Advent Devotionals – Week Two
Saturday, December 5th and Sunday, December 6thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 30:19-32, 23-36; Psalm 147:1-6; Matthew 9:35-10:1, 5a, 6-8; and, Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85:9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/120520.cfm and https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/120620.cfm)
Reflection: The readings for the second Sunday of Advent direct our attention to John the Baptist, who was one of Jesus’s relatives. The text presents John to us as a very strange man. He lived in the desert. He wore an itchy coat with a leather belt. His favorite snack was honey-glazed grasshoppers, and he traveled around the countryside yelling about how he wanted to dunk people in rivers. Through these rather odd details, the Biblical text explicitly connects John the Baptist with the prophet Elijah, and in so doing, it depicts John as the fulfillment of two Old Testament messianic prophesies. One prophecy is from Malachi, in which God promises to send “Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). The other prophecy is from today’s Old Testament reading. God promises that a day is coming when “the Lord shall be revealed,” when God will rule the nations with power and strength, and yet when, as a shepherd, God will feed God’s flock, gather them in God’s arms, and carry them in God’s bosom. To prepare for this day, Isaiah writes, God will send a messenger, “the voice of one crying out in the desert” to prepare the way of the Lord by making his paths straight, filling in every valley, and flattening out every mountain (Isaiah 40:3-4).
John is understood to be this messenger, and he understands his task to be proclaiming the advent of one who is to come. The one John proclaims is so mighty that John is unworthy to untie his shoes; he is one who will baptize people, not by dipping them into water, but by bathing them in the Holy Spirit. Understanding John to be a faithful model of fulfilling the will of God, how can we follow his example today? How can we fill in the valleys and flatten the mountains to ensure everyone has a level playing field? What would it mean for us to prepare the way of the Lord in our society? What is it today that is preventing or obstructing people from hearing the good news? Are there beliefs, worries, distractions, falsehoods, laws, policies, needs, or personal flaws that serve as “stumbling blocks” to people’s faith journey? How can we clear these impediments to God’s will being accomplished?
Monday, December 7thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 85:9-14; Luke 5:17-26. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/120720.cfm)
Reflection: Luke’s Gospel today recounts the story of a paralyzed man. Some men brought this paralyzed man to Jesus on a stretcher, but Jesus was so swarmed with crowds of people that the men could not get near him. Not to be deterred, the men execute a plan to go and get a ladder and some rope, climb up on the roof of the building, tear a hole in the roof, carry the paralyzed man’s stretcher up on the roof, and lower the man down in front of Jesus’s face. Jesus, seemingly unfazed by these unexpected measures, himself responds in an unexpected way. Rather than immediately healing the man’s paralysis, which one would assume was the hope of one who was dangling from the ceiling, Jesus first forgives his sins. Only after the scribes and Pharisees object to this as blasphemy does Jesus physical heal the man, so that all may know “that the Son of Man has authority on Earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5:24).
One could reflect upon a great many aspects of this short story. It might occasion us to consider the nature and purpose of Christ’s miracles. We might question the way in which, as the Gospel of Luke often makes explicit, Jesus’s work to restore people to physical and bodily wholeness is almost always connected with his work to restore people to the spiritual wholeness of being freed from sin. We might just wonder where the men got the ladder.
In light of the previous Advent reflections, however, what seems to merit particular consideration is the men themselves who carried the paralyzed man. Who were these men? Were they friends or relatives? Why were they willing to go to such extreme lengths to help someone? Whatever the reasons, these men provide an excellent example of what it looks like to follow God’s will, to work to bring about God’s Kingdom, and, like John the Baptist, to prepare the way for the Lord to work. How might we follow the example set by these men? How can we be creative and resourceful in our work for others (while hopefully avoiding vandalism)? Who can you go to extraordinary lengths to help today?
Tuesday, December 8thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Genesis 3:9-15, 20; Psalm 98:1-4; Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12; Luke 1:26-38. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/120820.cfm)
Reflection: Today, in official Catholic Church terminology, is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the six holy days of obligation where, aside from Sundays, Catholics are required to attend Mass and abstain from unnecessary work. Unlike what one might expect during Advent, rather than celebrating Jesus’s conception, this feast instead celebrates Mary’s conception, in which Catholics believe Mary was miraculously preserved from the stain of Original Sin. The Church accordingly celebrates Mary’s conception exactly nine months before the feast of the Nativity of Mary, on September 8th, much as it celebrates the feast of the Annunciation of Christ’s birth on March 25th, exactly nine months before Christmas day.
The readings today recount the Archangel Gabriel coming to Mary and proclaiming, “Hail, [Mary], full of grace! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Gabriel then clues Mary into God’s plan that she virginally conceive a son, that she name him Jesus, and that he be destined to inherit the throne of David and rule over a Kingdom with no end. After a quick logistical question, Mary consents to this plan wholeheartedly and declares, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word!” (Luke 1:38).
Due to the faith, purity, and willingness demonstrated by these words, Catholics believe that Mary is worthy of the utmost respect and adoration. God chose her, out of everyone who has ever lived, to carry out the single most important task ever given to a human being, namely, bearing Christ to the world. Mary thus serves as a perfect exemplar for both the life of the Church and the lives of individual Christians. Let us reflect today, therefore, upon how we might follow Mary’s example. Do we understand ourselves to be God’s handmaidens? Are we willing to consent to God’s will, with no thought about what it might personally cost us or how it might derail the plans we have for our lives? How can we bear Christ to others? How can we bring forth light into the darkness of our world? How can we enflesh God in the midst of a confused and suffering society?
Wednesday, December 9thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:25-31; Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10; Matthew 11:28-30. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/120920.cfm)
Reflection: The Gospel reading for today is very short, but its length belies its depth. The text is worth quoting in its entirety: “Jesus said to the crowds: ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light’” (Matthew 11:28-30). In a society: that is obsessed with competition; that worships productivity; that teaches children that their value is conditioned upon their contribution to society and is directly reflected by their bank accounts; that is possessed by the delusion that hard work is not just a virtue but a means of salvation; that holds as normative a pace of life so frenetic that stress-induced mental and physical illnesses have become leading causes of death; and, that just so happens to find itself additionally burdened by a once-in-a-century pandemic…rest is hard to come by. True rest, in such a context, might even be impossible, by natural means.
Nonetheless, Christ today offers his followers rest, and true rest indeed. Christ offers us freedom from having to prove ourselves to a world that thinks we are never good enough. Christ offers us a way to recognize that we have inherent dignity and value, which derives not from our talents, efforts, or productivity, but from the fact that we have been created on purpose and for a purpose by an infinite being who loves us unconditionally. Christ offers us a way out of the delusion that we ourselves are gods, who can do it all and who bear the weight of the world on our shoulders. Christ offers us a way out of running as hard as we can from our fear of death and finitude. Christ offers us a fair, objective, and infallible judgment of ourselves as persons, as opposed to the unattainable and unrealistic standards to which we hold ourselves. Christ offers us a way, the only way, in fact, to satisfy our insatiable and infinite desires, which we waste all of our energy trying to fulfill with things that can never fulfill us. Are you tired? What do you say to Christ’s offer of true rest? Can you give up being a slave to the world, to money, to power, to success, to yourself, to your dreams, or to your own desires, and become a slave of Christ?
Thursday, December 10thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 41:13-20; Psalm 145:1, 9-13; Matthew 11:11-15. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121020.cfm)
Reflection: Today’s New Testament reading finds Jesus stating, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force” (Matthew 11:12). The original Greek text here, and what exactly Jesus is talking about, is rather unclear. He seems to be saying that in his day, there are people, perhaps with good intentions, who seek to bring about (the word literally means to grasp, snatch, or possess) the Kingdom of God, but that these people are trying to do so by the wrong means. They seek to achieve the Kingdom by human means and by their own power, rather than receiving the Kingdom of God as a pure and underserved gift from God. They try to bring about the Kingdom of God by violence. In so doing, they perpetuate violence.
One thinks here of the religious leaders, the scribes, and the Pharisees of Christ’s time. One may also think of much of the history of human society, of the rise and fall of kingdoms, of governments, reichs, and empires. A socially just society, a utopian society, a classless society, a secular society ruled by reason, the Pax Romana, a world in which we all actually just get along with each other – all of these are fine visions. It matters, though, how we get there. As St. Augustine points out in his City of God, even thieves and brigands desire peace, as long as it is a peace on their terms.
Perhaps today’s reading, therefore, can occasion our reflection upon peace, violence, and where we place our hope. Do we look to the world to give us peace? Do we place our hope in America, in the government, in the economy, in our leaders, in democracy, in science, in the legal system, or in police and military protection, to give us peace and allow us to live our lives free from the violation of our wills? If so, Christ’s words should help us recognize the folly of these hopes. The peace that the world can give us, the peace of any Earthly Kingdom, is not and cannot be a true peace, for it will always be premised upon violence, control, subjugation, exclusion, and oppression. The peace of civilized societies are always built upon the backs of the poor, the oppressed, the workers, and those excluded from the benefits of the society. We cannot have peace alone. True peace, and the true Kingdom of God, is the kind of thing that only God can bring about. We can join the Kingdom. We can work to prepare the way for the Kingdom to come, but we cannot grasp, possess, or bring it about by our own efforts.
Friday, December 11thClick Here to Expand
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 48:17-19; Psalm 1:1-4, 6; Matthew 11:16-19. (https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/121120.cfm)
Reflection: Today’s reading from Matthew immediately follows upon yesterday’s reading about violence and the Kingdom of God. After remarking that the way of the world is to try and impose peace through violence, Jesus compares the people of his generation to silly children trying to get others to dance to whatever tune they desire. He says, “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17). These children, no less than the great empires of history, spend their lives trying to impose their wills on others. In so doing, they always remain unsatisfied. Jesus thus points out, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (Matthew 11:18-19).
This is why, Jesus here points out, the way of the world can never offer true rest or true peace. The way of the world can never be satisfied. The demands the world places upon us can never be fully met, for as soon as we dance to one tune, it plays another. Christ makes clear through the readings this week that the only solution is to refuse to dance altogether, to stop chasing the things society tells us to chase, to serve God, rather than serve the fleeting whims of people who can never be satisfied.
In what ways have you been serving the wrong master? In what ways have you been trying to do it all, be everything to all people, or to meet people’s ever-changing expectations of you? Have you devoted your time to the impossible task of trying to make everyone happy? Are you weary of the world’s expectations? Christ is offering us a new master, a new system, a new way of being in the world. He is offering us a way of living in the Kingdom of God rather than the Kingdoms of the World. Are you interested in the offer?