Saturday, December 23, 2017

Lasallian Reflection - Fourth Sunday of Advent

The story of John the Baptist runs throughout the season of Advent, his calling of people to account for themselves, to recognize that they haven’t been their best selves, and to get off their duffs and do something about it. In traditional church language, it was people’s “sins” that he was dealing with. We should get a better sense of that.

In G.K. Chesterton’s words, “…sin, whatever else it is, is not merely the dregs of bestial existence. It is something more subtle and spiritual, and is in some way connected with the very supremacy of the human spirit.… The reality of sin arises, in fact, from the same truth that makes the reality of human poetry and joy. It arises from the fact that the smallest thing in this world has its own infinity.” An awareness of the packed potential in each thing, in each decision, and in each action, is what sin – and salvation – is all about.

Our lives swim in an ocean of actual dynamic grace and potential future grace. In all of the things that we do and see every day, it may be the smallest ones that have the most profound, unannounced, and probably even unknown effect. This is the “butterfly effect” from chaos theory applied to human relationships. A decision that you make or an action that you take bears real immediate and future consequences, both for you, for others, and for the world around you.

One good example of this is found in the Gospel for the 4th Sunday of Advent, which is the story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and telling her that she will be the mother of Jesus. Despite her puzzlement, in the end she said “May it be done to me according to your word.” That “Yes” changed the universe. It was a “Yes” that did not know what would follow, or what would happen, but it was the “Yes” that led to Christmas, where God’s grace was truly joined with our humanity.

Because of that “Yes,” our lives may today share in God’s presence through the cultivation of the presence of Jesus within our hearts, and flowing from there to our thoughts, actions, and dispositions. St. John Baptist de La Salle writes in his meditation for the 4th Sunday of Advent that, with God’s grace, “…you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who will make you firm in goodness thanks to his dwelling in you. This Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Beg him to establish your heart firmly…. (Med 4.3) It all begins with a choice and an action.

We make choices all the time, in all sorts of situations. One estimate says that we make 35,000 choices every day. A way of thinking about their cumulative effect is to imagine a grid that is divided up-and-down between “doing” at the top and “talking” on the bottom; “giving” on the right and “taking” on the left. Where among the four quadrants do most of your decisions cluster? Just in terms of your relationships – with yourself, others, and God – where do the bulk of choices fall? And what of the consequences of all those choices? There’s a lot going on here that deserves our consideration, particularly during Advent.

Annie Dillard cautions us about what’s involved: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. … we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” Here is the dynamic of God’s grace stripped to the core.

Christmas is just around the corner. We shape our capacity to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ by our choices and actions. Whether we are able to say “Yes” with the same courage as Mary did will determine how much “Christmas” comes to be part of our own future.

(Video Version HERE)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Lasallian Reflection - Third Sunday of Advent

In his meditation on the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent – which talks about the interaction of St. John the Baptist with those who ask him who he is and what on earth he is doing with all of his preaching and baptizing – St. John Baptist de La Salle takes up the ways that God works through others to bring us God’s light, God’s salvific presence, and God’s remarkable invitation for reconciliation and unity.

In this Gospel, the priests and temple officials ask questions that people today may ask of us as Christians or as Catholics. “Who are you? What do you have to say for yourself?” The implied question is, “Why should we pay attention to anything that you say? What gives you a corner on the truth?” And it’s a legitimate question. But like most important questions, although it’s an easy question to ask, the answer has to be a bit more complicated. It is more complicated because it involves a mystery, something that lies essentially much deeper than what is accessible through simple explanation. Herbert McCabe points to a similar phenomenon in reference to appreciating one of Shakespeare's plays. In a passage of his worth quoting at length, he writes that depths of meaning are not found " a play when you watched it for the first time; you have to learn to understand it, and you cannot take short cuts to the depth. ... [A]s we enter into a mystery it enlarges our capacity for understanding. ... [W]hen it comes to reaching down to the deeper meanings, there is no substitute for watching or taking part in the play itself. The mystery reveals itself in the actual enactment of the play. It is very hard to put the meaning of Macbeth into any other words, and that is why literary critics are always harder to read than plays; it all seems so much more complicated. This is not because critics are trying to make things difficult, nor is it that the deep meaning is itself something complicated. It is something simple; the difficulty lies in bringing it up from its depth. When you try to bring deep simplicities to the surface you have to be complicated about them. If you are not, then you will simply have substituted slogans ... for the truth."

This is also the case with St. John the Baptist’s message, and is indeed the case with all of Scripture. De La Salle writes that scripture “is like a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.” (Med 3.2) A lamp reveals the things that were previously in the dark. But the light doesn’t tell you what to do with all of those things. That’s up to you. If may happen, however, that by encountering what lies revealed by the lamp – in other words, what we come to know – something new and precious may rise up in our hearts. And this is also true with the things of faith. De La Salle writes that “… knowledge is not enough; it is necessary for God himself, through Jesus Christ Our Lord, to show us the path we must follow, and to inspire us to walk in the footsteps of his Son.” (Med 3.3)

The mystery of faith is only genuinely known by being encountered, by being engaged, by being put to the test of actual life and practice. As teachers, we, like St. John the Baptist, “… are only the voice of the One who really disposes hearts to accept Jesus Christ… Do not be content, therefore, to read and to learn from others what you must teach your pupils. Pray God to impress all these truths so firmly on yourselves that you will not have any occasion to be, or to consider yourselves to be, anything but the ministers of God and the dispensers of his mysteries.” (Med 3.1-2) And it is the mystery of the Incarnation that awaits our celebration and deeper engagement when Christmas finally arrives.
(Video Version HERE)