Homily – 1st Sunday in Advent

The holy season of Advent gives us four weeks as Christians, followers of Jesus, to prepare not only to remember his historical coming in time, to be one with us, Emmanuel, but of our journey to God.  Both parts are important, but the last is equally important!  Advent is a time to remember that Jesus doesn’t just come to us, but we MUST also be on a journey to him.

All the readings today speak about being on a journey.  In our opening hymn, we sang, “People look east, the time is near!”  “Pilgrimage” is the word most used by the people in Jesus’ earthly time.  Psalm 22 speaks about the joy a traveler or pilgrim felt in entering the temple, the house of God.  The prayer on the pilgrim’s lips was always, “peace, be with you.”  I reflect on the greetings of family and friends over this Thanksgiving weekend—in our family as we greeted each other initially and said our good-byes at day’s end—it was all about peace and all good to each one. Travelers long to go home each Thanksgiving, remembering times past and the joy of being with loved ones—and, this is something different to each person.

This is the year that our children are with their in-laws—we switch it up each year for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but even from the miles, the greetings come back and forth and the gratitude for each other is felt.  Thanksgiving also reminds me of three years ago when our daughter’s Thanksgiving plans to come home were changed abruptly when she developed pre-eclampsia and had to stay put hoping to keep the baby inside as long as possible. Elliot, ever anxious for life and what comes next stayed put until December 8th, and has caused us all to feel gratitude ever since, as we “journey” with him.

In Jesus’ time, the greeting, “Peace, be with you,” was the wish that people gave to each other when they entered another’s home, much like we say, “Hello” and give hugs of welcome.  “Peace, be with you” was indicative of the fact that the time when Jesus walked the earth was a time of warring—one nation against another—in many ways, like today.  Jerusalem was a strong fortress in and of itself, but the psalmist tells us that what made it strong was the presence of God within, and if they enjoyed any peace at all, it was due to that fact, that God lives there, within them and each person and their world.  The same is true of us—our strength and peace and well-being comes from our God within us, our being aware that we are a part of something bigger than our own existence. Our strength and peace of mind does not come ultimately from any of the material trappings we gather around us.  Hopefully, these thoughts can comfort us as we contemplate and worry about what will come next in our country.

There is a wonderful story told entitled, “The Basement of my Heart”—I have shared this story with you in the past, but it bears repeating at this time of year. The story is about a person whose life was in disarray.  This person had so much going on—sad and hard things happening in her life—and one day, just sat down, wondering where God was in all this trouble.  In the quiet—she found that God was right there, in the “basement of her heart” and when she took the time, she found God had been there all along and wanted to help her and be with her in not just the good, but the hard things in her life.  I like to share this story because it is so easy to forget in the busy-ness of our lives that our strength and hope is very close—right within us, in fact!

The gospel today tells us that the Promised One is coming at a time we least expect. The scripture continues…“so we should be ready.” As the story, “The Basement of my Heart” suggests, our God is always near and being cognizant of this fact, softens the Scripture and informs us each day that God does indeed love us and want our good.  Each of us has God within us—we are made of God and as someone wise has said, we are merely spiritual beings here, having a human experience.

So, you see; our journey this Advent isn’t to strive to become more spiritually-minded; we just have to become more aware of who we really are, and claim that existence in our human hearts. When we believe this, then we can believe the concept that each of us carries the face of God and of the responsibility to show that face to the world in which we live. If we walk through our lives with eyes and hearts open, the opportunities to share the goodness of life—the face of Jesus, abound.  We are finishing up our collection for Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota next Sunday and then we can look toward assisting with the Winona Warming Center and the Ten Days of Giving.  Many of us are involved in sharing a monthly meal at the Catholic Worker House, besides our regular sharing of groceries for Winona Volunteer Services, which we will pick up again on the second Sunday in December.

Paul, in the reading from Romans tells us to “wake up.”  In the Gospel reading from Matthew we hear of the need to “stay awake” and “to be prepared.”  All of our readings today are preparing us to receive Jesus, our Savior, more fully into our lives.  This is such a rich time—Advent, and I love it, every year when it comes round.  I find within myself the need to prepare each year for the awesome coming of Jesus, not only into history, but into my life anew.

Each year when Advent comes, I go out on our land and cut pine boughs, bring them into the house to become part of a wreath, something like the one that resides to my right here in our liturgical space today.  The color of the boughs is green, the church color for hope—we hope in our God for so much!

We have one candle lit today and we will add one each week as we journey toward Christmas.  The color for the season is blue—a color that denotes the holy, royal blood line of Jesus both human and of God and the blue is also in deference to Mary, his beloved mother.  In the third week, Gaudete Sunday, or simply, “Joy Sunday,” because our journey to Christmas is almost complete, we will light the candle in the white holder.

Again, this is such a rich time and we simply should not let ourselves, like much of our society, rush to Christmas before we have prepared.  During Advent, I always spend time thinking of Mary, Jesus’ mother and of her preparations to be a mother, for the first time. It wasn’t something she could rush—seemingly, it would take 9 months no matter what she did. She was told this would be a special child—the very Son of God. Would this birth be different from other births? She didn’t know. She had to prepare like this holy child would arrive like any other because she simply didn’t know.

I think the more we can make the Holy Family real, live human beings, the more we can look up to them as models in our own faith over matters that we don’t entirely understand. It was a walk in faith for Mary and Joseph as all pregnancies are. But the important piece is that preparation was necessary, then, and for us now.  The incarnation—“God-with-us” is an awesome event, not to be taken lightly!  We live in a society unfortunately that wants everything NOW rather than patiently waiting and making sure that we are truly ready.

And how do we do that?  I would guess that the words of Isaiah today in the first reading are a good place to start.  We are told to take the tools of war that are basically violence and hatred and turn them into life-producing tools—goodness, kindness, justice, truth and love.  Now I know that this is a stretch—to imagine that we can ever get rid of war and fighting as a way to peace, especially with some of the rhetoric we have heard during the presidential campaign, but hope springs eternal within me and with any great venture; we simply have to start. In our own lives, what can we do to be more peace-minded, less apt to fly off the handle when “someone gets under our skin?” I have found, putting some space and time between my reactions allows for a calmer, clear-headed response, one that can attempt to see an opposing opinion.  At times like these, it is good to remember our brother Jesus and how he responded to like situations—he was always trying to better understand people.  It is also good to distinguish between the crime and the person. It is appropriate to hate the crime, but never the person, and granted, this is hard to do at times. For the Christian this simply means that we need more and more to put on Jesus—become more like him.

This time of year, we always hear stories of ways that people step out of themselves and give in a special way because of the gratitude they feel for all the gifts they have received in life. Advent is about gratitude for a God who has loved us enough to send us Jesus.

As Paul says, “we need to be alert, attentive for ways to become more like Jesus—we need to change our hearts! And the local paper gave us this in the person of Michael Gerson from the Washington Post:  “For believers, Christmas culminates the remarkable story of a God who searches for us.  The only adequate responses are stillness, gratitude and trust.  After a dismal and divisive campaign season, many of us need the timely reminders of the Advent Season: that people matter more than all our political certainties.  That God is in control, despite our best efforts.  And that some conflicts can’t be won by force or votes—only by grace.”

So friends, may Advent be for each of us, a time to grow closer to our God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—if we haven’t been as attentive to his message as we would like, then I invite us all to go into the “basement of our hearts” and get reacquainted with our God who is always near.