Emmitsburg Council of Churches

The Paradox and the Present

Father John J. Lombardi

It's Advent, not Christmas just yet-time for Anticipation of the Celebration by Preparation. Huh?...

In this Sunday's Gospel (St Lk. 3:1-6) St John the Baptist calls us to repent and prepare the way of the Lord. Why such strong words? In today's world we are used to the passive voice-indirect speech. A spokesman said at the recent unveiling of "The Iraq Group Report", following upon another speaker: "Let me add to that, if I might…" Two passive participles (in italics, my addition) denote the speaker was being courteous, and this type of speechifying is not uncommon in today's world-the passive voice. Niceness reigns. In the Gospel, however, St John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for sins (Lk. 3:3) and cried out, echoing Isaiah the prophet, "Prepare the way of the Lord" (6;4). These are, notice, commands-not a passive voice, because we sinners sometimes need to be told straightforwardly what to do, especially regarding avoiding sin and, positively, becoming holy in the world The prophet is directing us, commanding us, to root out sin and turn to Him, the Savior of the world-even in Advent. How will you, this Advent, prepare the way of the Lord-in your life and world, and also in your heart?

This Advent is a time for preparation for the Lord, and one way to do this is to meditate upon the many paradoxes of the Bible, our Faith, of Advent and Christmas. These are filled with paradoxes-which are called, properly, mysteries. Paradoxes are "turns of mind" when realties don't seem to go together in our rational, finite minds. Paradox comes from the root words, para, meaning around or over, and doxein, meaning opinion or thought. For instance, the Lord God becomes human (the Incarnation); a baby becomes King; a Virgin becomes Mother; Magi-pagans become heralds of salvation; to enter the Kingdom we must repent and be "born again" (Jn. 3:3).

Advent, now, is one of the biggest paradoxes-this is a time for preparation and anticipation and yet so many good natured Christians do not prepare-they celebrate the Birth now, while, in fact, we should be anticipating the Birth of the Christ Child. The Catholic Church wisely gives us this Sacred Time-Advent, the word means "to come to"-- to prepare, to be aware of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem to give birth. So: shouldn't we be spiritually traveling with them? How?...

I recently gave a retreat to many devout souls nearby Mary's Mountain. I was delighted to see how many seekers of the Savior came, amidst all the frivolity of festivity of pre-Christmas time to pray, to mediate, to deliberate how to perfect their personalities in Christ (the theme of the retreat). One soul said she got a spiritual present of six retreat days through the year. Now that's a good, holy gift. The paradox of this time of year is this: the world says "hurry up," and yet these retreatants were slowing down-to mediate upon their lives compared to the Lord. Do you? Will you?

Manger Meditation: I just saw a church sign, stating: He Who was born in a Manger is now preparing a Mansion in Heaven for you. Think about it. He, Jesus Christ, was born poor and lowly so you may be born again, high and majestically, and fly to Heaven in holiness. The protestant church sign made this chaplain think about the Lord's Birth, not just quite yet celebrate it. It helped me to prepare by thinking about Christ's lowliness and how He exalts us. In the midst of Christmas parties and eggnog and spending money and caroling and Christmas pageants and decorating and partying and religious revelry and shopping, don't forget the "reason for the season." Another paradox: Christ Jesus was born in a manger so we can receive our Mansion in Heaven! This time of year when there is so much materialism masticating so many, think about the poor-children on streets, lost souls in drugs and crime; hungering victims of poverty-pray for them in solidarity and spiritual love-send them graces to overcome sin and to turn to Him, Our Beloved Lord Jesus. This is another way to prepare the Way of the Lord. And: I was just at the Mount seminarians' Advent-Christmas party and amidst all the fun and good treats, they raised over $3,000 for a local pregnancy center. Amidst all the celebrations, make preparation for others-Jesus' poor and needy-- Be connected.

Character of Advent: I once learned in seminary, the two-fold nature of Advent: awaiting both the birth of Jesus (Christmas) and His Second Coming (Final Judgment and Heaven). The First Sunday of Advent prayer at Mass teaches us "to love the things of Heaven"-do you mediate upon Heaven? The paradox is that a sometimes mammon-America cajoles us into concentrating only on earthly things (parties and such) and to meanwhile forget our Final Judgment and our Heavenly calling. We will all get a "final report card" of judgment: so, be ready. Repent. . Heaven = bliss, Paradise-are you really ready for this? This is not to say be a "Bah Hum-bug Scrooge" but rather make joyful anticipation for the Lord's Birth and Coming in Glory.

Our world, too, is filled with paradoxes. The Pope recently visited Turkey, of course, but did you know he was not given free reign to pray in the ancient esteemed Church of Hagia Sophia (now a museum, and previously a mosque) in Istanbul, but he was urged to pray in the Blue Mosque of Muslims. Paradox. However--the Pope nobly stood up for rights of Christians and Catholics in the East, in Muslim countries, to be able to express there religious freedom, and he also called for the blending of faith and reason amongst religious peoples and also for a renunciation of violence in the name of religion. And while some Muslims decry lack of rights in the West-some Christians are prevented from practicing their faith (even in secularist-liberalist Turkey). Paradox. So: How can you, like the Pope, amidst paradoxes and injustices, practice your faith especially when the going gets tough?

Attack Paradoxes: Two books stress attacks upon religion. Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation" depicts Christians-evangelicals and conservatives, of course, the usual scapegoats-as problems. Beware: for Mr. Harris irrationally implies that God is "the biggest abortionist" of all by allowing thousands of mothers each year to miscarry babies. After I read this I couldn't believe his book is esteemed and on a top bookseller list, until I also read: He claims that half of the American population believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old; and he also decries Christians for opposing both abortion and stem cell research. Paradox= false theories and speculations are made into seeming facts and justification for the relinquishment of religion. Our country was founded by religionists escaping persecution (Pilgrims and others); was founded upon God in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution), and many presidents have invoked God as protector of our great land ("divine Providence"). Now atheists want to sever this holy connection: an un-holy paradox. Meanwhile the English biologist Richard Dawkins in his book "The God Delusion" props up atheism as a noble way and attacks with bravado all religion. Paradox: Columnist Thomas Freidman points out (New York Times: Dec 3) that Christian missionaries have gone to blighted Africa, and they're the only ones he sometimes sees helping in these lands where there is dire poverty. Religion is the only solvent of help in some cases there and, meanwhile, Friedman points out, that communist-atheists like Mao (in China) and Pol Pot (of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) and Stalin (Russia) massacred hundreds of millions of people. Atheism is a danger, and, given this recent spate of books (and including others, one by Daniel Dennett: "Breaking the Spell") no matter how much such people may say it ain't so, atheism is an attack upon our Christian land. Faith and reason, as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI counsel, must go together. God goes with our countries' ideals.

Transgender? I couldn't believe what I was reading recently. At the end of it I thought: another paradoxical sign of the times and, surely, as my mom said: to gain momentum. On a front page, a long story in the New York Times (Dec 2) we read of young boys and girls either allowed or urged to become or explore their opposite gender-by cross-dressing, choosing other names, acting differently, seeking psychological counsel to promote and protect this "gender exploration" and actual change. The story depicted how doctors, parents and psychological groups view gender not as fixed or "given", but as a continuum, a blurred reality which must be investigated and grown into. As much as I had compassion for the seeking souls, it was a scary story. Meanwhile, recently, the New York City Dept of Public Health considered passing a law that would allow individuals to change their gender identification-even without anatomical sex change-on birth certificates. After enough people protested they rescinded the law, wisely, thankfully so. Paradox: when people would try to help transgendered persons, or even slow or stop the process, these "helpers" would be called backward or accused of stifling rights, all the while "progressivists" are blurring the distinctions God has hard-wired into our lives. Also: (and paradoxically) many psychologists (as depicted in the story above) have acceded to wrongful agendas and not protected the human, psychological nature they are called to heal. Like the folks who protested the New York Health Commission, we Christians, too, must protest, promote proper health and mental development and protect the young against agendas alien to God's ways for human nature.

As we make anticipation for the celebration let us make preparation by thinking of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in salvation. She said "Fiat-Yes" to the Angel's invitation to carry the Child Jesus: will you say "Yes" to difficult choices in your life? Mary is called "Mother of God-Theotokos"-another paradox: Will you carry God's Presence-within-you by constant purity and love of the Lord within your soul?

Stimulation or Revelation?: -- another paradox of life. We are offered in these modern times so much stimulation-from food to parties to theme parks to drugs (illegal and prescription), thru football to people to toys and computerology and technology, it seems the more we get, or give way to these in wrongful ways, the more our threshold for more needs fulfilling and the more we cave in to external stimulants. The alternative? Revelation: realize that in each moment you don't have to "cave in to your cravings"-you can re-call God's love and mercy; you can realize or awaken within that He is with you; you can realize with the Virgin Mary that, in the midst of these challenges and stimulants "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you" (St Lk. 1:33). Do you seek and embrace the Holy Spirit and the Power of the Most High to overshadow all other stimulations so that Sacred Revelations may transform your life?

Simple Spirituality in a Complicated Time: Advent-Christmas is the most hectic time of year, isn't it? Yet: Just who makes it so? You or the marketers you may cave in to? We have the power of choice, free will to make this time of year un-complicated, spiritual, even serene. Remember that retreat group? They made Advent holy and serene by their choice and preparation. It doesn't "just happen"-Advent serenity-you must make it "happen." Here are some other ideas to help prepare spiritually…

Gifts: books: Give a bible or saint's book or spiritual classic to a friend or family member. Remember: secular stimulations or Revelation?

Time and talent: One pilgrim recently said for Christmas he was going to make meals for loved ones and friends instead of buying all kinds of elaborate gifts. Better to give of the heart than of the wallet, don't you think?

Treasure-give money to the poor and worthy causes to help others. A pilgrim just sent me her family's list of gifts (no Saks Fifth Avenue or even Wal-Mart on this list!)-but, from children's homes to hospitals to social outreach causes, each family member is assigned to one of these to make a financial gift, and, she wrote, the gifts keep getting bigger each year.

Mediation: A Polish priest gave a homily in Advent, saying: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is Mystery and today is Gift-that's why we call it the Present". Clever, eh? Do you fully live in the present moment--today, or are you always thinking about tomorrow, or obsessing over yesterday? I recently read a spiritual teacher who suggested that spiritual enlightenment comes through "intense presence." In other words, we must let go of, abandon all obsessive ideas and worries, and fully present ourselves to what God is doing now, and awaken to how He is manifesting Himself presently and connect to His Divine Light and be revealed to our true selves, thus: intense presence. The more we worry the more we kinda' have an implosion (stuck on ourselves). But, the alternative-intense presence-is, rather, a kinda' extroversion-the self opening upon and unveiling to the world and God as they really are, in virginal innocence and liberation: The Gift of the Present!

May this Advent be a spiritually serene time for you and all your loved ones. Walk slowly, meditatively with Joseph and Mary to give birth to the Christ Child-to the CrPche in Bethlehem…and in your own heart!

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi