Let Advent Rise

Adventt12Every once in a while, the ordinary ritual that we depend upon for our daily prayer takes on extraordinary power. Sometimes it happens because of the circumstances of life that bring us to Church that day. Other times by the mysterious mingling of prayer and preaching, scripture and song, sacramental grace, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I didn’t have any meetings on my calendar on Tuesday morning, so I decided to spend some extra time at Church. St. Ben’s is never as quiet as I would like, and I began to second guess my decision to stay for Mass, as a band of teenagers started strolling into church.

Without hesitation, someone sat down at the piano, and began plucking away at the keys. At the same time, a young woman confidently approached the microphone and waited for her cue.  And then this VOICE began streaming through the sanctuary.

Let praises rise – from the inside – from the inside of me

May you delight – in the inside – in the inside of me

Come fill my life – from the inside – from the inside of me

Set me on fire – from the inside – from the inside of me

As I listened to them rehearse, my mood relaxed, and I knew something special was about to happen. This all-school liturgy was not ordinary daily Mass.

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I suppose to truly understand the power of Tuesday’s prayer, you have to understand what’s happening in our city.

The violence that rocks our city breaks my heart. I moved to Chicago 20-years ago to spend a year as a volunteer, teaching in some of these same neighborhoods.  There is so much that has NOT changed in my time here. Gang violence and gun violence has taken more lives again this year. Stories of a police cover up only add insult to injury. Amid peaceful protests, the chief of police was let go, and there are some who are calling for the resignation of key city leaders.  It’s kind of a mess.

You also have to understand that it’s Advent.

I love these weeks of patiently waiting and closely watching for the coming of Christ. This year though, I have no patience for platitudes. I’m angry, and I want JUSTICE. Perhaps I fall into the same trap as the ancient people – I want a Savior!  I want someone who is going to interrupt the system, rid the city of corruption, implement better gun control laws, and lead us toward racial equality once and for all.

And yet, Advent (and Christmas) reminds us that Justice entered the world as a child – small and vulnerable, poor, a refugee.  We are confronted each year by this radical juxtaposition – that the king of kings, the prince of peace – comes to us as an infant.

In the midst of a hurting world, in these early days of Advent, we read the classic Advent text – Isaiah’s vision of unpredictable peace where enemies become friends. This is the text we heard on Tuesday morning:

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them. 

A certain rule of thumb says that a good homily will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. As one who is generally far too comfortable, I don’t mind the occasional spiritual challenge. In my mind, the best preaching usually includes a moment where I squirm in my seat and think to myself, “Is he really going to go there in his homily?”  (Indeed, he went there!)

Fr. Jason stopped short of saying their names, but everyone in Chicago knows the story of the 9-year old little boy who was executed in an alley at 80th and Damen – Tyshawn Lee. A story that hits even closer to home when you know the Damen Avenue bus stops four blocks from our church – take the Damen bus 120 blocks south and you’re there.

And he was not asking a rhetorical question when he reminded everyone that our city continues to mourn the death of 17-year old Laquan McDonald, and then asked, “How many times was he shot?” The murmur of teenage voices across the church repeating the refrain “16 times”.  The details are not lost on anyone; certainly not on our young people.

I cannot underestimate the power of these two tragedies in our city placed alongside the scripture proclaimed that day, and the power of preaching that brought them to light.

Claiming a line from the Gospel reading, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Luke 10:23) What do you see?  All we see is tragedy, and yet the prophet Isaiah tells us that faith can transform our vision.  We must look at the world with brutal honesty, but at the same time, we must believe there is a better way to respond.  We cannot deny the violence that is right here in front of our eyes; but we also hold tight to faith – and that faith has the power to transform even the greatest tragedy, death itself, into people who act for justice. Faith compels us to see the unthinkable, and still love one another more.

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It would have been enough to stop there.  So much had already been said, in both the scripture and the prophetic challenge to live out our faith in daily life.  But the beauty, and power, of our Catholic ritual is that it does not stop with the Word.  We are a Eucharistic people.

In bread and wine, we know that Christ Jesus is really truly present.  And in receiving him, we become what we receive.  We become Christ – people of peace, bearers of justice, compassion, and mercy.

Eucharist is about what’s on the inside.  It changes us – from the inside.

During Communion, the choir sang that song I had stumbled into when I was looking for a quiet place to pray half an hour ago. (I later found this rendition online, which captures the spirit of how our high school students lifted their voices in song.)

Let praises rise – from the inside – from the inside of me

May you delight – in the inside – in the inside of me

Come fill my life – from the inside – from the inside of me

Set me on fire – from the inside – from the inside of me

‘Cause all I want – Is for you – For you to be glorified

For you to be lifted high

All I want – Is for you – For you to be glorified

For you to be lifted high

And I thought to myself … this is Advent.

Peace is only going to rise up in our city if it comes – from the inside.
What will we fill ourselves with this Advent?

God, the one who knows our hearts, delights on what’s on the inside.
How will God delight in us this Advent?

We are set on fire to become a light for the world. What sets us apart from those who would choose violence, and hatred, and revenge, and racism?

Isn’t this what Advent is all about?
As we await his coming, in a world in which he has already been born.

God chose to enter into the world 2,000 years ago – into an occupied country, amidst fear and violence – because he knew how desperately the world needed to see him!

And today, God chooses to be born again into a world divided, a city in mourning, amidst fear and violence – because he knows how desperately the world needs to see him. And God needs us!  God needs us to be his presence in the world today.  Blessed are the eyes who will see us and see Christ!

There is so much that is NOT RIGHT with our world and in our city.

For one moment, at the beginning of Advent, it was so clear to me – change begins on the inside.  Love is born – on the inside.  Peace begins – on the inside.  Mercy is expressed – first on the inside.

I am so grateful to know this at the start of Advent – that somehow in the midst of all this anger and injustice and violence in our city – God is at work, on the inside.

Something new is waiting to be born – inside of me.  (And I believe, inside of you, also.)  Something that will take root, and take action, when the time is ripe.  A renewed sense of peace, and love, and mercy, and justice.

This is the gift of Advent. This is the hope I long for. This is the faith that transforms us.  This is the power of faith that ultimately will transform our city and the world.

Our praise adds nothing to your greatness, God,
But when this “something new” comes to life,
I want only for you to be glorified, for you to be lifted high.
AMDG

 

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