Sunday, December 1, 2019

Advent Journal, Day 1: Questions on the Path

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:37-44.

I'm going to try to keep a journal throughout Advent this year, inspired in part by a contemplative, Lectio Divina-focused Advent booklet from Lumen Ecclesiae Press I purchased a while back. As my own spiritual journey continues to unfold, I envision this journal as a place to explore my own thoughts, as well as share any inspirational words that might come to mind, regarding the Blessed Mother, her Son, and the lessons and traditions that have come down to us through the ages regarding this holy time of year.

As the church's liturgical year begins anew, and our family begins our annual tradition of lighting an Advent wreath and filling an Advent calendar full of little toys for our daughter, I feel very fortunate and grateful this year to have my wife and kiddo both coming with me to Mass. The kiddo comes with me sometimes, but my wife was raised without religion. She's always supported me on my spiritual journey, but organized religion has always been a mystery to her. We met at a time when I was exploring traditions outside the one I was raised in, and I've only come back home to my Catholic roots in the past few years, with a new respect for the teachings and traditions that I was lacking in my younger days.

My parents more or less expected me to embrace every word of scripture literally, even as I saw deeper meanings lingering beneath the surface, coaxing me in, waiting to be explored -- meanings that became only more brightly illuminated after my journey through Buddhism, Taoism, and other Eastern paths. Having come out of that experience and back home again, I'm sympathetic these days to the Perennial Philosophy, wherein we all seek the same essential universal truths and realities, only using different traditions to guide us on our way. Christianity -- and, specifically, Catholicism -- works for me as my home base, perhaps because I find it familiar and comforting, yet at the same time my wife and I are having fruitful theological discussions that cross the borders of traditions. She considers herself a Taoist, and so, when time permits, we'll be delving into some books that consider the words and actions of Christ from a Taoist point of view, from The Jesus Sutras to Christ the Eternal Tao.

For my part, I love the simplicity and nature-emulating philosophy of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching is probably my favorite book of all time. I've found commonalities between the Tao and my understanding of God, between the teachings of Lao-tzu and the do-unto-others, care-for-the-poor, turn-the-other-cheek message of the Sermon on the Mount. I hope I can help my wife see some of those commonalities as time goes on.

Her struggle, as we attend Mass together, is simply accepting some of the claims that Christianity asks us to accept. And that's not an easy thing to do. Heck, I still struggle with them, and I've been at this since I was a kid. That's why I was always looking beneath the surface of the words, convinced that there had to be deeper meanings that the literalists were overlooking. For example, what does it really mean to rise from the dead? What does it mean to be a Son of God? Is the Kingdom of God really within us, and if so, how does that recontextualize the ideas of heaven and hell? Are they states of mind on this earth, and is that what Jesus was trying to tell us? Do we reach heaven through the Orthodox teaching of theosis, wherein we take up our cross in imitation of Jesus and, in doing so, become more like God every day, through great struggle and faith and sacrifice? Is Mary our greatest human example of theosis? To become by grace what God is by nature, do we follow her example of faith and humility?

These are some of the questions I contend with on my faith journey. And it's perhaps good that I do, because if I were a literalist like my parents were, my wife would have probably have no interest in accompanying me on my way. Nor would I blame her. Fundamentalists of all stripes are difficult to deal with, whether in religion, politics, or anything else. Some people have all the answers and expect others to bow to those answers. Me? I'm content to embrace the questions, to wrestle with the whys and hows of faith, religion, and spirituality -- to encounter the stories from historical, symbolic, and psychological perspectives. How do we let these stories break into our lives and transform us? How can they make us better people? More generous, more loving, more kind, patient, tolerant? Because if they don't do those things, what's the point?

And this is where my wife and I find common ground. If Jesus is just reduced to a free ticket to heaven, it asks no sacrifice of his followers. It doesn't challenge us to transform ourselves, to step out of our defensive posture against the world where we see others as threats and enemies, to take up our cross and follow him. If we can't see the image of God in our neighbor, and treat him as such, what have we gained? If the only point of any of this is to get a reward -- or, worse, to avoid punishment -- it seems we've missed the point. Because if we're so focused on our destination in the next world, then we miss the work that needs to be done in this world, right here, right now, where we need to be the hands and feet of Christ to a world in dire need of more love, mercy, charity, and compassion.

I recently told my wife that I don't see Christ in probably 75% of American Christians, and I think it's because of this focus on eternity over the here and now. Combine that with the idea of "once saved, always saved" -- definitively not a part of Catholic or Orthodox teaching, mind you -- and you end up with people who have no motivation to do anything Christ-like in this world. Get your salvation and coast till you die, and who cares about anyone else?

Not that I'm a perfect exemplar of what Jesus called us to do in caring for "the least of these" in Matthew 25, but I'm aware that he said what he said for a reason. This is what he expects of those who follow him. It's all laid out there and in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where he makes it clear to the lawyer challenging his words that anyone in need is our neighbor, not just your friends, your relatives, your countrymen, your fellow Christians. If you love only those who already love you back, Jesus said, what have you gained? The challenge is to stretch ourselves, to expand our love and charity to all, to embrace those on the margins, to love the unlovable. Why? Because that's how the world gets better, and that's how we become more like Christ and more like God -- for God is love. Not a God with conditions. Not "God is love, but...". The God that Jesus proclaimed is like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, welcoming us home without condition, no matter how much we may have messed up in the past. There is no condemnation, only reconciliation and mercy.

Someone in a Facebook group I belong to noted recently that "love is the razor that cuts the Gordian knot of scriptural interpretation." Truer words were never spoken. We can use scripture as a weapon to bludgeon people with, or we can use it to cultivate the humility within ourselves to serve others with love. Our ego rails against such an idea, yet it seems obvious that that is precisely what we are called to do. Not to say the right prayers in the right order, or to receive communion in the proper posture, or to put a veil on your head, or to condemn others for the specks in their eyes when we all have planks in our own. It is to love others as we would want to be loved. That's a tall order, but anything less leaves the world unchanged, and ourselves untransformed. The Kingdom of God has to dwell in our own hearts before it can flourish in the world.

The first reading in Mass today came from Isaiah, wherein the prophet foresaw an age when the people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation will not take up arms against nation anymore. This world, Isaiah promised, will unfold with the arrival of the Prince of Peace. That person came to us 2,000 years ago, showing us the way to peace, both in our hearts and in the world. But we didn't listen. His enemies silenced him by crucifying him, and we continue to silence him when we choose violence and retaliation over nonresistance and love of our enemies. Wars would be fought no more if we only stopped to realize that if we truly loved our enemies, it would be impossible to kill them. If we see the image of God in other human beings, how could we ever think of bringing harm to any of them? How could we write refugees off as invaders and the homeless as freeloaders? We couldn't, because when we confront the question the lawyer asked Jesus -- who is my neighbor? -- we could only ever respond to our brothers and sisters in love and charity. No, it's not always easy, but again, it's what we are called to do. Otherwise, Jesus' message for the world was no different from that of any other prophet down through the ages.

These are the thoughts my wife and I will ponder as Advent unfolds. We'll also be pondering the idea of objective versus subjective truth, which is something our priest touched on today in his homily. He definitely gave us some things to meditate on. I'll touch on those ideas in the days to come.

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