2ND SUNDAY OF ADVENT: JOHN THE BAPTIST, THE GRINCH AND SCROOGE

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Showing in theaters worldwide since last week is The Grinch. The Grinch, based on Dr. Seuss’ holiday classic tells the story of a cynical grump who goes on a mission to steal Christmas.  He especially hates the Christmas season, making particular note of how disturbing the various noises of Christmastime are to him, including the singing of Christmas carols.

Similar to the Grinch is another popular anti-Christmas figure named Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a cold-hearted miser who despises Christmas. Scrooge was also turned into a popular movie shown on Christmas several years ago. 

Ironically, despite their hatred of the season, Grinch and Scrooge give an important lesson for Christmas. The story of Grinch and Scrooge is about transformation. We love to see the spirit of Christmas bring out the best in people. One of the essential lessons of Christmas, indeed, is personal transformation.

The story of Grinch and Scrooge also try to show us a different side of Christmas beyond the predominantly commercial and materialistic celebration of the season. There is more to Christmas than all the gifts, material things, merry-making and shopping. Unfortunately, commercial and business establishment, have used these two characters by highlighting their grumpiness and greediness as the opposite of the spirit of the season which is supposedly generosity and gift-giving. Deriding the character of the Grinch and Scrooge, is indeed good for business, as it justifies the mad frenzy of shopping and accumulating material things in the guise of generosity and gift giving.

Interestingly, the Grinch and Scrooge, resemble some similarities to John the Baptist, the main character of the gospel in today’s second Sunday of Advent. Luke in the gospel today, presents John the Baptist as a kind of anti-establishment figure but showed the people the true way of preparing for the coming of the messiah. 

First, Luke, at the beginning of the gospel, gives a list of the powerful people in the world at that time:  

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, 
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, 
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis, 
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, 
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.

Luke’s enumeration of the famous figures during the time near the birth of Jesus was not just to serve a historical function but to employ sarcasm against these political figures. With so many powerful people around, we wonder why God chose John the Baptist, an eccentric and lowly person, to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. Indeed, God, as Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat, “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.”

Secondly,  Luke locates John’s preaching to the people, not in the center, that is, the temple in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness or the desert. Despite John proclaiming in the desert, which is an inconvenience to many people especially the rich and powerful, the people went into the desert. It was not John who went to Jerusalem, but it was the people who went to the desert to hear John. In the Bible, God leads people into the isolation and barrenness of the wilderness or desert in order to effect transformation.

Thirdly, John’s lifestyle represents a counter-symbol to his contemporaries. Jesus once said: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon” (Mt. 11:18). He was arrayed in a “camel’s hair” garment, secured by a leather belt, and his diet was locusts and wild honey (Mt. 3:4). His dietary fare was that generally consumed by the poorer elements of society. He stood in bold relief to the wealthy, indulgent Jews of his day. 

Finally, John the Baptist way in preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah is not through external force but internal transformation:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

He preached a “baptism of repentance,” a cleansing from the old ways of “greed and darkness” and a commitment to a new way of living. 

Following the cue of John the Baptist, the church has set aside Advent as a privileged moment of retreat, a kind of going into the desert, in preparation for Jesus birth.  Advent is a quiet time of joyful anticipation which stands in great contrast with our culture’s turbulent consumer-bonanza during Christmas season.

Advent as a time of joyful anticipation is reflected in the other readings today. The prophet Baruch, in the first reading, says, “take off your robe of mourning and misery,” for God is leading his people “with his mercy and justice for company.” God’s people “are wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,” and they “will be named by God forever the peace of justice.”

St. Paul, too, in the second reading, speaks of joyful anticipation, of waiting for “the day of Christ Jesus.” He encourages the Philippians to grow in “love, understanding, wealth of experience, clear conscience, and blameless conduct,” and he concludes with a wish: “that you may be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in you.”

Grinch and Scrooge like John the Baptist point to personal transformation as one of the essential challenges of the Christmas story. But Grinch and Scrooge missed out the elephant in the room while John the Baptist did not. Christmas is more than just sharing and giving of gifts to each other. Christmas is celebrating and receiving the greatest gift of all. John the Baptist showed us that Christmas, most important of all, is the joyful preparation and anticipation of the coming of Jesus in our lives which calls for all of us a baptism of repentance.

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1ST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: SALVATION IS NOW!

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HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!

Perhaps you think I am getting confused about time. This is not January 1 nor is it the lunar new year or the beginning of the Muslim year. But this is the beginning of a new year for the Catholic Church.

Last week we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King and the last Sunday of the outgoing Church year. Today is the First Sunday in Advent and the beginning of a new Church year. It is also the beginning of a new cycle of prayers and Scripture readings, Cycle C.

Advent comes from the Latin adventus which is a translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming. This is reflected in our readings for this first Sunday of Advent.

The First Reading and the Gospel both talk about a time when the Lord comes—for justice. The First Reading from the prophet Jeremiah proclaims;

In those days Judah shall be safe 
and Jerusalem shall dwell secure; 
this is what they shall call her: 
“The LORD our justice.”

In the Gospel, Jesus warns people not to be overcome with the pleasures and anxieties of the world but to be ready for his coming. In his second coming Jesus will set things right, and ransom those who “can stand up straight and stand secure before the Son of Man. 

Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy 
from carousing and drunkenness 
and the anxieties of daily life, 
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times 
and pray that you have the strength 
to escape the tribulations that are imminent 
and to stand before the Son of Man.h.

In order that we may be ready for Christ at his second coming, St. Paul in the Second Reading, exhorts us: 

Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you, 
so as to strengthen your hearts, 
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father 
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.

The texts for this first Sunday of Advent are warning about the end of the world inasmuch as they are commentaries on living in the present. Jesus’ words are a wake-up call telling us to be present in any given moment and being decisive about the present. Since we do not know the hour or the day, let this be the hour, let this be the day, let this be the time that we live and die. This day, this moment, this life, is the time to bear fruit. Thus, the essence of Advent spirit is readiness for action: watchfulness for every opening, and willingness to risk everything for freedom and a new beginning.  We should all work and capture every opportunity for the elimination of disease, poverty, injustice and death itself although this will only be fully realized at the second coming of Jesus Christ.  

An appropriate phrase that captures the Advent spirit is carpe diem. Carpe diem is a Latin aphorism, usually translated “seize the day”, taken from book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes, written 23 years before Christ. The phrase is part of the longer carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, which can be translated as “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow (the future)”. The ode says that the future is unforeseen and that one should not leave to chance future happenings, but rather one should do all one can today to make one’s future better.  [1]

In our world today we see a lot of suffering and disease, injustice, poverty and war.  Our nation is in darkness, we are in a crisis.  The temptation is to sulk into the present and linger in our frustrations, anger, despair, anxieties.  Worst is to be passive and thus justify the greed, lust, pride around us.  So we no longer condemn the evil around us and no longer appreciate the beauty and blessings around us.  We no longer hope, no longer wait, no longer expect. We’ve stop living and dreaming.   

Advent seeks to awaken us from our weakening spirit, passive attitude and fatalistic mindset. Advent seeks to instills in us defiant hope, transformative attitude and patient confidence in God’s action. Advent reminds us that we can look forward from our darkness to the fact that God’s Light will always overcome the darkness of the world (Isaiah 9, 1 – 7).  We just have to learn how to wait for God’s grace, long for Jesus’ power and actively prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of the Messiah.

 


 

[1] Carpe Diem, Wikipedia, accessed 1/12/2018 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carpe_diem

Advent: A New Understanding of Time

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The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of a new year in the church with the celebration of the first Sunday of Advent.  On the First Sunday of Advent, I usually greet the people in the shrine “a Happy New Year!” They are dumbfounded to hear this at the end of November. Wait a minute, some of them would ask, you mean to say the church does not celebrate new year on January 1st? I tell them that the church also celebrates new year in January but for the church, the true beginning of the year is the first Sunday of Advent. 

This awareness that a different calendar exist in the church somehow rattles our understanding and experience of time since, pardon the cliché, time immemorial. For us, we simply understand time as just the usual chronology of events measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and years.  Time gives dimension to our experience like having a beginning and an end. The new awareness of a different time in the church, however, makes us think that there is more to time than the chronological and quantitative dimension of time. Time is something we have taken for granted for so long yet has profound and transformative power. 

The readings for the weekday and Sunday masses during Advent season may have also confounded our chronological understanding of time. It is indeed confusing to think that if Advent is the beginning of the new year in the church why are the readings during this season about the final events and end of days.  In other words, why begin with the end? Does the church have a reversed understanding of time? 

The celebration of Advent, indeed, exposes the different sense of time we employ in the ordinary world and the church. The church through its liturgical year calls us to ponder time in the context of the mystery of our salvation in God. The Church’s liturgical year is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ – his Person, birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection – and the Holy Spirit.  Time in the sense of the church is God’s plan as revealed in time. God’s salvation is not only revealed in the fullness of time, but in the gift of time itself.  It is a gift, as it is a creation of God, and the dimension in which we go about receiving redemption.

Thus, God’s salvation is not separate from the seasons of nature. Just as nature and our lives are responsive to the seasons of the year – Summer, Spring, Winter and Autumn, the Church’s liturgical year follows nature with its distinctive seasons and feasts which sustains the Catholic community’s life and mission. 

It is not just the church, however, who has a different perspective of time other than the chronological time. Even the scientific world has for a long time presented a more dynamic understanding of time. Thanks to Albert Einstein who more than 100 years ago proposed that the universe has no universal and absolute clock. Einstein’s concept of time is encapsulated in his theory of relativity which states that time and space are not as constant as everyday life would suggest. Time, according to Einstein is a relative concept and the higher you live above sea level the faster you should age. 

Even the ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos (χρόνος) and kairos (καιρός). Chronos refers to chronological or sequential time, while the kairos signifies a proper or opportune time for action.  While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative, permanent nature.

Kairos denotes the right, critical, or opportune moment. In etymological studies of the word, the primary root of the word traces back to the ancient Greek association with both archery and weaving. In archery, kairos denotes the moment in which an arrow may be fired with sufficient force to penetrate a target. In weaving, kairos denotes the moment in which the shuttle could be passed through threads on the loom. The moral lesson is that we should pay more attention to kairos even as we cannot abandon the chronos

The New Testament writers adopted this two distinctive Greek understanding of time. In the New Testament kairos was used to mean “the appointed time in the purpose of God,” the time when God acts (for example in Mark 1:15: “The kairos is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand!”). Kairos was used 86 times in the New Testament to refer to an opportune time, a “moment” or a “season” such as “harvest time,” whereas chronos  was used 54 times to refers to a specific amount of time, such as a day or an hour (e.g. Acts 13:18 and 27:9).

It is in this Biblical understanding of time adopted from the Greeks that we should read the texts of the liturgical readings during this Advent season. The texts are not so much a warning about the end of the world inasmuch as it is a commentary on living in a time of crisis and turbulence. What Jesus is talking about is now. Since we do not know the hour or the day, let this be the hour, let this be the day, let this be the time that we live and die. This day, this moment, this life, is the time to bear fruit. The essence of Advent is readiness for action: watchfulness for every opening, and willingness to risk everything for freedom and a new beginning.  We should all work and capture every opportunity for the elimination of disease, poverty, injustice and death itself although this will only be fully realized at the second coming of Jesus Christ.  

Christianity is fundamentally a religion of conversion. Christianity is an invitation for us to a change of heart and mind; to a transformation of our thinking and living according to God’s thinking, ways and attitude. It is also an invitation to live and act in time in accordance to God’s perspective of time. As the song goes,

In his time, in his time
He makes all things beautiful
In his time

Lord please show me everyday
As you’re teaching me your way
That you do just what you say
In your time