We are given Advent each year as a time to prepare. But the readings today remind us that it is also a time of hope and promise. Listen to the first reading: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory” (Baruch 5:1). Between this sentence and the next, Baruch used “glory” and “splendor” five times. He imagines looking over Jerusalem and seeing mountains laid low, deserts populated with trees, and the faithful streaming in. The start of John the Baptist’s ministry echoes a similar trek: the Exodus from Egypt. John went into the desert where the word of God came to him. Leaving the desert, he crossed over the Jordan River. Crossing over from slavery to freedom in the Exodus was a sign of God’s providence. Crossing over from sin to forgiveness through repentance became a sign of John’s baptism. Advent is the time to prepare. Heed Isaiah’s words, John’s words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Luke 3:4). Let us answer this call, so that with God’s grace we can cross over from desolation to salvation.
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We tend to think of Advent as a time to prepare for Christ’s coming as a baby in a manger, the “just shoot” foretold by prophets like Jeremiah in the first reading. But today’s Gospel reminds us that it is also time to prepare for a different coming of the Lord: his return at the end of time. Jesus speaks of frightful events that will occur at that time, warning his disciples to be vigilant, not to let “the anxieties of daily life” distract them (Luke 21:34). How appropriately timed, for over the next few weeks we will face countless sources of anxiety as we prepare for Christmas. These anxieties can easily overwhelm us and make it difficult, if not impossible, to prepare for Christ’s coming in any way. Let us heed what Saint Paul wrote when exhorting the Thessalonians to prepare for Christ’s return: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). If we increase in love for other, we prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming into the world, whether two thousand years ago, at the end of time, or right now, in our hearts.
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Normally when we hear this selection from John’s Gospel it’s on Good Friday in the lengthy account of the Passion of Our Lord. When just these few verses are excerpted—featuring Pilate’s initial questioning of Jesus—we really get a sense of how obsessed Pilate is with the possibility that Jesus is a king. It is a tendency among political leaders, no matter the size of their “kingdom,” to put their highest priority on retaining their power. Jesus was said to be a king and so Pilate saw him as a potential threat to his power. But Pilate misunderstood. As Jesus tells Pilate, he did not come to seize power. He came instead to testify to the truth. This is what distinguishes God’s kingdom from any kingdom of this world. It is not obsessed with power. It does not need to be. “His dominion is an everlasting dominion,” we hear in the first reading (Daniel 7:14). “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end and everything in between (Revelation 1:8). Every kingdom of this world is temporary; God’s kingdom is eternal.
How can you build God’s kingdom without grasping for power over others?READ MORE
The images that begin today’s Gospel are dramatic and frightening: “the sun will be darkened...the stars will be falling from the sky...the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24 -25). They echo what we hear from Daniel in the first reading, of “a time unsurpassed in distress” (Daniel 12:1). Many times we may have felt the same way about the world today. Wars, genocide, natural disasters, mass shooting, rising sea levels—sometimes it feels as though the end of the world is right around the corner. But in between the scary images in today’s readings and the warning that no one knows the day or the hour, there is a note of reassurance. The Son of Man will come in power and glory, overcoming the darkness, overcoming evil. Whatever horrible things may be happening in the world, Christ our Light is stronger. Jesus Christ, both priest and victim, “offered one sacrifice for sins,“ transcending space and time, conquering sins everywhere and anytime, past, present and future (Hebrews 10:12). We live with the assurance of God’s only Son coming again in glory, for the reign of God will have no end.
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The readings today provide us with two models of faith and generosity. The widow in the first reading is in dire straits. She and her son have no food but a handful of flour and a little oil. “When we have eaten it, we shall die,” she tells Elijah heartbreakingly (1 Kings 17:12). Yet she will share the last of what she has with this stranger who makes promises on behalf of his foreign god. Elijah has such strong faith in the Lord that he promises this pagan woman that God would make sure that she would not run out of food. The widow’s generosity, sharing the very last of what is keeping her alive, is rewarded. In the Gospel, Jesus lauds the same kind of generosity. Another unnamed widow takes center stage. She gives “all she had, her whole livelihood” to the temple, to the Lord (Mark 12:44). Her faith and generosity are lauded. But the ultimate model of faith and generosity is Jesus. He is faithful to his Father’s will. He gives his very life to save humankind. As we hear in the second reading, “Once for all he has...take(n) away sin by his sacrifice” (Hebrews 9:26).
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Today Mark invites us to put ourselves in the shoes of the scribe who asks Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” (Mark 12:28). As the commandments are instructions of how a faithful person should act, the scribe was basically asking Jesus what one principle above all should guide his actions. Unlike most religious authorities who came to Jesus with questions, he was not trying to trick him or test him or find something that could be used against him. One can tell from the way he responded to Jesus’ answer that he sincerely wanted to know which of the 613 precepts of the Jewish law was paramount. Jesus responds by quoting the passage from Deuteronomy that we hear in the first reading, “You shall love the Lord your God,” as well as Leviticus, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12;30, 31). It was not enough to state just the first. The scribe wanted just one, but he got two. A few days ago we celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints, recognizing those who put their faith into action, living lives that serve as models for us. Today we are the scribe, being told by Jesus the way to act, the way to live.
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Mark does something very clever in the Gospel we hear today: he disguises the story of a call as a healing story. Bartimaeus is cured of his blindness, to be sure, but the story has much more to offer. The clues are there. “Jesus is calling you,” the crowd tells Bartimaeus (Mark 10:49). “He threw aside his cloak,” leaving not only the money he collected, but also his former way of life (10:50). “Master, I want to see,” he says, addressing Jesus as one whose orders he is willing to follow (10:51). “Go your way; your faith has saved you,” Jesus responds, but ironically, Bartimaeus does not go his own way (10:52). “Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way” (10:52). Bartimaeus has chosen to follow Jesus. He may have been physically blind, but he had eyes of faith the whole time. God’s call permeates the other reading as well. Both Jeremiah and the Psalmist praise Godscall to those who had left in tears, now returning rejoicing. In Hebrews, every high priest, most notably Christ, is calledby God. This is what we are all asked to do: with eyes of faith, to follow God’s call.
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Once again, Jesus challenges his disciples to change their perspective. He had just told them—for the third time—that he would soon be put to death. In Mark’s Gospel, James and John immediately make a request to have special places in God’s kingdom when Jesus rises in glory. How inappropriate! Jesus tries to make them understand how difficult his mission is, then goes on to give a lesson on true leadership: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:43). Whereas world leaders lord their authority over others, Jesus announces, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The author of the passage of Isaiah we hear today also tried to change the perspective of his audience. The Israelites had been defeated and sent into exile. Truly their lives were difficult, but Isaiah finds this suffering to be redemptive; “through his suffering, my servant shall justify many” (Isaiah 53:11). Though “tested” in every way (Hebrews 4:15), both Jesus and Isaiah were willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of others.
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Wouldn’t it be great to find the secret to success? To find a formula that would enable you to have fame and fortune, power and respect, good health and great wealth? Solomon, however, preferred the spirit of wisdom instead, extolling it over all these worldly goods. By the “spirit of wisdom” (Wisdom 7:7) he meant the insight that comes from true understanding, the insight that expresses itself in sound judgment. Indeed, with this gift from God, Solomon gained the worldly goods that in that era indicated that he was blessed by God. But Jesus gives us pause. In the Gospel, Jesus shatters a rich man’s hopes telling him that in order to inherit eternal life he needs to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and follow him. This is too much! The word of God, “sharper than any two-edged sword,” leaves him disconsolate (Hebrews 4:12). But then Jesus gives his disciples the secret: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God” (Mark 10:27). This is the insight Solomon had. All his worldly gains were actually blessings from God. God alone has the power to bless us with those things that have permanence, with those things that will last.
How can you distinguish between those things that are transitory and those that have permanence?READ MORE
Today’s readings allow us to marvel at God’s creation, but also afford us the chance to give thanks that we are all able to participate in it. God’s creation is not solely that long-ago formation of the world. The world continues to be created, specifically we see today, through marriage. Jesus repeats the words of Genesis: “the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). It is the married partners who co-create this “one flesh,” this unique new entity. From the beginning, in fact, humans participated in the creative event. In the first reading, the man names all the animals that God creates. Later, in order to make a suitable partner for the man, God removes a rib from man in order to create a woman. However, as much as we participate in God’s creative work, Jesus teaches us that it is little children—innocent, powerless, and dependent on adults—who model the way to the kingdom of God. All creation ultimately comes from God, and that includes God’s kingdom. Those who recognize God’s kingdom as a gift and receive it as a child would receive a gift as shown to be worthy of entering it.
How are you to accept God’s gifts as a child would, with wonder and delight?READ MORE