Tag Archives: Advent

Dying of Thirst

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

….

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. In that day the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst.  Amos 8: 4-13.

In the Daily Office reading from the Old Testament, we find the prophet Amos acting in the quintessential role of the prophet:  he speaks as a social critic, calling the people of Israel to change their ways.  At first blush, we might wonder what this has to do with us today and how this reading fits into our understanding of Advent.   

Amos speaks out against a terrible social and spiritual problem:  deceit.  Particularly, he is concerned with those who take advantage of the poor.  We don’t have to look very  far to find modern examples suggesting that this is still a problem.  Our newspapers remind us  that there’s nothing archaic about Amos’ concern.  From pools of mortgage-backed securities to deceptive bank  and credit card practices to borrowers who take out loans that they know they cannot repay, we encounter the problem of deceit every day.  But, for the sake of our souls, rather than looking at the headlines, we should search our lives for the ways in which our own deception has separated us from God.  If I have a superpower in this life, it’s my capacity for deception and self-deception. 

Amos believed  that the problem had become so widespread that he compared it to a moral famine and a spiritual drought.  He believed that sharp dealings and deception would result in our inability to hear God in the world.  He wrote about people going from “sea to sea, and from north to east” looking for some whisper of God, and not being able to find it.  That’s the state of the people in first century Palestine:  they knew that their spiritual lives were withering without God’s word, without God’s presence.

Amos summed up our Advent expectation, hoping for a day when justice would “roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  Amos 5: 24.  In the Collect for this second we of Advent we pray:  “Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.” 

Like Amos, we pray for the end of this famine, for this spiritual drought.  We hope for a day when justice, honor and fairness would roll across the land like an  overflowing torrential river.  That’s our Advent hope, as well.  The people of Israel were spiritually parched, dying for God’s word.  Advent tells us that Word is coming. 

God give you peace and a spirit of wonder,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis

The Last Prophet

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.  But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’  They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him.He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.  Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.  All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.  Luke 1:57-68.

In today’s Gospel reading in the Daily Office, we find the story of the birth and naming of John the Baptist.  This bit of Scripture provides us with a wonderful Advent reflection on  John, who our Orthodox brothers and sisters call The Forerunner.  It’s a remarkable story.

As you’ll remember, John’s father (Zechariah) was a priest.  The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, explaining that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son named John, a son who would turn the people of Israel’s hearts to the Lord.  When Zechariah expressed his disbelief, he was struck dumb. 

For months, Zechariah remains dumb-struck in this God-imposed silence.  (Sometimes, it seems, even God wants priests to remain silent.)  We shouldn’t judge Zechariah too harshly, though, because nothing that was happening was….well, natural. I sometimes think Zechariah was struck dumb mostly because he continued to cling to his hopelessness, even when his better angels told him there was good cause to trust God and hope for a better world.

Although tradition dictated that the child would bear a family name, Zechariah insistently scribbled on a writing-tablet:  “His name is John.”  Scripture teaches that Zechariah’s speech returned immediately, and he proclaimed that God’s redemption of his people was at hand.

The story provides several important Advent messages.  First, Elizabeth (who was elderly and barren) will produce a child, just as a world which had become stale and ordinary and barren of meaning will produce something completely new.  Zechariah, speechless through his disobedience, recovers all that he has lost by listening to the Lord.  (He recovers his speech at his son’s circumcision, a rite which operated as a sign of the covenantal relationship between the people of Israel and the God who chose them.)   Within the loving covenant God calls us into, life springs up in the desert, and all we’ve lost will be recovered.

The story serves as an extended metaphor for what’s going on in the Incarnation.  God is breaking into this broken, handicapped, barren world.  He is re-defining what is “natural”; in other words, re-making all of creation.  This isn’t just an ocasional miracle in a world that otherwise remains the same.  With apologies to the advertising industry, “This changes everything.”

The birth of John, often referred to as the last of the Old Testament prophets, signals that God is redeeming and reclaiming all of creation.  It teaches that we cannot rely on the old rules or our old expectations anymore.  Thus, during this time of year when the days are shorter and the darkness seems to dominate time itself, we light an Advent candle.  We know things are about to change.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Taking Nothing

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money — not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere. Luke 9: 1-6.

If we’re willing to listen, I believe this passage of Scripture can teach us a good deal about how we should approach Advent.  For most of us, accustomed to succeeding through diligent preparation, Jesus’ suggestion that the disciples “take nothing” seems a little odd. We wonder why Jesus did not want the disciples to bring along a few supplies, a little extra cash or some snacks.

First, I think the answer lies in understanding the context.  In this passage, for the first time, Jesus inaugurates the notion of what it means to be an apostle.  (That word comes to us from the Greek apóstolos, which translates as “one who is sent out”.)  Thus, following Christ will require that they leave their rabbi behind and take their own journey.  It will require the same of us. No longer would the disciples simply stand around and watch Jesus’ miracles and ministry. Jesus taught them, as he teaches us, that the Christian life was not a spectator sport.

So, why would Jesus send his disciples, his friends, out without any tools, equipment or provisions?  I don’t think Jesus wanted the disciples to be unprepared.  I think rather that Jesus was telling them, “None of that stuff is what you need.  In fact, it will only get in your way.”  The disciples needed to trust that God would give them everything they needed to do the work he wanted them to do.  When they learned to use God’s resources, rather than their own, they were capable of far more than they imagined.

That’s not a bad notion for us to carry forward into our journey through the season of Advent.  We will need to leave a lot of stuff behind.  Mostly, we’ll need to leave behind the illusion of self-reliance that we’ve come to accept.  We need to learn to trust God and trust that God will give us the tools for His work.  We may also need to leave behind our notion of who we are, and what we’re capable of doing.  The real question we should ask during Advent inquires where God is sending us, and what He can accomplish through our lives.

Have a good and holy Advent,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis

Advent (Learning to Wait)

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
        so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood
        and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
        so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
Is. 64: 1-3.

In our world today, most of us have concluded that the problem with instant gratification is….it takes too long.  We aren’t accustomed to waiting:  for the economy to recover, for our children to figure out how to behave, for a new car, or for God to fix things.  The Psalm for today reflects exactly that kind of impatience.  The reading perfectly explores our Advent expectations, as we ask God, “Where, exactly, have you been?  Have you even noticed what’s going on down here?”

Many of the Advent readings address exactly this deep longing within the Jewish people, as they waited for someone to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, as they bore the shame of the Exile, and as they waited for God to redeem this world that just wasn’t working.  They had waited for thousands and thousands of years and they knew that something had to change.

The season of Advent centers on precisely this deep, overwhelming conviction that something must change, and only God can make a difference in this situation. This notion leads us to the second Advent impulse:  our need to prepare ourselves for this coming change.  Thus, we sometimes refer to Advent as “the little Lent.”

We listen to John the Baptist calling us to “make straight the path of the Lord.”  John warns us that we aren’t ready for God’s arrival into our lives, that we cannot begin to understand the radical difference Jesus will make in the world.  The Baptist cautioned the first century Palestinians that only repentance would prepare them for the cataclysmic difference that Jesus would make.  Only that repentance would prepare them for the truth of Christ.  He is still warning us of that today.

Rowan Williams once said, “During Advent, we try to get ourselves a bit more  used to the truth – the truth about ourselves, which is not always very  encouraging, but the truth about God above all which is always  encouraging. The One who comes will come with a great challenge. It will  be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. And yet the One who comes  is coming in love. He’s coming to set us free. And that’s something well  worth waiting for.”

I wish you a very holy season of Advent.  Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2011 James R. Dennis