Advent 2

by admin on December 8, 2015

Reflections for 6 December 2015
Luke 3:1-6

Big Shots and Small Fries

Chicago is one of my favorite places to visit. Big city with mid-west small town appeal. And one of my favorite places in that city stands on State Street—Holy Name Cathedral. That’s the church where Cardinal Joseph Bernardin presided as Archbishop of Chicago. I’ve visited Holy Name many times—seen Bernardin’s red hat hanging in the vault of the ceiling, and always felt his godly presence.

This Advent I took up rereading The Gift of Peace. It’s Bernardin’s book written shortly before he died of cancer in November 1996. This lovely book is his final testament to his surrender to God.

It is a book about preparing to die. There’s anticipation, reflection, and trust. There is also fear, reluctance and grief. In a very big way this is an Advent book.

As a leader, Cardinal Bernardin stood out; as a priest, he blended in with the crowd. I am intrigued by that oxymoron: standing out, blending in. That’s Advent, too.

Advent is a time for preparation and reflection. Notice I didn’t say frenzied shopping and short tempers. We’ve been working towards Christmas for weeks now. The hallmarks of the holidays? Big plans, orchestrating social events, cooking, baking, shopping, the pilgrimages to Franklin Park, the tree lot.

Another hallmark is presidential politics. Trump, Bush, Hillary, Cruz, Carson, Bernie…..a cast of the usual suspects and a handful of other contenders have opened season on us the American public. Because this Advent is so close to the beginning of a presidential election year, politics and religion all get mixed up in the headlines of the news.

I think we spend a lot of time trying to find a balance in our lives among all the competing realties we experience: Social, economic, educational, political, religious.

My point is telling you all this? Cardinal Bernardin, Presidential politics, and the tension between standing out and blending in. 2,000 years ago when St. Luke wrote his story of Jesus he told it in light of the competing realities that people face daily.

He tells his story of Jesus as one inside the world of politics and religion. It’s a story peppered with intrigue, competition, and hostility. Luke begins with a list of the bigshots— Campaigners every one for the top spots in historical memory.

That’s Luke’s way of saying that the story of Jesus makes its way into and through, and in the end, it will thoroughly captivate the political realities of the world.

For St. Luke, politics and religion—the two verboten topics of most civil conversations (like we can even have those today) —these two come together and serve as a metaphor for just plain ordinary human life. Human life—with all the competing craziness of trying to be in three places at once; trying to please everyone; trying…well, you know the list.

Now, stepping into this arena as a prelude and preparation for Jesus comes John the Baptist. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t start the Baptist church. He was the preacher in Luke’s story who was a small fry in the midst of bigshots.

“He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He talked the nitty gritty of allowing God to take over in life and how different that life would be after that. Doctrines of justification/conversion and sanctification/holiness come to play.

Repentance = turn away and turn toward. For John the Baptist there was only one way to turn—to Jesus.

I caught that same idea of turning away and turning towards in Cardinal Bernardin’s book. In his personal trial of being falsely accused of sexual abuse, his diagnosis of cancer and his final year; he initially met these situations with anger, fear and frustration. But he allowed himself to be overtaken by the love of Jesus.

Admirably Cardinal Bernardin disdained being a celebrity. His is the journey of an ordinary man—a small fry—who prepared for and anticipated Christmas in a totally different manner.

He didn’t turn to consumerism; political ideologies, not even to medical heroics. He turned toward Jesus.

We are all so enamored by the bigshots. We call them “the powers that be,” VIPs, heavy weights, shakers and movers. We like important people. Maybe their celebrity will rub off on us.

I shook hands once with Hubert Humphrey when I was in college and didn’t want to wash my hand for a week. Then Nixon won and I got over it.

My real question today as we lunge toward Christmas 2015 is this: In a society so fixated on the pregnant meaning of every political move made by a bunch of bigshots, can we allow the miracle of a pregnant girl named Mary—just a small fry; and her baby son, Jesus, the smallest of fries—Can we allow them to break through our walls and transform us?

Luke is so full of images about how this transformation looks.
• High places leveled
• Crevices filled in
• Smooth riding on a rough road.

For me the most striking image is in these words: and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. All flesh is a mighty wide idea. Everyone needs it, Luke says, and anybody can get it.

In my day job I do a lot of couples work. It just sort of sifted out that way. They don’t come see me when they are having a good time. Talk about anxiety, fear and restlessness. It’s a real Advent time. Mixed up in all that is unhappiness, frustration about work, life direction, vocation and “my dysfunctional family.” That’s real politics.

I always ask about religion—spiritual resources. That’s when they both look at their shoes. Too busy. It’s a familiar refrain. Too busty being hassled with the powers that be and getting shoved around by the bigshots.

I try to invite every couple to seek out some place of reverence and just sit. Sit in the back and listen. Soak it in; let the pitter-patter of your hearts be filled with peace, love and joy. Isn’t this the real reason this institution called church is designed for? Everybody needs it; anybody can get it.

This is the gift of peace about which Cardinal Bernardin writes. It is the truth of Jesus Christ in a world of competing claims and hollow guarantees. The truth of Christmas is not about personal happiness—can’t buy that—but about having a fulfilling and satisfying life. Cardinal Bernardin’s was a life well spent.

Just days before his died on the eve of Advent 1996, he wrote: “If we let him, God can write straight with crooked lines.”

Wherever you are in your life this Advent, know that regardless of how crooked your life may be; or how complicated your personal politics; or how much you struggle with being a bigshot or small fry—-

God’s specialty is straightening out the messes we make, so that for Christmas we’ll get what we really need and want—love, and joy and peace.

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