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.

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