Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Community that Attracts

The word "advent" comes from the Latin word for "coming." During this season we prepare to remember and to celebrate Christ's first coming in Bethlehem. But Advent is also a time to prepare for Christ's second coming. We believe Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. I suspect that most if not all of us won't be living on earth when that happens. So our Advent preparation for the second coming of Christ can also be seen in light of his coming for us at the end of our earthly lives.  Advent is a time to focus on our readiness to meet the Lord and to give ourselves to him.

This is counter-cultural. Most people want to focus on the here and now.  They don't want to think about meeting the Lord at the end of their lives or at the end of the world. They view Jesus in the same striking way that he seems to refer to himself in the Gospel today (Matthew 24: 37-44) where he speaks of a thief who comes when least expected.  Perhaps we are all tempted to think of him that way. We're tempted to be possessive, to think of our lives as our own, as belonging to us. But the reality is that we are not our own. We belong to God. Advent is a good time to remember that and to practice surrendering our lives to the Lord so that we'll be ready when he comes for us.

Our first reading (Isaiah 2: 1-5) presents a vision of peace and harmony. We will see similar readings throughout Advent. They capture a universal desire, a longing on the part of every person for a better world, a place where people live at peace with one another. 

The Church is meant to embody that vision right now. Our communities are to incarnate the vision of peace that Isaiah saw. In that way they will attract and draw people to Christ.

This is a major theme in Pope Francis' recently issued Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium"--"The Joy of the Gospel." 

Pope Francis writes: "The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded" (#23).  Deep down, all people desire to dwell, in Isaiah's words, on "the mountain of the Lord's house." And "Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to the horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but 'by attraction'" (#14). 

As both individuals and as a community, Christians are "to share their joy," "point to the horizon of beauty" that Isaiah described, and "invite others to a delicious banquet"--the wedding feast of heaven. Our actions, the witness of our lives, speak louder than our words. Our example will attract people who long for the harmony that God promises.

In section #92, Pope Francis writes about the community of the Church as "a mystical fraternity, a contemplative fraternity."  This is because harmony is not something that can achieved on our own. It only comes from union with God. He writes: "It is a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being, of tolerating the nuisances of life in common by clinging to the love of God, of opening the heart to divine love and seeking the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does."  Only a deeper relationship with the Lord will help us to see as God sees: to see "the sacred grandeur of our neighbor" and to "find God in every human being." Such seeing will help us negotiate the inevitable "nuisances of life in common." Such prayer--by which we cling "to the love of God" and open our hearts "to divine love" which empowers us to love as God loves--will help us to embody the harmony of "the mountain of the Lord's house."

Christians' individual acts of love which seek "the happiness of others just as their heavenly Father does" are powerful, but even more powerful is the witness of a loving community. The Church and our parishes are called to that. Pope Francis continues: "Here and now ... the Lord's disciples are called to live as a community which is the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Mt 5: 13-16). We are called to bear witness to a constantly new way of living together in fidelity to the Gospel. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of community!"

In St. Paul's words from the second reading (Romans 13: 11-14), we are to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ."  Or, as the Sisters of the Visitation say in their motto, "Live Jesus."  We are to live in union with him, to have his mind and heart, his way of thinking. We are to see as he sees and act as he would act.  St. John the Baptist once said "He must increase. I must decrease" (John 3: 30). We must die to ourselves in order to live for Christ. And not only for him, but with him and in union with him. More and more, each day of Advent and each day of our lives, may we be able to say, as St. Paul said "I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2: 20).

Practically speaking, this is what our daily offering prayer is designed to do. We offer each day and ourselves to God. We surrender our egos and our bodies. We give to God every thought, word, and deed; every prayer, work, joy, and suffering; every breath and every heart beat. Praying and living this, we will "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" and community will form. The Kingdom of God will break into our world and take root. People will be drawn to Christ through his Church. And each of us will be ready for the final surrender when we will meet the Lord. As the peace prayer attributed to St. Francis goes, "it is in giving that we receive."  Giving all, we will be ready to receive all. 

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