Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WAITING IN FAITH.

Dec. 11th, 2016: Third Sunday in Advent, Year A.
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; Mt. 11:2-11.
AIM: To nurture the faith which enables us to wait in patience.
 
 A few years ago I had a phone call from a young man on the east coast. Now 31, he graduated in 2009 first in his class in one of the best Catholic high schools in St. Louis. Four years later he graduated with honors from one of the top colleges in the country. Endowed by God not only with high intelligence but with a golden singing voice, he is now at a leading music conservatory preparing for a career in music. Like all artistic fields, the one he is trying to enter is over crowded, but can also bring rich rewards. He called me in great distress, on the verge of tears at the threatened breakup of his relationship with the girl he has long wanted to marry. I=ll call them Peter and Mary.
They met during their freshman year at college. Both devout Catholics, and both highly intelligent, they hit it off at once. Close companions during their four college years, they remained close after graduation. Gradually, however, their paths diverged. After college Mary landed a lucrative position with a major Wall Street financial firm. She is now completing her M.B.A. at a leading business school. Immersion in the world of big money has undermined her faith. Right now she=s one of our CEO Catholics: Christmas-and-Easter only. Peter is at Mass every Sunday, and on weekdays when he can get there.
When Peter raised the subject of marriage recently, Mary told him that it wouldn=t work. AYou want a girl who=ll go to Mass with you every Sunday, Peter.  I=m not that person.@ You can imagine how that hurt. My friend Peter had such hopes, such dreams. Now they seem to have collapsed, leaving him devastated.
          The gospel reading we have just heard describes a similar collapse of hopes.  AAre you the one who is to come,@ John asks from his prison cell. AOr should we look for another?@ Like my young friend Peter, John the Baptist also had great expectations. He had staked his life on the message that the hopes of his people for centuries, about the coming of an anointed servant of the Lord, the Messiah, were about to be fulfilled. The promised Messiah, he thought, would come in power and glory. He would overthrow the hated Roman military government of occupation and set his oppressed people free. The person who came to him to be baptized in the Jordan River turned out, however, to be very different from what John had expected. 
John=s message was stern. We heard him in last Sunday=s gospel calling his hearers a Abrood of vipers,@ and asking sarcastically: AWho warned you to flee from the coming wrath?@ (Mt. 3:7) Jesus= message was different. He too could be stern. Mostly, however, Jesus was much gentler. The difference between John and Jesus can be seen in people=s reactions to them. John they found too ascetic, Jesus too easy-going (cf. Mt. 11:18f). 
John=s question, AAre you the one who is to come?@ reveals a crisis of faith. Was Jesus really the one John had believed and proclaimed him to be? Like everyone who tries to live by faith, John had to discover that faith is not a once-for-all affair. It=s not like learning to ride a bicycle, or memorizing the multiplication table. Faith must be constantly renewed. 
Is that surprising? Don=t we see the same in every relationship based on faith? Marriage is such a relationship. So is priesthood and the life of the vowed religious Sister or Brother. In all these cases promises are made solemnly and for life. But they need to be daily renewed and reaffirmed. For me that means getting out of bed when my clock radio goes off at 5.15 in the morning. Only if I get up then can I be in church before six, so that I can spend a half-hour waiting in silence on the Lord before I celebrate Mass at 6.30. Without that time with Him I=d just be spinning my wheels. 
We are gathered here around the Lord=s twin tables of word and sacrament to receive from the One who alone can give it to us the strength each of us needs to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ, and to the life of trusting faith to which he has called us. 
From his own crisis of faith, the result of the seeming collapse of his hopes and expectations, John learned that faith must be constantly renewed. From Jesus= answer to John=s question the Baptist learned something more: that faith is always free. It cannot be compelled, any more than love can be compelled. To his question, AAre you the one who is to come?@ John expected a Yes or No answer. Jesus did not give it to him. Instead he gave John the evidence he needed to work out his own answer: Jesus= miracles of healing. Tell John, he said, about the blind regaining their sight, the lame walking, lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised.
John’s gospel calls Jesus= miracles Asigns.@ They point to faith. But they cannot compel it. In telling John to consider the miracles, Jesus was asking his cousin what he asks of us: a free decision based on the evidence of Jesus= words and deeds, but going beyond what this evidence proves in the strict sense. Isn=t that what we want of those we love? their free decision to give us their love and trust, without our having to prove in advance that we deserve to be loved and trusted?
The decision for faith is always free. And the decision must be constantly renewed. That requires something we Americans have never been very good at: patience. Our second reading is about patience. It is from the letter of James. That letter was written for people who had been told to expect the imminent return of the Lord in glory. He hadn=t come. James reassures them: AThe coming of the Lord is at hand.@ But they must await his coming with patience. Like the farmer waiting for his crop to ripen, like parents waiting for their children to walk and talk, there are things in life which cannot be hurried. We must simply await them in patience.
That is what I told my young friend Peter. AIf you decide that the difference between you and Mary about faith means the end of your relationship, breaking it off will be terribly painful. But dragging things out, continuing to entertain impossible hopes, will only prolong the pain. Be assured, however, that God never closes a door in our lives without opening another. He has shown me that again and again in my life. He will do the same for you, Peter. The Lord has someone out there with whom he wants you to share your life, to be your wife and the mother of your children. When the time is right B God=s time, not yours B you will recognize her. Meanwhile you must exercise patience.@

As people of faith we are called to live in this world aware that we are also citizens of another world: the unseen, spiritual but utterly real world of God, the angels, the saints, and of our beloved dead. Being obedient to that call is difficult. It requires patience. We gather here at these twin tables of word and sacrament so that the Lord can renew our patience when it has worn thin and threatens to give out.
It was God who first enabled us to make our decision for faith. Here in the Eucharist he enables us to renew that decision. Here he gives us the patience to endure life=s disappointments and trials Aas seeing him who is invisible@ (Heb. 11:27). Once we grasp the greatness of God=s gifts to us, we realize that we are the people who are experiencing already the great promises of our first reading. We Asee the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.@ Here God himself Astrengthens the hands that are feeble, makes firm the knees that are weak.@ When our hearts are frightened, he says to us, as we heard Isaiah saying to the people of his day in that first reading: ABe strong, fear not! Here is your God ... he comes to save you.@ We are Athose whom the Lord has ransomed@ by the poured out blood of his Son. We are Acrowned with everlasting joy ... [we] meet with joy and gladness, [as] sorrow and mourning flee away.@