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.