Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Distance between Veni and Emmanuel - An Advent Reflection

Veni, veni, Emmanuel, captivum solve Israel,
qui gemit in exsilio privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te Israel.

You know this song as O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This week, I taught my seventh graders how to sing it in Latin. Why? For a whole host of reasons… one of which is that I have found them to listen more attentively to lyrics when they are in a foreign language; and another of which is that the Latin provides great opportunities to discuss the deeper meanings of the song—deeper meanings which are sometimes lost in translation.

Take veni for example. The kids easily saw the connection between veni and Advent: to come towards. Ad = towards; venire = to come. Advent. But who is coming? We know the answer: Emmanuel!

But what does Emmanuel mean? This is where there was some head-scratching. Well, yes, it is Jesus. But what does Emmanuel mean? More head-scratching; the idea that names mean things was foreign to the young students. Well, I told them, we know that Jesus means “God saves.” Emmanuel means something too. It means “God is with us.”

God is with us. We’ve heard that phrase before in various forms. Gabriel the Archangel greets Mary and says “The Lord is with you”—Catholics also pray that in the Hail Mary. We hear Emmanuel in Isaiah’s prophecy: Emmanuel is the one who is to come. We also hear it in the form of a promise when Jesus ascends to heaven as He says, “I am with you until the end of the age.” At Holy Mass, we are alerted to the name when the priest says, “The Lord be with you.”

Now, when we compare veni and Emmanuel, we see something interesting. When we say veni, come, we are forming a prayer, asking that God come to us. But immediately we then say Emmanuel, God is with us. This is interesting: on the one hand, we have a repetition of the initial words of the prayer, a kind of deepening of the intensity of the petition: come, Jesus, really come, be with us, we need you. On the other hand, we realize that Emmanuel is one of God’s names. And names bespeak identities.

What can we draw from this? That this name reveals to us God’s longing—dare I say, part of His very Being—to dwell with us. Being with us is an extension of love, which is God. God is with us because He loves us; because He wants to be.

Then why the prayer asking Him to be with us? What is keeping Him? Isn’t He already? The answer is found in the next line: captivum solve Israel, qui gemit in exsilio privatus Dei Filio (release captive Israel, who mourns in exile deprived of the Son of God). Wow. Not exactly what you hear in the English version of the song! Ok, so how is this an answer to the question? I will show you how in the remainder of this reflection. The answer will be evident at the end of it.

First, we can say that we find that Israel is (and really, we are) in captivity. What is captivity? Bondage, in prison, enslaved, stuck. How can this be? Well, on the one hand, you do have Israel literally in bondage—not in Egypt, but in Babylon (and Assyria). They are literally in exsilio—in exile. On the other hand, you have us, who are freed by Christ, but yet we still find ourselves enslaved to our vices and bad habits. Even more, we too are in exsilio. To be in exile means to be banished, to be not-at-home. Where are we not-at-home from? Or, more positively: if here is not home, then where is home?

I recall the prayer “Hail, Holy Queen.” In that prayer, we say to Mary “to the do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” Qui gemit in exsilio: who mourns in exile here. The exile is from the Garden of Eden; from Jerusalem; from heaven. And why was there the exile—from Eden, from Jerusalem, and from heaven? Because man chose not-God. Adam and Eve chose sin, taking from the apple tree. So did Israel. So do we. Man chose exile—to be away from home. Home, then, is not simply something geographical. Home is being with God; home, dare I say, is God.

The coming of Emmanuel, then, is not simply a past event, as in the case of Isaiah and the prediction of a Messiah who is born in Bethlehem many years ago. Nor is Emmanuel’s coming merely a future event, when the Christ comes at the end of time to bring the holy and righteous into the heavenly home. Emmanuel’s Coming is also a coming that takes place in the eternal present: God comes to dwell in the hearts and home of man himself.

I am reminded of words from Sacred Scripture:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me (Rev 3:20).

This, in turn, reminded me of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Jesus is coming to a town and passing by. Zacchaeus, as you recall, was a tax-collector and also a man short in stature; he was not well-liked; he was a sinner. But, for some reason unknown to us, Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus’ coming. What is interesting, is that Zacchaeus climbs a tree, thinking that climbing a tree will make him more able to see God. Jesus, as He comes, sees Zacchaeus and says,
                        Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today
(Lk 19:5).
Here, not only does Jesus come and knock on the heart of Zacchaeus, but He does so by inviting himself over (I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me). He will be with us.

And might I add that the whole thing is fragrant with the Eucharist?

The coup de grĂ¢ce occurs when we find that it is not simply Zaccahaeus who is wanting the Lord to come, but it is Jesus who prays that we might come down to Him! Jesus says to us: veni!

What are we coming down from? Perhaps the inflated heights of pride and sin (Adam and Eve and their grasping from a tree....). Whatever it is we are coming down from, we are to come down and, like Isaiah, say to Our Lord: “Here I am.”

And when we do, we find that our Lord says to us in return, “I’m here too.”

Emmanuel. God is with us.

Here, then, is the answer to the question posed above, the question about how, if God is with us, then why are we praying for him to come? On the one hand, we are asking for a future event, the Second Coming, just like Israel begged for a savior to return Her from exile. But on the other hand, we are asking God to come into our lives right now: because we have yet to come down from the tree, to put away sin and walk in faith, we are away from the Lord; we feel the distance between God and us caused by sin. We pray “Come,” asking God who is already here to break through our sin and pride and fear, to draw us close to him, and free us from the captivity of being stuck up in that tree.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Speeding Through Cemeteries - Homily for the First Sunday in Advent

Fearing the End of the World as We Know It

            Today’s gospel seems out of place, doesn’t it? We hear of cosmic destruction and the end of the world. Why does the Church start off the beginning of Advent by contemplating The End? The simple reason is because when we consider The End, we are spurred on to prioritize what is important in our lives. If there were no tomorrow, wouldn't you live today differently? If we knew that we only had a month to live, we would certainly reassess our priorities; that which we once thought so important might not be anymore. And what we took for granted would suddenly become very important. Fear of The End has a way of moving us.

Catholics React to the Cuban Missile Crisis

            Fifty years ago, during many late-October days in 1962, Catholics—and, in fact, all Americans—faced the very real possibility that their lives—and Life Itself, really—had reached “The End.” The Soviets had developed nuclear missile sites in Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast. Tensions ran high and Americans fully expected nuclear war. There was some panic, some rushing to the store and runs on supplies; some had built bomb shelters while schools practiced bomb drills. But there was something else that Americans did during that time: They prayed. A priest of the Archdiocese once told me about those days. He told me how he heard confessions that Friday night until the early hours of the morning; how he got up later that day, offered Mass, and heard confessions until the early hours of the morning again, only stopping to take the occasional break.
Some modern men might look back on that time with cynical eyes and say that man just hedges his bets in times of crisis. Maybe so. But at least that man who hedges is prudent: he understands the gravity of The End and his failings to pass through it alive. It’s the modern man, I think, who should be feared, because ultimately he lacks something—something I discovered at the cemetery this week.
Speeding through Cemeteries

            It was at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. I’m sure you’ve been there before; it can be really moving, seeing row after row of white tombs. It was there that I carried out the rite of burial. It was very beautiful and reverent. But when I returned to my car, I realized that I needed to hurry back to the parish. It was a very busy day here: I was on a schedule. And so, I wanted to speed.
            Now, this isn’t a homily about speeding, but the speed limit at Jefferson Barracks is 10 mph. The temptation to break the law was great. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was just going to hurry home. But then an amazing grace: a light speaking to my heart. It was the Lord. He said to me, Anthony, who are you to be breaking the law? What is so important in your life that you think you can speed through a cemetery? Where is your respect?
            I was taken aback by this; God hit me across the head. I had to drive slowly through the cemetery. And I did. The odd thing was, that as I kept this small command, the Lord gave me a chance to look—to really look: I looked at row after row of the tombs of men and women who served our country, tombs that I took for granted and had just passed by in previous hurries. I thought of those men and women: who they were, where they had been, how they died, …. I began to pray for them.
And then something strange happened. As I passed row after row, it was as though I heard the men and women speaking from the grave, speaking the gospel to me. They were telling me:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life--And from Christmas shopping…. Don’t let that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone—everyone! just look at the tombs!—it will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Therefore, Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent—imminent! not tomorrow, not December 21st, not years from now, but imminent! as though the missiles were ready to go right now. Be vigilant and pray that you have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.    
And then I could hear Jesus: The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise.   

Advent: a Season to Regain that True Fear of the Lord

            I thought a lot on my drive home. Who had I become? How had I become so arrogant to now think that I could do whatever I wanted? How did I become so forgetful so as to overlook the gravity of the world around me and my place in it and the reality that there are laws and that I must follow them? How did I lose sight of my end: that I will one day die and come before Jesus and every little thing that I have done and everything little thing that I haven’t done but should have—it will all come to light? and that I will be judged according to His laws which He gives through the Church? When did I stop fearing the Lord?

Fear of the Lord. That is what modern man lacks; for, if modern man feared the Lord, he would think twice before breaking a commandment. He wouldn’t speed through life, precisely because he respected its gravity. Fear of the Lord.
What is it?
It is a grace given by God whereby we have a holy gravitas of God’s GOD-ness, His awesomeness, His completely Other-ness. Fear of the Lord impels us to a profound respect for the majesty of God; of His laws; His power; His being GOD. Fear of the Lord slows us down in cemeteries; it impels us to walk humbly to communion and to refrain if we aren’t recollected or in grace. Fear of the Lord brings us to a love of God’s laws and His Church, to keep holy every Sabbath day and every holy Day of Obligation; it brings us to the confessional line.
Fear of the Lord is not firstly a dread of His punishment; it is firstly an encounter of divine love wherein we are not anxious about the things of the world, but about whether or not we love God—a love we show by slowing down and pondering his commands—and then keeping them.
Fear of the Lord reminds us that He is the only one, the only one in all the world and in all those cosmos who endures forever. And so, as all the world is tumbling down around us, God is remaining strong as a rock. He is our stronghold. He who is Love never fails. He is the one that keeps us safe and secure in our time of trial. This holy gravitas, then, translates into hope: It is in hope that, when we see the signs of The End beginning to happen, we will be able to stand erect and raise [our] heads because [our] redemption is at hand.
Fear of the Lord, strangely, gives us courage to address the fears of our life. It is precisely in the fear of the Lord that David finds his victory. You remember the story of David and Goliath…. David has no chance. But, moved by fear of the Lord, the One who is Lord of hosts, David picks up his sling and conquers his fear and the giant.
Fear of the Lord, then, translates into peace and joy.

Conclusion: The Offer of Divine Friendship

            Advent offers us a time to rediscover the deeper meaning of life and to reassess our priorities. We encounter The End precisely so that we might look to the One who brings us to the new beginning, so that we might look beyond the world that is tumbling down and discover the King whose Kingdom is without end. Our observance of Advent will be fruitful in joy and peace if we take a moment to consider The End and our obedience to God’s commands—to ask the question: Do I have fear of the Lord?
            What is interesting is this: this fear of the Lord and the keeping of the Lord’s commands translates into divine friendship. The Psalmist writes: The friendship of the LORD is with those who fear him. And Jesus: You are my friends if you keep my commands.
            And that’s what we want for when the Lord comes again: to be his friends, to be friends of the Bridegroom who approaches, friends welcomed into His kingdom. This is what we celebrate at the coming of Christmas. This is what Advent prepares us for right now.