Today we begin the holy season of Advent, the beginning of the Church year. It’s a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord. It’s a time of waiting and watching for the coming of our Savior. It’s should be a time of prayer. Unfortunately we live in a world that doesn’t always let us do what we know in our hearts we should do.
Businesses urge us to spend, spend, spend; to shop ‘til we drop. Our friends, families, and employers all want to fill our calendars with parties and other gatherings. For many of us who have secular jobs, the end of the calendar year can be the busiest time of all. Where are we supposed to find the time to pray? Where are we supposed to find the time to reflect on the meaning of this holy season? What are our priorities?
Modern society tells us to be rugged individuals. We can do anything. President Obama’s campaign slogan was “yes, we can.” Nike tells us “Just do it!” Over the past few days we’ve seen countless images of people who feel that it’s their right to just take what they want and to damage others’ property. Someone, for whatever reason, thought it was OK to vandalize our church. Sometimes, it just seems so hopeless. What are we supposed to do.
Well, the season of Advent calls us to prepare; to get ready for a savior. What does that mean? It means that we can’t save ourselves. We need someone to save us from our sins. We can’t do it alone. As Father Robert Barron says, “Our greatest challenge this Advent is to realize just how much we need Jesus.” If we’re not aware of how much we need a savior, how can we really prepare?
In the first reading the prophet Isaiah says, “Behold, O Lord, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people.” This was the mindset of the people before the coming of Christ. They KNEW they needed a Savior and couldn’t wait for Him to get here. Isaiah goes on and reminds us that even “all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have withered like leaves and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” We can’t buy our way into heaven by doing good deeds.
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus tells us, “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May He not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch’.”
Maybe that one word, “watch” should be our mantra for the next four weeks. Watch for the coming of Christ. Watch your own thoughts and actions. Are they what Jesus would want you to do? Watch out for your family and friends. Are they preparing for His coming, or are they so caught up in the secular aspects of the Christmas season that they’ve forgotten the “reason for the season”? You do realize that that’s not just a catchy phrase?
For Advent we decorate the church in the color purple. It’s not a happy color. It’s not a joyful color. It’s a color for introspection. It’s a color for meditation. It’s a color of peace. It’s here to remind us that “ordinary time” is over. This is a special season. It’s not business as usual.
It’s kind of ironic that all the unrest happening in our city is happening during this holy time. There are a lot of angry, frustrated, and confused people here in Saint Louis and in other cities. Even though most of us are not involved with the situation in Ferguson, even though to many of us it seems like it’s very far away, we all have feelings about what’s happening. What you personally feel is between you and God. Maybe it’s good that this is happening at this particular time. By focusing on the message of Advent, maybe we’ll all be more inclined to be patient and forgiving.
Remember that there are two things going on in Ferguson and elsewhere. First, there are people who are genuinely concerned about the relationship between themselves and law enforcement. We’re all descended from immigrants and many of our ancestors were subject to the same fears as people of color are today. Where you and I may see a police car and be grateful that they’re here to protect us, I know my Irish ancestors didn’t share that feeling. The term “paddy wagon” was coined because that’s what the police used to round up the Irish.
Saint John Nepomuk church was built here on Bohemian Hill because the residents of the city in the nineteenth century didn’t want “foreigners” in their neighborhoods. That’s why there’s such a concentration of ethnic churches here on the south side. Fear is a strong emotion and it causes people to do things that they might not normally do. While we don’t share that fear with our African American brothers and sisters, it’s important that we try to understand it.
The second thing that’s happening is criminal activity. Looting and burning businesses has nothing to do with fear. It’s all about greed and opportunism. In fact, these thieves and vandals apparently don’t fear law enforcement. They just want free stuff. Their actions do nothing to further the cause of peace and justice. They just make it worse. It’s important for the rest of us to recognize the difference between the two groups and not lump them all together.
I’ve put a memo in the bulletin this week from Archbishop Carlson. I hope you take time to read it. We should all be proud that our Archbishop seems to be one of the only voices of reason among our local clergy. Tuesday night while Ferguson was burning, the Archbishop was leading a prayer service at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta parish. For some reason, the local media seemed to ignore what was happening there, probably because a reasonable man, speaking from the heart about the issues that divide us doesn’t make for exciting TV, especially when just a few blocks away there was so much more action.
It’s too bad that most people didn’t get a chance to hear his remarks, because, frankly, they made me proud to be Catholic. Among the things he said was this, “Violence destroys what it claims to defend.” You can find the video online. I urge you to find it and watch it.
Discrimination is the work of Satan. Because of original sin, it’s something that’s plagued us since the beginning of time. Whether it’s Jews and Muslims, whites and blacks, or Catholics and protestants, we all seem to have a need to hate someone to make us feel better about ourselves. While our Bohemian founders were discriminated against by the so-called “native Saint Louisians” (who had been immigrants themselves just a generation earlier), the animosity between Catholic Bohemians and non-Catholic Bohemians was just as bad if not worse. Some of you may remember that it hasn’t been that long since a Catholic belonging to the Czech hall was a cause for excommunication. Today the various Muslim denominations can be bitter enemies. And don’t get me started about the “troubles” between Catholics and protestants in Northern Ireland, which is even more ironic because most of them don’t go to any church at all.
As we begin the Church year, I hope you’ll join me in praying for the gift of understanding just how much we need a Savior. We’re prisoners of so many things; money, prejudice, power, prestige, addictions to drugs, alcohol, and pornography, that we desperately need a savior. Every twelve-step program begins with the realization that we’re powerless to overcome these things alone. We need a higher power and we must turn our lives over to Him.
That’s what Advent is all about.
O come, O come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel.