Advent, a time to prepare our hearts: A homily for the First Sunday of Advent

thToday we begin Advent. I love this season. I love the snow, the drear, the eggnog. On Friday night Msgr. and I spent a good while working on our trees until 1am. Then we put up some outdoor lights. I love this season. I love the hustle and bustle, the parties and concerts, and I love the wreaths and the candles. I love the packed roads and stores, the late sunrises and early sunsets. I love the music and the movies. I love it all. But yesterday morning the Lord hit me over the head. I was in my holy hour thanking God that this time of year is upon us, precisely for the things I just mentioned. And he came and said, “You idiot! That stuff is good, but don’t let it be your focus. Let me be your focus!”

And it dawned on me that my heart was not in the right place. Our readings today are all about the heart as Providence would have it. In our second reading, one of the earliest Christian documents we’ve got, St. Paul was telling the Thessalonians: Strengthen your hearts, get them ready, so that when the Lord comes you’re ready and excited to welcome his arrival. The same in the Gospel. Jesus tells his disciples, don’t let your hearts become drowsy! The Gospel says that when Jesus comes, everything is going to change. We would die of fright if we understood what was about to happen, the Lord says. Best to have hearts ready for that moment, hearts that are awake and open, hearts that desire our God more than eggnog, more than anything else in the world.

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The Advent Thief

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)
Deacon Mike Keucher
7 December 2014 – 5pm, 8:30am, 10:30am
Holy Family Catholic Church – New Albany, IN
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 | Psalm 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14 | 2 Peter 3:8-14 | Mark 1:1-8

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Our cathedral is named Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral. We often think of these two men together, Peter and Paul, and yet they were different. They had different understandings of God, at least at times. Last weekend we heard from Paul, who said that “in [Christ] you were enriched in every way.”  Paul spoke of how God enriches us.  Today we hear from Peter, who likens God to a thief.  I want to think about that title for God, thief.   Jesus is what I am going to call the Advent Thief, for three reasons: He comes at unexpected times, in unexpected places, and he takes unexpected things.

First, the Advent Thief comes at times we do not expect.  The second reading is a letter from the first pope to the Christian people, telling them about how Christ will come again at an unexpected time.  He says we should therefore conduct ourselves “in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.”  Peter advises them: God might well when we do not expect him. Jesus tells parables about this too, like the master who leaves his house and returns at an undisclosed, unknown time.  Maybe you know from your own life that God comes at the most unexpected times, even when we least expect him to come.  I remember one day back in Bloomington. I was praying late one night in the church for a friend of mine who had gone down a bad path. I prayed he would find his way back to church, to God. It was late at night when I prayed this. He walked into the church five minutes later. I never expected that to happen, but God comes and works at the most unexpected times.  There are many stories of people who are touched by Christ at a time they never would have imagined—at the deathbed of a loved one or right after having been dumped or having made a dumb mistake. God comes very often at times we do not expect.

Second, the Advent Thief also comes to places we do not expect.   Isaiah in our first reading says that God comes to the lowest valley and the highest mountaintop. He comes to the “rugged land” and the “rough land.” No place is out of God’s reach; he’s coming not for only a group here or there, but for one and all.  Isaiah says that to each and everyone will the “glory of the Lord be revealed.”  What a glorious image, and almost a haunting one: there is no escaping God. He comes where we think he won’t.  He was born, after all, in a dirty manger in the middle of nowhere—but more about that at Christmas. I wonder if the folks in the deserts mentioned in today’s First Reading and Gospel thought maybe they could avoid God by going into the middle of no where.  Why on earth would anyone, let alone God, come through the desert?  And yet today we are told his way is through the desert.  You and I know, if we’re honest and reflective, that God does indeed come to unexpected places.  Sometimes we try to hide from him, but he is there.  He comes into dejected hotel rooms and abandoned nursing home rooms and carousing dorm rooms. He is there in the stress-filled offices and worksites. He comes even into brothels and dingy bars, desperately trying to call those there to a better way.  God comes even to the places within ourselves that we hide from the rest of the world and seldom visit ourselves:  he comes into our hurts and sorrows and pains, our dead dreams and our deepest despairs and doubts. There is not an iota of our souls, an inch of our minds or hearts that God leaves alone. He comes there, even to the darkest and ugliest places, and of course he comes into the happy places too.  He comes to places we do not expect.

Finally, the Advent Thief takes things we do not expect a thief to take.   Jesus is not a thief who will come in and steal our stereos and televisions and computers. No. When Jesus comes into our lives, he steals from us what no one else would ever take: our junk.  He looks at us after he has broken in, and he says:  What burdens you or afflicts you: I want to take it away.  What makes you angry, worried, grumpy: I want to steal it from you.  What makes you uncertain, unhappy: Give it to me.  Our Advent Thief wants to come in and take away our hurts and sorrows and pains.  He wants to  take away our anxieties and concerns, our addictions and regrets….and our disappointments. Jesus the Thief wants to take it all away.  He is the lamb of God and he even wants to take our sins away, the sins of the world.  Will we let him in?  Will we open the door by going to confession? Will we go to prayer? Will we let him in by reading the Bible or doing some service? 

I have a little story about how God comes at unexpected times, in unexpected places, and and takes unexpected things. A man was 30, and he was working a dead end job. His pay had just been docked. He had lost so much lately.  He got in his car after work, and got in a fender bender in the parking lot. Long story short: he ended up marrying the woman whose bumper collided with his that night, and now they have three kids who owe their lives to a fender bender. God came to him at an unexpected time, when he felt like giving up. He came to him at an unexpected place, in a parking lot. And God took from him his sense of being a failure, his sense of meaninglessness, his sense of despair—and he replaced it with…joy.

The Divine Thief does things like that in our lives all the time.  All those admonitions to “prepare the way of the Lord” amount to this: Make way for the Divine Thief to come into your heart.  The Divine Thief wants in!  He will come in just a few weeks, not in black like a normal thief, but in dazzling white, the dazzling white of swaddling clothes in a manger.  He will not wear a mask as most thieves do, but he will come and we will see our God face to face in that baby Jesus.  Even as he takes away all our junk if only we release it to him, even as he takes all that away, he will bring us the greatest gift, that “reward” that Isaiah talks about today: he will bring us himself.  And that will be enough.

And that is a gift he will give to us at this altar right now.

Advent wandering

Homily for the First Sunday in Advent (Year B)
Deacon Mike Keucher

29/30 November 2014 – 5pm, 8:00am, 10:30am
  Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church – Danville, IN
Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7  |  Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19  |  1 Corinthians 1:3-9  |  Mark 13:33-37
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Two priests very familiar to this parish are largely responsible for my entering seminary and staying in it. Fr. Charlie Chesebrough, who built this church building, was my priest from second grade until college. He gave me my first communion, confession, and eucharist more times than anyone could count. He was my image of God growing up, so for a while I thought God weighed 350lbs and smoked lots of cigarettes and ate lots of cookies.  He was an excellent image of God for one to have.  I always think about him during this time of year because I remember how much he loved Christmas cookies. Though he was diabetic, there was something irresistible about a Christmas cookie for him. He was a very jolly fellow in more ways than one. I did hear once that people like their priests to be heavier. You can tell me if it’s true after Mass, and if so then Fr. Mike and I have some work to do.

The other priest is your current pastor. I think of him during this season every year also, for two reasons.  First, it was in this month back in 2006 that I first went to investigate a seminary, and Fr. Mike just happened to be there at the discernment evening. Ever since that day, he has been a constant support to me and my vocation. I probably wouldn’t have made it this far without him.  You have a wonderful pastor who loves the priesthood and the Eucharist and supports us seminarians more than most.  The second reason I think of him during this season is that he also loves Christmas. He is the only priest I know of who has a leg lamp. Fr. Mike is always so…spirited…and not only around the holidays.  I figure if I can be a priest as jolly as Fr. Charlie and as spirited as Fr. Mike, I’ll do okay.

I love the season of Advent. One of the things I love about it is Christmas movies. I find they prepare me well for Christmas. One of the first ones I watch each year is The Bishop’s Wife.  Today’s first reading of the wandering Jews and today’s Gospel of the wandering house owner got me thinking about a line from that movie. A taxi driver by the name of Sylvester says something very insightful in the middle of the movie: “The problem with the world is that too many people don’t know where they’re going and they’re trying to get there too fast.”

I think he is right on.  There is a lot of frantic wandering going on, especially during this time of year. Many of us have just finished wandering back from grandmother’s house, over the forest and through the woods. Many yesterday weathered the crowds and wandered through stores on Black Friday. There will be wandering to Christmas parities and concerts and dinners and gatherings of all kinds in these coming weeks. We will wander to airports and through airports and through the air to our destinations. We wander on interstates and country roads. We will wander and wander and wander, and in the midst of the wandering we often get lost.

That’s what Isaiah the prophet is talking about in our first reading today. He cries out to God, “Why do you let us wander, O Lord?”  The entire reading is about how much God’s people whose lot was to become captives in Babylonia had wandered, how lost they had gotten in an advent that lasted not four weeks but 70 years–that’s how long they awaited the Lord and sensed his absence.  I cannot imagine Christmas not coming for 70 years, but they did.  Isaiah paints a sad picture of their plight, their misery, the wandering—and with great intensity he calls upon God: “Return for the sake of your servants,” he cries. “Rend the heavens and come down!”  They are desperate for God to come and save them from their wanderings.

And you know what?  He came.

Advent is a time to join our prayers for God to come with Isaiah’s. Our opening hymn today was “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” We did not sing out “Stay Put Emmanuel, We Will Come to You.”  The lost sheep—God always seeks him out. It would be foolish for God to await that lost sheep to come back, as if he had the wisdom or strength to do it.  Advent is about how God seeks us out, comes to us and frees us from our aimless wanderings.  In point of fact, today’s Gospel tells us that God is the true wanderer; it tells us that God is like a man who travels abroad. And where is he wandering? To you and me!

God does the wandering, and it is God who finds us.  I think we often get that backwards. We think it is up to us to find God.  If only I say this prayer right, or do this thing a better way, or make this pilgrimage, or move to that town or that church…then I will find God.  Maybe we make too much of an ordeal about finding God.  Today’s readings remind us that he finds us, and he brings us to that closeness, that intimacy, that divine “fellowship” that St. Paul describes in the second reading.

When I was a boy, I remember wandering around in the woods one day. I was in the forest by the house and all of the sudden it started to pour rain. My shoe got stuck in the mud. Mom was calling me to get in, but I kept trying to get that shoe. The more I tried, the muddier I got. I was a hot mess, much like the “polluted rag” that Isaiah talks about in the first reading. In the midst of it all, my mother came to get me. She picked up my shoe from the mud. And she took me inside.

We all had mud in our lives. Perhaps your mud is loneliness, pronounced all the more during the holidays. Maybe it is jealousies or envy or feeling stepped upon or slighted.  Maybe your mud is some sorrow that stings like a knife, some addiction you can’t shake, some regret you think of each day. Maybe your mud is confusion or depression, or the feeling of being trapped. Maybe it’s a physical defect or ailment. There is mud in every life, enough to get stuck in.  But the good news of Advent is that God does not expect that we find the strength to wander out of the mud of our lives. Instead, he gives us the season of Advent, a season that is more than anything about how God seeks us out, finds us even in our mud, and doesn’t leave us there. God can deal with our mud a lot better than we can. He embraces us, not fearing the dirt. And he tells us not that he has found a way out of the mud and our aimless journeys, but that he IS the way. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He who comes me shall not wander. 

Our job in Advent, then, is simply to call upon God from the bottom of our hearts, the depths of our soul: Come God! Save me from my wanderings! Save my from my mud!

Maybe Sylvester was right: the problem with the world is that too many of us don’t know where we’re going, and we’re trying to get there too fast. This Advent season, God is inviting us to stay put. To stop and be still, or to at least slow down, and to remember where we are going—or perhaps better, to remember who is coming to us: Christ God. Praise God he does so even now, in the Eucharist.

O Key of David

“O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.”
Canticle of Mary Antiphon
Evening Prayer
20 December 2013