C
This is the fourth and last in a series of these homilies that concern themselves with the prayer and ritual of everyday life. September introduced these reflections, October spoke of the prayer of morning and of daily scripture reading, November of prayer at table. The homily that follows is for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C, December 17, 2006. It speaks of the Advent/Christmas season, but this leads to a reflection on the prayer of evening and of night, a sort of daily Advent in our lives. As has been suggested each of these four months, the parish bulletin or an insert there could help by giving people a few good texts to take home and use in their prayer. If this is done, reference to it should be made in the homily.
Gabe Huck

This Gospel story halfway through Advent tells us about people who came out from Jerusalem and other cities and towns to listen to John the Baptist in the wilderness. Something of their lives and times brought them to leave the order and familiarity of home, at least for a little while, and go-in a title familiar to children-to where the wild things are. This wilderness northeast of Jerusalem was then and is now not so much a desert as a rough, mountainous land, descending finally to the Jordan, perhaps better called a stream than a river. Where the wild things are. Perhaps John himself was seen as one of these wild things. Still, they came to listen and to ask questions like those we heard this morning: "What should we do?"

What does it take to bring any of us to the point of asking that question? And if we reach that point, whom shall we ask? Luke's story tells us that John was preaching good news, which is what the word Gospel means. But the good news doesn't sound so good to us: Someone is coming who will baptize us with fire. Good news? That one will be like the person who goes to the place where the harvested grain is piled up and, with a large shovel, begins to toss it in the air again and again so that the useless parts separate from the grain itself and blow away. That is what Luke calls good news.

This is the sort of thing the church deals with in Advent. Advent is the name for these three to four weeks before Christmas, and Christmas comes, at least in the northern hemisphere, at the time of the shortest daylight, at the time when the light will begin to return after half a year of growing less and less. So Advent is necessarily for us the days when the darkness is getting longer and longest. The stories of John the Baptist that we tell through most of Advent are like that sword with two sharpened edges, cutting two ways. That is, in times of increasing darkness, the word of the prophet is both troublesome and consoling. It is hard to take and yet can turn us upside down and give us courage. We go into the wilderness, we go where the wild things are, we go into the darkness because we want to hear this word.

The rhythm of Advent and Christmas, each needing the other, is much like the rhythm of night and day in our lives. Our keeping of Advent each year can form us in the difficult part of that day/night rhythm, the part that is the night. Night is night, even in lives so disconnected from natural rhythms of dark and light. Night is night and though the reasons for our fear may evolve over a lifetime, there is something constant in fearing the darkness. So night is night and it brings on our need for one another. Night is night and it is where the wild things are, where we have no control over our dreaming. Night is night and it is so beautiful even when it begins before we eat dinner and stays so late in the morning. All of that fear, that need for each other, that loss of control, all of that beauty is what makes Advent to be Advent. And it leads us to reflect on how Christians keep the hours of evening and of night.

If the Christian's prayer in the morning is praise to God, and our prayer at table is of thanksgiving, what is our prayer of evening and our prayer of night? What in fact is the prayer of Advent, this night of the year? Where do we learn the prayer of night?

Perhaps for a few of us our daily lives allow us some time in the evening, perhaps ten minutes, to pray alone or as a family. For most of us, though, it is more practical to think of night prayer as prayer at our bedtime and our bedside, or prayer when putting the children to bed, or even prayer after we are in our bed and there is darkness and quiet. At whatever time, the pieces of night's prayer come to us quite naturally. They are probably there in the prayers we learned as children.

Though they are bound together, still we can speak of five strands of our night prayer. The first of these elements is one that our night prayer has in common with the prayer of morning and the prayer at meals: We give God praise and thanks. In the morning we praise God that we are alive and entering a new day with all its possibilities. And at night we praise and thank God that we have come through that day, whatever its troubles. We praise and thank God that the much-needed night has come and the weary can rest. At night this thanks and praise is not so much a matter of specific words. It is the Eucharist-like mood that permeates everything. Above all we are people of Eucharist, people of thanksgiving to God, and when we pray before sleep we begin to understand how we give God thanks even as we speak of our needs, our sins, our fears.

The second element of night prayer we recognize from those Sundays when we pray together here the prayer that begins: "I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters." At night we know that the day ending leaves some sorrow. The day was God's gift, but how have we used that gift, that grace? So we confess "what we have done and . . . what we have failed to do." Often the latter, what we have failed to do, will be our hardest confession. At night we bring before God and our brothers and sisters our own failures and we ask forgiveness and we believe in God's forgiveness. And we try to let that way of forgiveness be our way also, for at night, before sleep, we let go of whatever hardness we have in our hearts toward others. This may be for spouse or parent or child, it may be for those we work with, it may be for whole groups of people. At night we believe there is some other way than this for us to live together in our home and in our city and in our world. The point is not that some night our hearts will totally change, but that little by little, night by night, we work our way toward such a conversion.

Often we may want to repeat at night the words we know from some of our Sunday liturgies: "I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. And I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God." That is, after all, a very short and simple prayer. And we may conclude it as we do here: "May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to life everlasting." The central word in that prayer is "mercy." This word "mercy" tells how we know God in the night time. If some nights we are too tired to put any prayer together, it is perhaps this one word we should cling to.

The third element of night's prayer for us comes powerfully from our fears. It is that basic fear of the dark and sometimes the fear of how the night will go and sometimes the fear of sleeplessness or of bad dreams. But these stand for all the fears that dwell in our lives. It is no wonder at all that these Advent and Christmas scriptures have one line that is like a refrain from century to century. It is this: Do not be afraid. It is the angel talking to Mary and then to Joseph and then to the shepherds. It is the prophets talking to Israel, Paul talking to the young church, Jesus talking to the women at the tomb. Do not be afraid. It comes so often because, for those who keep their eyes open and see what is to be seen in this world, we have so much to fear. Look at what we do to one another, to the poor of the world, to the people of Iraq, to the children, to the millions in Africa with AIDS. Look at what we do to the earth and to its goodness. At night, we ought to be afraid of so much and we ought to ponder what it means that time and again we are hearing: Do not be afraid. Does it mean we live oblivious to these things, or that we can only confront such fears when we bring it all before God?

The ancient words of the church's night prayer are eloquent and never lose their ability to speak directly to our hearts. "Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of your eye. Shelter us in the shadow of your wings." This is from the psalms, the image of God as a great mother bird protecting and keeping warm and safe her young ones. We speak such words not only as individuals or households. We speak them as the church and as the world. "Shelter us in the shadow of your wings."

Christian night prayer has always been willing to name another human fear, the fear of dying. An ancient line of that prayer says: "May God almighty give us a peaceful night and a perfect death." Perhaps as children we learned an old English language way of saying this: "If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." And there is the lovely line of a hymn that proclaims we should have no more dread of the grave than of this bed. The thought of death and the thought of sleep come together quite naturally. Some have said sleep is like our little nightly rehearsal for death. So it is that our night prayer speaks of death. Remember that on Sundays we have often proclaimed here together: Dying you destroyed our death.

The fourth element of night's prayer is intercession. Sometimes this is better done in the evening meal prayer when we are likely to be more alert. But it is also a very natural part of prayer at bedside either with children or alone. Most of us learned this intercession as something like: "And God bless Grandma and Grandpa, and my friends, and our neighbor who is sick, and all of us." It can be a long or a short list, some the same every night, some changing. This is the prayer we rehearse here every Sunday at the end of the liturgy of the word. It is a litany of the world's trouble, sickness, and sadness, needs and disasters and failings. We take it all to God and clamor for attention. It is the same at bedside as here on Sunday. The prayer the church makes together here we do well because it is the prayer we make every night at table or at bedside. If we are paying attention, if we are keeping an eye on the human condition, we need this prayer. It often concludes with the Our Father, the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: that the reign or kingdom of God be among us, that there be daily bread and forgiveness everywhere, that God deliver us from evil.

And finally at night prayer there is this: Like children, we turn to our mother. The church has several prayers that do this. If we do not know these, the simple Hail Mary may be the conclusion to our night. It proclaims Mary as the Mother of God and asks that she "pray for us now" this night, this world, "and at the hour of our death."

There is another text that the church has used through centuries in the evening to turn to Mary. It is part of that first chapter in Luke's gospel, so much a part of every Advent and every Christmas season. This is called the "Song of Mary," and it is the words she speaks to Elizabeth when both of them are pregnant. It begins: "My soul magnifies the Lord," or "I acclaim the greatness of the Lord." It is in some ways a very strange prayer to put on Mary's lips or on our lips at the end of the day. But that has been our tradition. Mary praises God who has fed the hungry and lifted up the lowly and the poor, has stripped the powerful of their might. Like so much of Advent and Christmas, like so much of our night prayer, it is all about that word "mercy," that most wonderful name of our God.