Two great figures dominate the season of Advent: John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. John, about whom Jesus said that no man greater had ever been born of woman was sent from God to prepare the way of the Lord. Mary was chosen by God to give birth to and nurture the Savior of the world. John, we might say, was the way-maker, Mary the God-bearer; and, in fact, so she’s known among our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. Their favorite name for Mary is Theotokos, Greek for God-bearer.
Between them, John and Mary exemplify and model the essential qualities of a true follower of Christ. Each of us is called to prepare the way of the Lord in ourselves, so that, as John said, he Christ, might increase and we decrease, in other words, so that he may continue to grow in us. In the end we want to be able to say with St. Paul, “Not I, but Christ lives in me.”
Beyond this, we’re not only called to prepare the way of the Lord in ourselves but in others too. For our entering into the lives of others, in whatever way that may happen, intimately or casually, it should be easier for them to believe, to hope, and to love. At the very least, it shouldn’t be harder for them to believe, hope and love because of our influence in their lives. What John Paul II once wrote of priests is true of us all. We’re to build bridge not walls. We, like John the Baptist, are called to prepare the way of the Lord, to be way-makers.
We’re also called, like Mary, to be God-bearers, not as she was, obviously, but truly nonetheless. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. God almighty dwells in us. What an immense blessing! What high dignity! What awesome responsibility! Nine-tenths of what the world is selling us nowadays would have us believe we’re nothing more than slightly smarter than average animals, whose chief goals should be pleasure, comfort, and consumption. It’s a vision of life as a spa.
The Bible says NO. The Church says NO. We’re children of God. We’re God-bearers. We have an exalted calling and a sublime destiny. We’re made for greatness, not as the world defines it, as God defines it. We’re God-bearers, called to deport ourselves as such, to bring God to others, to share his riches, to live as best we can a Godly life now so that we’ll live with God forever. That’s what we’re made for.
He’s gone home to God now, but I had a friend, a Hungarian Benedictine priest, who was a world-class genius. Fr. Stanley Jaki had doctorates in theology and nuclear physics, spoke seven languages, and wrote about seventy books, many translated into other languages, including Chinese. He used to say that the West worshiped five false gods, each beginning with the letter “s”: sports, sex, smiles, stars (as in movie stars), and science. Attach any one of these to just about anything, he’d say, and you can sell it to almost anyone. Mind you, he was a scientist, but he knew science’s limits. He knew neither it nor any of the other false gods had anything at all to say about the meaning and purpose of life.
John the Baptist and Mary do: We are here to prepare the way of the Lord. We are here to be God-bearers. Let’s not sell ourselves short. We are called to great things. We are called to be way-makers. We are called to be God-bearers.
Could the message of today’s readings be any simpler or more direct? Jesus sums it up with the very last word of our gospel: “Watch!” In other words, be alert, be ready, be on the lookout. Watch! But is watching really so simple or easy?
Have you ever had to sit through a class that bored you silly? Under such circumstances, watchfulness can be a seemingly impossible challenge. Or have you ever had to keep watch over a toddler who seems to be filled with boundless energy and curiosity? Watchfulness in that case can be absolutely exhausting and nerve-wracking. Even in professions where watchfulness is essential to survival, tedium, routine, exhaustion, distractions all come into play, so that it’s not unheard of for soldiers on guard duty in war zones to doze off or, at least, to have lapses of attention.
Have you ever missed your exit on the parkway or suddenly realized that you have no recollection of the last ten minutes of driving? Maybe it dawns on you that you’re not sure what road you’re on or, worse, where you’re going. When Jesus says, “Watch!” it’s not as trivial a command as it may seem. He knows he’s asking something difficult. How much of life passes us by because we’re not paying attention? How many of God’s blessings do we miss because we’re distracted or preoccupied? It’s no accident that spiritual guides in all the world’s great religions counsel what’s often called “mindfulness.
If you’ve ever taken part in or witnessed a Japanese Tea Ceremony, you know that the whole point is to perform each element of the ritual with focus, attention, deliberation—we might almost say, with reverence—as opposed to hurriedly and distractedly. At the end of the ceremony, all you’ve got is a cup of tea, but it means something different because of what’s gone into making it. We all drink and eat, probably more than usual this past Thanksgiving, but how much do we really savor and appreciate what we eat and drink and all that went into its being available to us? The habit of watchfulness can change the way we live and see the world.
But what is that Jesus wants us to be on the watch for? Well, mostly himself so that we’re ready for him at his Second Coming, or when he calls us home to heaven, or when he whispers little inspirations to us in the circumstances of our daily lives or through the people we meet, including the ones we find most irritating. He doesn’t want us to miss these encounters or be unprepared for them.
Isn’t it remarkable that we can go for hours, days, maybe more, with God out of sight out of mind? Would that be the case if we heeded Jesus’ admonition to watch? “What I say to you,” he says “I say to all: Watch!” It may be the hardest thing he ever asks of us. We can often muster the courage and stamina to bear some heavy cross, but simply to watch, to be alert, to pay attention--how hard it is to maintain vigilance over the long haul. But that’s what Jesus asks, and he knows what he’s asking and why. “Watch,” he says. “Watch.”
I’d like to address the subject of thanksgiving from a point of view you may find unusual. Really what I want to say is that if we trust God as we should, there’s a lot more to thank God for than we normally find worthy of gratitude. Many of you have heard of C.S. Lewis. Your children may have read his Chronicles of Narnia, and many people I know who’ve read Mere Christianity have told me they considered it, perhaps, the best book they ever read in their lives.
Well here’s something interesting about C.S. Lewis you may not know. Although he wasn’t a Catholic, he carried on a long-running correspondence with an Italian priest. Lewis didn’t speak Italian, and the priest didn’t speak English, so they corresponded in Latin, the one language they shared in common and in which they were both fluent. In the course of their correspondence, Lewis wrote this: “We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is good, because it is good, if it is bad, because it works in us patience, humility, and the contempt of the world and the hope of our eternal country.”
The lives of many of the saints illustrate Lewis’ contention. St. Marie-Therese de Soubiran, e.g., who lived in 19th century France, was accused by a jealous nun of grossly mismanaging their religious order. The bishop believed these false charges and removed Mother Marie-Therese from her convent, to which she was never permitted to return. Toward the end of her life, she wrote to a friend: “The great truth that God is all and the rest nothing becomes the life of the soul, and upon it one can lean securely amid the incomprehensible mysteries of this world. . . . Should I have learned this without such cruel anguish? I do not think so.”
In my own life, I can testify personally to a mysterious truth to which many others who have undergone similar trials will bear witness. It’s this: As terrible as war is, as unspeakable as its conditions are and the things one sees and endures and is made to do in it, as much as all sane people pray for peace and an end to all war, having lived through one as a soldier, with other soldiers, I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything in the world. I wouldn’t recommend it or wish it on anybody, but I thank God not just for getting me through it but for entrusting the experience to me. I can say the same thing for just about every painful experience I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t be who I am without the scars. I make a poor enough show of it as it is, but I’d be even worse were it not for the many things I’ve been through and because of what I took to be unanswered prayers.
So thanks be to God this day, not just for sunshine but for rain, for good fortune and for bad, for health and for sickness, for success and failure, for plenty and want, for love and bereavement, healing and scars. Thanks for the gift of life with all its light and shadow. With the eyes of faith, we can see that it’s given to take the clay of which we’re made and mold us into something that sunshine and smooth sailing alone could never produce. Scripture tells us that our Lord learned obedience through what he suffered. If Christ, the only begotten Son of God, in his human nature, could learn depths of obedience from suffering, what might we, poor banished children of Eve, not learn by bearing our crosses?
C.S. Lewis was right: We ought to give thanks for all fortune, good and bad, because it’s all part of the path that leads to eternal life. If we get as good at giving thanks as we should, maybe someday we’ll be able to say with St. Catherine of Siena, who lived in the plague-ridden 14th century, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” Thanks be to God for heaven, and all that gets us there. Thanks for all fortune, good and bad. Thanks be to God, who knows what he permits and why her permits it. Amen.