Thursday, December 9, 2010

10-11-28: 1st Sunday of Advent (A)

First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5 / Psalm 122 / Romans 13:11-14 / Matthew 24:37-44
As if you didn’t have enough to worry about, Jesus comes along in today’s gospel and tells you that the end will come when you’re not paying attention and take you by surprise. That’s the essence of worry, isn’t it? Caught unprepared when you’ve devoted all your waking moments trying to be exactly that – prepared. Forgetting to cross that “t” or dot that elusive “i” and, lo and behold, snagged. Getting that audit notice from the IRS when you did your best to file those taxes correctly. Having taught your kids all those wholesome values just to see them experiment with risky behaviors and not-so-wholesome lifestyles. What a thoroughly upbeat way to start Advent. Who’s the bright optimist in the Vatican’s liturgy office who decided this was just the right reading to prepare you for the joys of Christmas? Maybe he’s read one too many Tim LaHaye novels about the Rapture and the end-of-the-world horrors in store for the godless. Or perhaps he’s convinced that the ancient Mayan calendar portends the end of everything in December 2012.

I hate worry but I suspect I’m no different than most: I’ve become addicted to it. I’m not sure I’d get anything done if I didn’t worry I wouldn’t get it done. Worry is all pervasive, it seems. Even the moderately conservative New York Times columnist, David Brooks, is not immune. Last week’s column predicted economic and national catastrophe on a gargantuan scale with no hope for escape. And predictions by the presidential commission studying how to scale down the enormous national deficit are scarier than prophecies about worldwide earthquakes and asteroids crashing into the planet. It all goes to show you don’t have to be religious to have a monopoly on worry – we’re all affected. If the everlasting torment of hell doesn’t scare you, the prospect of losing your retirement savings certainly will.

Worry, though, seems to affect some more than others. If I remember right, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James attributes a lot of religious conviction – how we express belief - to personality type. Whether you are more optimistic or pessimistic by nature makes a big difference about how you perceive things and how you act on them. This theory seemed to be proven true last week with the election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (a surprise, it seems, since he hadn’t been the sitting vice-president). And Archbishop Dolan is optimistic if he’s anything: a jovial, engaging, friendly, bigger-than-life type who exudes confidence. So it might not seem so surprising when in his acceptance speech he said something to the effect that, all in all, things are going very well. You might pause just there and think, let’s see: sex abuse scandal, closing of churches and schools (39 in his archdiocese alone), bankrupt dioceses around the country, the pope threatened with arrest in certain countries – things going very well – either the Archbishop is delusional, or his optimism gene is working overtime. But that assessment comes from someone more at home on the pessimism-side of the coin – personality dictates after all. At least the archbishop doesn’t seem to be worrying too much; he’s not exhibiting anxiety-override. Or maybe he’s just on drugs.

Then again, perhaps what’s needed is a certain resignation, a humble acceptance of sorts. In the face of problems that are so overwhelming maybe there comes a point when you just have to let go and let God, as they say. That’s easier said than done, though, because it’s really all about control and giving it up. Worry can fool you into thinking you still do have some control. But giving up control – completely - is something we all must do eventually. Perhaps danger and impending catastrophe, and all those small but significant losses along the way, help us practice - little by little - for that ultimate letting go and letting God. Most of us, after all, have been preparing since we were kids, whether we realized it or not: playing Hide-and-Seek and the kid who has been hiding his eyes and counting to ten finally finishes and shouts out: “ready or not, here I come.” Some hiding places seem more secure than others but, truth be told, we all really want to be found. Depending on your personality-type, though, some later than sooner.

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