Through Shadows and Images...

A Blog by Tom Gourlay

Month: December 2017

24 December – Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Gospel Luke 1:26-38

‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’

It is the Sunday before Christmas, and the Church puts forward this reading, reminding us of that precious moment when Jesus, the Eternal Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity took on flesh in her womb.

Against the backdrop of the readings from the last few weeks where we have been regaled with stories of John the Baptist and his rather harsh delivery of a message of repentance, today’s Gospel is striking in its simplicity. Rather than the bold, bombastic figure of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness, here we have the humble virgin of Nazareth, addressed by the angel Gabriel, in what would no doubt be for her some rather troubling discussions.

Mary’s response, despite the troubling nature of the news, is fundamentally a response of receptivity. The humble virgin of Nazareth models for us what is in fact a perfect creaturely posture of active receptivity. ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’

The attitude of receptivity exemplified by Mary in this story, and throughout her life, is not an attitude that draws much praise in contemporary culture. For us (post)moderns it is considered praiseworthy to go out and get what it is that you want, to force our will upon what we come across. Reality has no meaning prior to my encounter with it, and as such we are charged with imbuing this meaning.

Mary however, exhibits a different way pf being. She is content in the reality that she is totally dependent upon God. She is consequently open to receive all of reality as a gift, and as given. Things have an integrity and a meaning prior to her encounter with them, and so she waits as they present themselves to her.

Let us use this time to practice our openness to things as they are, as they are given.

Point to Ponder

“Mary is totally dependent upon God and completely directed towards him, and at the side of her Son, she is the most perfect image of freedom and of the liberation of humanity and of the universe. It is to her as Mother and Model that the Church must look in order to understand in its completeness the meaning of her own mission.”

– Saint Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 37

17 December – Third Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Gospel John 1:6-8,19-28

‘Who are you?’

I like to think of John the Baptist as the patron saint of Advent. His whole purpose is to prepare the way for the coming Christ, and Advent is the time when we are called to do the same –so it is a pretty good match.

John is an intriguing and enigmatic figure, who despite being a real curiosity for the people is, to be perfectly honest, is not always likeable.

He appears in the wilderness and does odd things, and as we see in the passage before us today, gives cryptic answers to even the most rudimentary of questions.

John’s abrupt way of being makes his hearers a little unnerved. It pricks people’s consciences, startling them out of the monotony of their sinfulness and redirects them toward the one who is to come. Ultimately, his rather coarse manner of being sees him meet a pretty gruesome end.

But John’s mission was less about speaking truth to power and being an oddity for the people to gawk at. He preached and practiced a baptism similar to, but unlike our own. His Baptism was a baptism of repentance (cf Acts 19:4), and remained unfulfilled – pointing to the one who was to follow after, and to the baptism which he would initiate.

In Baptism we die to sin and are made anew in Christ. It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). John and his baptism point forward to the one who is to come and to his Baptism.

During Advent, when the Church puts before us a number of readings that speak of John the Baptist, we are called to enter anew into John’s baptism of repentance, so that we can receive again, with the coming of the Chirst-child, the new life He gives us in the Spirit, to the glory of God the Father.

This is a time of waiting. We cannot confuse the signpost for the destination. John is not the Christ, but he is sent to help us make straight the path.

Point to Ponder

Among the beautiful prayers of this time let me pinpoint that of the second Wednesday of Advent: “Almighty God, you call us to prepare the way for Christ the Lord, let us not tire of waiting for the consoling presence of the heavenly doctor through the weakness of our faith.” That we may not tire of waiting, that is, that we may not get tired of entreating. Entreating for what? For His presence to free us, making us more affectionate towards Him; and our life will be more whole, outstretched to the Father’s will, and therefore to forgiveness and mutual help.

Our weakness can become an excuse to give up entreating in the face of all our forgetfulness and all our mistakes: as if Christ were not always a present spring of a greater energy than our fragility. – Luigi Giussani, On the Occasion of Advent, 1991

10 December – Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Gospel Mark 1:1-8

“All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him…”

John the Baptist is an extraordinary, enigmatic figure. Mark tells us that he wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey – essentially he was a wild man, with a hard hitting message.

And yet despite his wild persona, he drew all sorts of people from Judea and Jerusalem, who came out to hear him and his challenging and mysterious message. Something that about him and his message awoke something within those who saw and heard him – it captured the hopes so strongly that many were confused thinking him to be the one that they were waiting for and he had to correct them, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am…’

The mission of the Baptist was to prepare the way and point beyond himself to the one who was still to come, namely Christ, the Lord.

In His absolute charity, God deigned it fitting that there would be one sent ahead to prepare the way – not because Jesus needs someone to go before him to work the crowd – but because so often we need to be shaken from the comfortable lethargy which we have fallen into. The preparatory work of the Baptist is in fact what the season of Advent is designed to imitate – to reawaken us from the humdrum monotony of the every-day to the fact that Christ has already, and will again come amongst us.

The danger in this anticipatory time is that we confuse the sign with the thing signified, as many had done with the Baptist. Confusing him with the one who was to come, John had to remind them that there was someone greater to come. In this season of Advent, we are tempted to live as though Christmas has already come. All the talk of the big day and the season which follows, all the preparations etc can fool us into thinking that we have arrived.

Let us hearken to the words of the Baptist today and continue to look forward in hope to the one who is still to come.

 

Point to Ponder

The liturgical texts for this Season of Advent renew the invitation to us to live in expectation of Jesus and not to stop looking forward to his coming so as to keep ourselves open and ready to encounter him. Heartfelt watchfulness, which Christians are always called to practise in their daily life, characterizes in particular this season in which we prepare joyfully for the mystery of Christmas…. Christians are asked to live Advent without allowing themselves be distracted by the bright lights but knowing how to give things their proper value and how to fix their inner gaze on Christ. Indeed if we persevere in “watching in prayer, our hearts filled with wonder and praise”, our eyes will be able to recognize in him the true light of the world that comes to dispel our gloom.

Benedict XVI, Angelus, 11 December 2011

3 December – First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

Gospel Mark 13:33-37

‘Stay awake!’

As a father of two children currently under the age of two, I, unfortunately, have very little difficulty in meeting this request of Jesus. Staying awake simply comes with the territory – despite my best efforts to catch up on some sleep!

Jesus’ words in this passage seem to be a bit ominous though – there a is a threatening tone to it that puts us on edge.

Surely, this is a text that not to be read fundamentally, as if Jesus is prohibiting his followers from the human necessity of sleep. The metaphor calls us to an alertness. But what are we to be alert to?

In a lot of literature the Second Coming of Christ is imagined as a triumphant, and even violent event, as though Christ will come again trying to catch us by surprise in the act of wrongdoing so that he can punish us and satisfy some kind of sadistic lust. This imagery though does not adequately align with the vast majority of biblical literature.

Jesus calls us to an alertness to the mystery of Salvation. He calls us to remain interested in what first captivated us – the event of the Incarnation, God come in human flesh.

It is so easy to neglect the wonder of the faith – to allow the trappings of the faith to usurp the place that the person of Jesus should hold in our hearts. We can find ourselves simply going through the motions of saying our prayers, attending the Mass and the Sacraments, and even engaging in acts of service all the while forgetting that presence that first captured our attention.

This is why the popes of recent decades have encouraged us to always return to the contemplation of the face of Christ, to start afresh from Christ.

We must remain awake to the memory of Christ alive, not a dead memory of someone who was once with us and who is no longer, but a presence who remains with us, even “to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).

 

Point to Ponder

“I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). This assurance, dear brothers and sisters, has accompanied the Church for two thousand years… From it we must gain new impetus in Christian living, making it the force which inspires our journey of faith. Conscious of the Risen Lord’s presence among us, we ask ourselves today the same question put to Peter in Jerusalem immediately after his Pentecost speech: “What must we do?” (Acts 2:37).

We put the question with trusting optimism, but without underestimating the problems we face. We are certainly not seduced by the naive expectation that, faced with the great challenges of our time, we shall find some magic formula. No, we shall not be saved by a formula but by a Person, and the assurance which he gives us: I am with you!

It is not therefore a matter of inventing a “new programme”. The programme already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its centre in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfilment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a programme which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication. This programme for all times is our programme for the Third Millennium.

St John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte

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