Monday, December 12, 2011

11-12-11: 3rd Sunday of Advent

Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11 / Luke 1:46-54 / 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 / John 1:6-8,19-28

In Fr. Robert Barron’s recent DVD series Catholicism each episode begins with the same footage. Watching all ten episodes, one after the other, you start to see a theme in those repeated clips of people from obviously different backgrounds doing something remarkably similar: they are all caught by the camera immersed in the same gesture of looking up and being startled. The series was very well done and highly commendable, but I confess to liking this repeated footage, without commentary, the best. In those startled, surprised faces, looking up at the incomparable stained glass of La Sainte Chapel or the gothic vaulted ceiling of Notre Dame Cathedral or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel covered with naked human beauty, our desire for the good and the true and the beautiful is somehow captured; and we see in the faces of these pilgrims, tourists, voyeurs a surprised recognition of something wonderful - something we have come to understand as the divine.

Surprise is, perhaps, the only thing that comes anywhere near a “proof” for God in our modern materialistic society. And like its biblical precedents, surprise often comes to us with a dose of fear as well. As Fr. Barron points out, whenever God sends his messenger – his angel – the recipient’s initial response is fear. “Do not be afraid Mary,” the archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin. And then, out of the blue, from way-left field, comes the totally unexpected. Pregnant? How can that be? Our capacity for surprise may very well be the very measure of our faith. Is this what Jesus means when he says we must become like little children?

This week, on December 12th, we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Now there’s a story filled with surprises, overflowing with the unexpected. Beginning with the humble Aztec, Juan Diego, surprised by the rustle of birds on the side of the road, he encounters La Morena – the brown-skinned young woman, pregnant and clothed in a mantle of stars. Tell the bishop, she says, to build a temple here in my honor. Bring him these roses I place in your tilma as a sign. When Juan Diego unfurls his tilma, and the bishop drops to his knees, Juan Diego didn’t know he carried in his tilma not only roses but the image of La Morena herself. Within a very few years virtually the entire Aztec people were baptized and that tilma, still on display today, brings millions upon millions to see La Morena – the Virgin of Guadalupe. In this story surprise seems unlimited.

When the priests and the Levites confront the Baptist in today’s gospel: “Who are you – What are you?” He says he is no prophet, no Christ, but only a voice. Yet, with that voice he was able to identify the Christ for those who sought him. It was an important and necessary act since, once again, God would surprise us by sending someone just like us to be the image of him.

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. But it cannot be simply a preparation for something that has already happened some two thousand years ago. If it is only that, it may well serve as an opportunity to gather as family and friends and enjoy each other’s company - all well and good - but that’s not the point. Advent is not meant to help us remember a birthday but to prepare as best we can for the unexpected, for yet another coming, an encounter with him in a yet more humble way. We have no idea how or where the encounter will occur and so we can only prepare to be surprised. In this way when it happens, when that encounter with the divine takes place, we might be a little less frightened and a bit more open to recognize in creation and in those we meet a reflection of all that is good and true and beautiful. Advent is not meant to prepare us for the past but for the future, for that which is yet to happen. Try to remember that the next time you catch yourself startled, surprised, looking up.

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