The Euclid Telescope made news just several weeks ago. You may have seen in the media an astonishing sample of photos from this new robotic telescope, launched in July, and which is mapping the “extragalactic sky.” [i] I find most striking a photo of what is being called the “Horsehead Nebula,” an equine-shaped cloud with baby stars. It is many light years away: 1,375 light years away from us. One light year is almost 6 trillion miles from earth. This “Horsehead Nebula” we can now see is 1,375 x 6 trillion miles away from us.[ii]
If I sound as if I know what I am talking about, I do not. I know virtually nothing about the science of astronomy. I am a reader, and an awestruck observer, as you may be also. This interstellar experience of the vastness of God’s creation is the very thing we read about in the Psalms. The psalmist writes about the God, the Creator:
“Your majesty is praised in the heavens…
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
who are we that you should be mindful of us…?”[iii]
Who are we? We are among those whom the scriptures call “children of God” who have lived the generations of time before us and who, in God’s mercy, may live generations of time beyond us. This is what God has had in mind since the dawn of creation: we come from God, and we belong to God, and we have captured God’s desire to share life in eternity with us. All of us, all God’s creatures.
Today is Advent Sunday – the first day of a new Christian year. It is, as the Scriptures urge, a time to wake up. To shake ourselves, to take stock of our lives. And to do it NOW! There is an urgency to Advent. Urgent, because God is working his purposes out in our world and in our lives. Advent proclaims loud and clear that there IS a purpose to our lives, and that there will be an end, and that that end is coming ever nearer. For that reason, Advent has always traditionally had as its themes, the ‘four last things’; death, judgment, heaven and hell. These sober realities are coming nearer to us each one of us. Or as a friend of mine used to put it with a bit of a grin, ‘None of us gets out of this alive’! So, Advent is a serious and challenging season, and challenges us to take stock of our lives, and to do it NOW.
The Gospels are full of this sense of urgency. Jesus’ words are so often full of this urgency. We hear it whenever Jesus encounters men and women. Jesus doesn’t just wander around Galilee uttering timeless, philosophical dictums or epigrams. He is not essentially a philosopher – he is a prophet. He speaks OUT, he speaks hard things which challenge, and shock, and outrage. He tells a parable and immediately says, ‘What do you think?’ How will you respond? Now. He challenges, and confronts, and brings judgment, now. To one he says, ‘Change your life.’ To another, ‘Repent. Follow me. Sell everything you have. Leave your mother and father and family. Come. Now.’
St. Andrew the Apostle
In the Eastern Church, St. Andrew is known by the title Protokletos: St. Andrew, the First-Called.
In this first week of Advent, the first week of the liturgical year, today’s feast provides a simple but profound opportunity to return to first principles.
In a contemplative spirit, we can pause to reconsider some fundamental questions about what it means to be called by Jesus, and what it means to be sent.
I don’t spend a lot of time reading for pleasure, but when I do, I usually gravitate towards mysteries. I love the way skilled mystery writers can weave together a complex plot involving a whole cast of characters, somehow leaving us hanging at the end of each chapter, eager for more. The situations the detectives find themselves in are always so complicated – there are numerous suspects with possible motives and pieces of evidence that don’t seem to fit, and we’re wondering how this tangled situation will ever be resolved. But, invariably, in the final pages the truth comes out, the villain makes a fatal mistake, a key piece of evidence comes to light, or the detective has a brilliant flash of insight, and the whole complex situation finds resolution. 95% of the book is spent weaving the complicated plot, and the last 5% is spent resolving and explaining the mystery.
Most of the time I find these kinds of stories satisfying. (I do like a tidy ending!) But at times the ending feels too neat and I think to myself, ‘that’s not how life works.’ Situations in life that are as tangled as this don’t resolve themselves quite this conveniently, most of the time.
Listen in on two seasonal podcast episodes, as Br. Curtis Almquist joins Steve Macchia on the Discerning Leader Podcast, to discuss how Advent can allow us to get in touch with our deepest longings and prepare our hearts for the coming to Christ into this world.
“Advent invites us to slow down and create space in order to receive Christ in the fullness of our being.” – Curtis Almquist, SSJE
Discerning God during the season of Advent takes prayerful intentionality, especially with the onslaught of alluring messages from our over-commercialized world. It’s the beginning of the church year, where we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ in his physical nativity, in our own hearts, and in his future second coming. It’s also a time of disciplined fasting and abstinence, a time to ponder and pray, which helps us to get in touch with our deepest longings as we prepare our hearts for the prophetic and mysterious coming of Christ into this world.
“Learning the value of waiting has largely been removed from our vocabulary. Advent gives us the gift of waiting.” –Curtis Almquist, SSJE
Advent is a season of anticipation. A time of preparation for the Christian community. The promised Messiah is coming in Jesus and the Church remembers once more. With a penitential quality to the season, Advent is a solemn time to pay attention to what is standing in the way of our walking in the way. It’s a time for personal reflection in our prayer closet where stillness and silence are our teacher. It’s a season of noticing those around us who are lost and lonely, reaching out to those who fear being forgotten. It’s a time to practice presence and gratitude.
It is curious that we begin a new season today, the First Sunday of the Advent season. Outside the walls of this monastery chapel, a new season began just after Halloween, called “Holiday Shopping Season,” along with the Amazon promise that you can have it all now… at least by tomorrow. The season of Advent interposes quite an opposite theme. Anticipating Christmas is not about immediacy. Rather, it is about watching, and waiting, and preparing to celebrate Christ’s infant birth at Bethlehem, and to prepare for Christ’s promise that he will come again in real time. In Advent, you will see no holiday glitter here in this chapel. What catches our eye’s attention is the Advent wreath, front and center, on which we slowly light candles. In the Hebrew scriptures, the promised Messiah teems with the language of light. The Messiah is called “the Dayspring,” “the Morning Star,” “the Sun of Righteousness,” “the Light of the World.”
And don’t we need light, especially as we approach the winter solstice? Meanwhile, there’s more and more darkness outside. The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th probably has to do with light. The earliest Christians most likely wanted the date of Christmas to coincide with the festival of the Roman Empire on December 25th which marked “The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.”[i] This festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun rises higher in the sky: December 25th.[ii] And so light has historically figured very importantly into this Advent season preparing for the coming and coming again of Christ: light. Light in the sky and light in our souls.
The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth always captures my praying imagination.
I see an old, tough woman suffused with the giddy joy of a young girl, the kind that visits mothers, grandmothers, and aunts at wedding receptions. In squeals of laughter, flushed cheeks and bare feet on the dance floor, a youthful radiance gleams from the young at heart.
And I see a young girl, centered, purposeful, and wise beyond her years, with a confidence and vision that are usually the gifts of chronological maturity. She declares words of passion and purpose about the true order of things in a voice that does not quiver. It is a strange combination of purity and precociousness, the kind that we glimpse in the old souls of certain children.
The Spirit touches the first with a buoyant exuberance and a cry of joy that begins deep in the belly. The Spirit touches the second with anchored assurance and a song that echoes down the generations.
If you love domesticated animals like cats, dogs, and horses, or even some unconventional critters like monkeys, beavers, and squirrels, you have probably run across a website called ‘thedodo.com.’ The Dodo serves up emotional, visually compelling, and highly sharable animal-related stories and videos with the aim of making the care of animals a viral cause. The videos that bring a tear to the eye of a sensitive guy like me are the dog rescue videos. There are countless versions of this scenario: someone comes across a mangy, emaciated pup, that is tired, scared, weak, and not far from death. Animal rescuers are called to gather the animal, carefully and patiently doing what is necessary to subdue it while protecting themselves from the pups self-preserving, fear-filled growls, yaps, and snaps. Ultimately, the animal resigns and is taken to a veterinarian for rehabilitation with the hopes of finding it a forever home. The dogs are bathed, shaved, treated for mange, parasites, and other injuries, fed and nourished. Each video is a brief time-lapse record of its recovery, ending with the dog fully recovered, happy, and unrecognizable from the condition it was found in; it’s disposition one of unreserved love and affection.
We all know the feeling of waiting for that one guy who is always late. That feeling of quiet anger rising as the whole room waits for him to arrive so that the meeting can start. You try to be patient, you try some small talk, but soon the frustrating thoughts creep in… he always does this, God is he clueless, someone should say something to him. The moments drag by…then finally the tardy man arrives two minutes late, holding tea and toast.
St. Paul encourages us tonight to regard others as better than ourselves. Now please keep in mind St. Paul didn’t write these words on his honeymoon. He wrote these words in jail, locked up because he was a Christian. So even in chains he asks us to consider others as better than ourselves…that includes Mr. Tea and Toast.
Why would St. Paul write such a thing? Why not write something like follow the spirit of Christ and always arrive five minutes early so no has to wait for you? The genius of St. Paul was his vision for the long haul. He knew that having the patience to regard others as more important is a short term pain for a long term gain. In other words, patience is a good strategy.
Isaiah 11: 1 – 10
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Luke 10: 21 – 24
We’ve probably all seen them somewhere: in a poster shop; at an art gallery; on a book or magazine cover. Depictions of the peaceable kingdom, as this passage from Isaiah is often called, are popular among artists and illustrators from a variety of traditions. One nineteenth century artist, Edward Hicks, even painted 62 slightly different versions of the peaceable kingdom!
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain….
But I am not an art historian, and this is not an art appreciation class, and as fascinating as it is to consider why Hicks painted so many different version of this passage, and what those differences might mean, the real question for us tonight is not, why we should care about Hicks, but why this passage from Isaiah is so important!