November 30, 2015

First Sunday of Advent

              Mother Rebecca Stramoski                       
                                                                                                                    November 29, 2015

Jer 33:14-16; 1 Thes 3:12-4:2; Lk 21:25-28, 34-36
The biblical texts we have for this first Sunday of Advent, though they are indeed about signs and the expectation of things to come, they do not mention any of the wonderful signs that Christmas is on its way.  Instead, we hear Jesus saying, “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”.  This is not a very cheery way to celebrate the beginning of the new Church Year, the beginning of Advent, or the movement towards the Christmas season of peace, love, and joy. These are verses which have been interpreted by many to be signs of the end of all things…NOT the beginning of a new liturgical year! 
But Jesus adds “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  So the new year opens with the call to be alert, awake, and vigilant…not in fear but in hope and eagerness.  What we are waiting for, really, is the end of time.  We are waiting for Christ to come – not as a baby in a manger, but as a king in the clouds.  Advent does not commemorate what was, but anticipates what will be!  This isn’t a time for sentiment, but for searching—searching our hearts and making choices. 
As we open the Advent Season today, the readings tell us that it is a season of Readiness, Reflection, and Renewal.  First, it is a time of Readiness:  Jesus says “do not let your hearts be drowsy”.  “Be vigilant at all times”.  I think Ronald Knox describe this readiness so well in one of his Advent sermons.  He said:  “Everyone knows, even those whose life has not been that adventurous, what it is to plod for miles eagerly straining your eyes towards the light that, somehow, means home.  When doing so it is difficult to judge distances.”  In pitch darkness, it may be 500 miles or 500 feet – it’s hard to judge.  Knox said this is what it must have been like for the Hebrews as they looked forward to the redemption of their people.  They could not have told you when deliverance was to come:  it could be 500 years or that afternoon!  “They only knew that, some time, the stock of David would blossom anew; some time, a key would be found to fit the door of their prison; some time, the light that only shone on the dawning horizon would broaden out, at last, into the perfect {and eternal} day.”  We must be ready so that day “will not surprise us like a trap”.
Second, it is a time of Reflection.  Jesus tells us in the gospel, “pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations…and to stand before the Son of Man.”  Advent is a time of prayer…to meditate on the unsuspecting signs of contradiction that reveal Christ’s nearness to us.  We are called to extra times of reflection on the Word of God in the rich liturgy of Advent.  Like Mary, we spend this time in lectio - pondering the words of Jesus in our hearts…In quiet prayer - as we ‘stand before’ Jesus in silent adoration…and at every Eucharist - where Christ continues to come into our lives, into our outstretched hands, and into our longing hearts.  As we pray every day at Mass: “We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Third, it is a time of Renewal.  St Paul says in the second reading, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all”…and ”Conduct yourselves to please God.”  Advent is the time to repair what is broken, to heal what is hurt, to forgive those who have trespassed against us.  It is a time to allow the stock to blossom, to use the key that opens prison doors, and to allow the light to shine in the darkest of places.  Is there any resentment I hold on to from things that happened years ago, or yesterday, that separate me from loving my sisters.  How appropriate that Pope Francis will be calling us to open the doors of Mercy this Advent and new year.  Advent is a time to let go and to start anew and renewed.  It is the time to remember the work that we need to do – searching our hearts and making choices.   A question we can ask our self this Season is not only what obstacles need to be broken down so we can love more fully but what behavior can I add to love my sisters more deeply?  If we can change one thing in order to better love, it will be a fruitful Advent!
And so we make ourselves ready.  We prepare.  We clear the way.  It is a time for valleys to be exalted and crooked ways made straight.  So what will you do during this special season of Advent?  Is it…to Ready yourself more fully for the Lord’s coming?  To Reflect more…using this time for extra prayer or additional spiritual reading?...Or to Renew your hearts through some form of conversion or discipline?  All three of these are tightly interwoven.  But whether we focus on readiness, reflection, or renewal, a fitting mantra this Advent for all three movements can be:  “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” 

And so…..Are we ready?....November 29, 2015

November 2, 2015

Where Heaven IS

Mother Rebecca
November 1, 2015
Feast of All Saints
During the year the Church celebrates the memories of the saints one by one, allowing us to get to know them better. But today we lump them all together into one great feast.  Not only those who the Church has canonized but the great multitudes in heaven enjoying the beatific vision - known only to God. Included in this feast would be our own family members and friends who have passed into heaven, for they too, now live the fullness of joy in God’s presence.
I remember in the novitiate hearing someone quote a saint as saying “I have found my heaven here on earth”.  My first thought was ‘That’s Nuts’!  I’d be pretty disappointed to get to heaven and find it is just like earth!   But even Elizabeth Barrett Browning chimes in to say, “Earth is crammed with heaven.” And the singer, Bon Jovi, to throw in a contemporary, said “Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey!”  (Needless to say he was born in NJ!)  So why are they saying this?  My vision of heaven is not New Jersey!...nor as the actor in The Fields of Dreams, who mistook Iowa for heaven!  But a further quote from St Catherine of Siena perhaps explains it.  “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, "I am the way.” And so “Every step of the way to heaven is heaven.”   So there we have it – heaven is wherever we find Jesus.  Maybe that vision is not complete here…but it certainly begins here. As someone said “the best way to get to heaven is to take it with you.”
The Vatican Council greatly emphasized a "universal call to holiness". Holiness is the ability to find God in our lives here and now…and to create a space for God’s presence and grace.  So what is a saint?  And what must we to do in order to join the company of the saints in heaven?   Most people would probably say saints are the holy and extraordinary people who have gone before us — most likely leaving behind them a trail of miracles and amazing acts of self-sacrifice, suffering, and heroism. But this is a narrow definition of sainthood and would perhaps leave heaven quite empty!  During the early centuries the saints venerated by the Church were all martyrs.  This makes sense because there was a continuous persecution of Christians for the first 300 years. They wanted to remember and celebrate those Christians who, in real danger, remained faithful witnesses to Christ. I suspect that most of these believers/saints were ordinary people scared to death, but hung in there because of their faith.  In that sense, being a saint has nothing to do with being heroic, holy, or different. It was (and is) about being faithful — no matter what.  So here is the first trait of what a saint is:  a faithful follower of Christ.
But now let us look at some of the saints in Scripture to see how they became ‘blessed’.  Let’s start first in an unlikely place…with the Pharisee and the tax collector.  (Lk 18:9+) The tax collector prayed in the temple, standing far off, beating his breast, saying “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  Because he received God’s mercy, he went home a blessed man.  It is interesting that Luke says, he “would not even look up to heaven”.  Maybe he didn’t need to look up to find heaven, for he understood that “earth is crammed with heaven”!
Or we can take St Peter who told Jesus “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. (Lk 5:1+)  Jesus instead gave him a purpose and mission to accomplish.   Receiving God’s mercy, Peter “left everything and followed Christ”.   Then there is Bartimaeus from our gospel last week.  He was a blind beggar and experienced deeply his helplessness, and so when Jesus passed by, he begged and shouted “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”.   After receiving God’s mercy we are told he followed Christ “on the way”.  Both Peter and Bartimaeus understood that “All the way to heaven is heaven”, because Jesus said, "I am the way.” 
Then we have Zacchaeus, but he was not seeking mercy at all or even aware of the need. (Lk 19:1+)  Rather his desire was solely to see Jesus.   Christ tells the crowds, who stood around that sycamore tree, that he had come “to seek out and to save the lost”.  In His mercy, he calls Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus receives God’s mercy and “welcomes Jesus into his home”.   So what made these people saints was simply that they received God’s merciful love…they received Jesus and welcomed Him into their homes and hearts.  So our first step to sainthood is just to be open to God loving us!  Jesus doesn’t tell us to be saints by achieving great things, doing miraculous deeds, but by letting Him ‘abide’ and ‘remain’ in us.
But now let us shift to today’s gospel:  the Beatitudes.  Here we find the second step toward becoming holy.  The blessed are those who are poor in spirit, pure of heart, merciful, thirsty, faithful in the face of persecution and insult.  This indwelling Spirit moves us to action…We are called to live the Beatitudes.  Pope Benedict said “The saints manifest in many ways the powerful and transforming presence of the Risen One; they let Christ possess their lives completely”.  They let God make His home in them…as we too abide in Him.  As St Paul said, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”’   
This second criteria comes only after the first which is an inner space for God.   The Beatitudes bring us to blessedness, but also show the road that we must follow.  It is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we become saints. It is an invitation to share His joy, to live and offer every moment of our lives with joy, and at the same time, making it a gift of love for the people around us. (paraphrased Pope Francis)  If we understand this, everything changes and takes on a new and beautiful meaning, in the little, ordinary things of life.  So far…how am I doing in God's call to holiness?   
So it is through the Beatitudes that we find heaven.  In this way, yes Iowa and even New Jersey (!), can be heaven…for it is wherever God is.  When we receive God’s mercy, allow Him to make His home is us, live the Beatitudes, and faithfully follow Christ, we create heaven on earth until that day, along with all the saints, we shall see Christ face to face.