1st Sunday of Advent – Reflection
Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12 – 4:2; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36
It’s here: the rush between Thanksgiving and Christmas. There’s presents to buy, cards to write, food to cook, family to invite, travel arrangements to make, and all on top of our already full schedules! Now we have to deal with phone bills plus a Christmas pageant, work plus big family dinners, household chores and holiday decorations. Stress levels run high this time of year; anxieties multiply. These anxieties can numb our hearts. Jesus warns us: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from…the anxieties of daily life.”
Perhaps we already long for the end of the holiday season like Jeremiah longs for a new king of Israel. If we scratch the surface of both longings we might discover our real longing: our hearts really and truly long for God. We are made for God and our hearts won’t rest until they rest in the Mystery of God. That’s what we really want. The church recognizes this yearning and explores it in the season of Advent, the season we begin today. This hunger for God is what Advent is all about. It is about setting our hearts on their true desire: God.
Advent is about opening to Divine Light, the Light of the world revealed in and as Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us to share in this Godly light by realizing each and every one of us is one with God no matter what we have done and despite our past history or anything else we could come up with as an excuse for thinking God is far away from us. You see, the heart of the Gospel is mysticism: realizing oneness with God, knowing God as Jesus knows God, sharing in Jesus’ oneness with God. The great news is that we already have this oneness and intimacy with God but we do not know it or enjoy it. We have to open to this oneness and become enlightened. The first step is getting in touch with what we deeply desire.
But so much in our lives can muddy the waters of desire, so much daily and holiday anxiety can make our hearts sleepy and scattered; we can get so preoccupied with all the things we have to do before Christmas. Furthermore, we can be overly comfortable with a business as usual approach to the Christmas season: just chugging along with little awareness of the moment or other people or even our own desires.
In all this anxiety and holiday rush, Jesus speaks: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Our worlds will end. I do not think this passage is about THE end of the world so much as it is about the end of our private little worlds. Jesus is saying that we should not depend on those worlds. He is saying that when everything seems to be going to hell, “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand,” which we might paraphrase as “trust in God who is with you and one with you amidst tragedy and chaos and difficulties.”
Jesus uses powerful symbols of destruction to wake up our sleepy hearts. He knows we can go through life on cruise control and forget what really matters. He calls us to lift up our hearts to God, which means our hearts have to wake up! So, Jesus speaks this way to disrupt the status quo of our sleepy hearts. Business as usual – the normal anxieties of everyday life as much as the holiday anxieties that pile up on top of the rest – can put our hearts to sleep and keep us from enjoying God in this very moment. And, enjoying God in this very moment is what “prayer” means.
Jesus shakes us out of our all-too-comfortable and overly-preoccupied little worlds and tells us to pray. Pray because these little worlds will come to an end. They aren’t forever and we shouldn’t invest our time or energy or life in them because if we do we will fall apart along with these little worlds. We pray to find the one true center of life. In finding this divine center we will know some stability during difficult times.
One of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians, the German Jesuit priest Karl Rahner once said, “Many have entered the Kingdom of God without the sacraments. None have entered without prayer.” No one enters God’s kingdom without prayer because prayer is our relationship with God. Rahner echoes Jesus’ teaching in this Gospel to be vigilant and pray always. Prayer, living our relationship with God, includes a wide variety of practices and styles: saying prayers, using our imaginations, conversing with God, resting in God in a silence deeper than our thinking, and many others. Still, all prayer is delightful and prayer is easy.
Prayer is delightful. Prayer focuses on God alone, who is our real happiness. Our hearts get what they really and truly desire. To pray is to enter into infinite joy, because God is our joy. God is Joy itself. We are simply delighting in our God. Thomas Aquinas said it well: loving God means enjoying God for God’s sake. Prayer is a joy, because it focuses us on THE joy of our lives: God. “My happiness lies in you alone, O God,” say the Psalms.
Prayer is easy. You don’t need anything or any place in particular to do it because God is always with you – within you, one with you! Prayer is as easy as breathing, as being right here and right now. The only rule is: pray as you can and not as you can’t. Do what works for you. Just practice what today’s Psalm says, “To you, O Lord, I lift my soul.” Lift up your soul to God in whatever way you can. It need not mean concentration. Talk and listen. Just be, just nothing. Prayer can be saying nothing, thinking nothing, being nothing. About prayer the German mystic Meister Eckhart has said: “sink down out of something into nothing,” meaning let go of all self-preoccupation and sink into the nothingness of God.
Of course, we make prayer complicated. We think of prayer, often, as one more thing to do. We think it is for the saints. We make it something beyond us. Prayer becomes an item on our to-do lists. We want to pray more but feel depressed when our desire falls short of reality. Or, we just don’t want to do it at all. We’d rather watch the game or a movie, or just go to sleep. It may feel like a waste of time. We don’t want our comfortable little worlds to end; we hold onto our private habits, our me time. So, we suffer the consequences: boredom, listlessness, burnt out, and an unfulfilled feeling. Our hearts get drowsy. Our lives settle on cruise control.
So, Jesus has to wake us up and tell us to “be vigilant at all times and pray.” It will change our lives! But, don’t take my word for it. Pray and see how it is delightful and easy. Do it right now. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and allow your mind to become quiet. Whenever some thought grabs your attention, just breathe and return to this interior silence in faith. Take a few moments to be in God in silence right now. This is what Jesus means by being vigilant and praying always. It is to be in God’s Presence through interior silence. Here we have the heart of the Gospel: to simply love God as God within your very soul, and to let that interior silence spill over into daily life as you go shopping, enjoy Christmas parties, pay bills, spend time with family, and check off things on your to-do list. Let God be God in all of these and all other areas of your life, but starting within.
The message today is simple: pray; connect to God, your heart’s true desire. Pray and the anxieties of this holiday season won’t overwhelm you. When you get anxious, pray. When you get bored, pray. When you get confused, uncertain, grateful, excited, pray. Pray and you will be able to handle and even thrive in chaos, disorder, and the end of your private world. Pray and know the freedom that comes from being in relationship with God, a freedom from the grip of worry, busy-ness, selfish comfort, and the boredom of the status quo. Pray and you will be happy, for you will be giving your heart what it really wants, who it really wants, God.