News from P.I.T. (Pastor in Training)
When I was a little kid, when I was bad, the usual punishment was “to go to the corner.” The corner was a literal corner in my bedroom where I had to sit for as long as my parents told me the punishment would last. I don’t know if my parents planned this on purpose, but the way my room was positioned at the end of the hall, I couldn’t see the TV or anything that was going on in the living room, but I could hear all the fun everyone was having without me. I remember crying for the entire time I sat in the corner, and I remember when my dad came to me to tell me that I could come out of the corner. My heart would lighten, and I would be so happy to be able to be part of the life of the family again.
I think as Christians, we can have the temptation to forget that the Gospel is good news. Either we are tempted to think of it as an ideal which is impossible to achieve because we keep sinning, or we can be tempted to see it as only something to make us feel good without any real effect on our lives. But what is the truth?
In the First Reading, we hear the famous words: “Comfort, give comfort to my people.” This comfort truly is good news, but it only comes after Isaiah has told Israel the bad news that as a result of their sins they would go into exile. They can only receive this comfort once they acknowledge their sins.
My joy in rejoining the life of the family was only possible after I had received the punishment of being in the corner and said sorry for what I had done. In the same way, we can receive the Good News only after we have acknowledged the bad news. What is the bad news? We are all sinners, and we all need salvation. But the Good News is that God became man in Jesus Christ in order to save us from our sins so that we can have eternal life with Him. And this calls forth a response from us, the response that John the Baptist proclaims: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” In other words, we are called to change our lives, to repent of our sins and to receive the salvation of Jesus.
We are also called, like John the Baptist, to proclaim this good news to others. But this is only possible if we truly believe that it is good news and have responded to it. During this Advent, we have the opportunity to receive the good news proclaimed by John the Baptist, but we can only do that if we acknowledge the bad news of our sinfulness and respond by changing our lives. Then, we don’t have to stay in the corner, but can return to the life of the family of God.
To be attentive and to stay attentive is very hard. It takes a significant effort to stay focused on the task at hand. And yet, this is what the Lord is asking of us in our 1st Sunday of Advent readings. As much as we like to think we can multi-task, it has been proven that it’s better to focus on one thing at a time than to try to juggle multiple activities at once. How many of us try to juggle prayer with our daily activities, only to come to the conclusion that we are failing to pray as we ought? Currently, I’m thinking of all the things I need to do to get ready for Christmas, from liturgical duties like extra confessions and Masses to buying Christmas presents for my niece and nephews so that I can keep the title of “Coolest Uncle.” Yet, in all these tasks that need to be done, the most important task should be preparing my heart for the Lord and his coming.
The Advent season begins a new liturgical year for the Church. Similar to the resolutions we make for our calendar New Year, the Church is asking us to make a resolution now. In the Gospel today, the Lord is asking his disciples, which include us, to keep watch for his coming. We need to recommit to being attentive, and to preparing our hearts to receive the Lord. Isn’t that much easier said than done?
The winter season naturally is a perfect time for refocusing. As the sun sets earlier each day, nights come sooner and the temperature begins to drop. Have you ever walked outside on a crisp cold night? I feel that during these late night walks my thoughts become clearer and prayer becomes easier. Maybe it’s the cold waking me up, the silence as nature is hibernating in the darkness, or maybe it’s the awe of looking up at the stars on a clear night. The Advent season seems to help us turn even more towards reflective prayer, just as the Lord has asked it of us.
I’d encourage you to take advantage of this Advent season. Don’t get up caught up so easily in the noise and distractions of preparing for Christmas, or in the busyness of daily life. Instead, take the time to pull away and be attentive to the longings of your heart for our Lord who has come, is coming, and will come again.
When I was first ordained a deacon, it was hard for those who had known me before my Ordination to start calling me “Deacon Frank.” For example, at the seminary, when I answered a question, my teacher would call on me: “Frank.” And then she would become very apologetic, “Oh sorry, Deacon Frank.” In order to show her it wasn’t a big deal, I jokingly replied, “It’s actually Your Majesty.” Because of this, the young adults at my parish started calling me “Your Majesty” in casual conversation. “Your Majesty, can you move that table?” “How’s it going, Your Majesty?”
This might sound goofy, but that is what we celebrate today on the last Sunday of the liturgical year: the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. We celebrate that the One we should really call “Your Majesty” became one of us. A traditional image of kingship in the Bible is of a shepherd, but as Jesus tells us, the Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. He shows us that the true meaning of kingship is not to be served but to serve.
That is what is so striking about the First Reading. God keeps using the word “I.” Rather than sending down someone else to take care of the lost sheep, He says, “I myself will pasture my sheep.” God shows us that true kingship does not mean being distant from those you rule, but being close to them, in fact, becoming one of them.
The fact that God became man in Jesus Christ also has other implications. In the Gospel, at the end of time when Jesus comes in His kingly glory, He tells us that He will judge between the sheep and the goats. The standard He uses to judge them is an unusual one: “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Because God has become one of us, He has raised us up to royal dignity. In our baptism, we are made God’s children and anointed priest, prophet, and king.
But that also is a call for us to imitate Christ our King in laying down our life for our brothers, especially the poorest of the poor. I think this Gospel is scary because we can see so clearly what we are called to do, and how often we fall short. But if we believe that “the Lord is [our] shepherd,” then He will guide us in “right paths,” helping us to recognize Him in those in need.
As beloved children of the true King, we all have a claim to the title “Your Majesty,” but like Jesus, we are called not to lord it over others, but rather to serve as Jesus Christ our King has taught us. When we do this, then we can hope to hear Him say to us: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Growing up, my next-door neighbor and good friend had all the talents: from cool toys and a pool in the back yard to the newest gaming system. On top of that, he was the better natural athlete. I was constantly comparing myself to my friend. There was a lot of discouragement that I felt and it showed the depth and depravity of the sin of jealousy.
There are over 8 billion people in the world. Out of the 8 billion people that God created, how many are the same as you and me? Exactly no one else! It is crazy to realize that each human being is unrepeatable and beautifully made. Everyone is put on this earth by God, and given a variety of unique gifts and talents.
Yet, it’s amazing how we can constantly find ourselves stuck in the cycle of comparison and jealously. The reason why jealousy is so dangerous is because it blinds us to the gifts the Lord has given each and every one of us. Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton said, “Gratitude, being nearly the greatest of human duties, is also nearly the most difficult.”
In reading our Gospel, we can get caught up in comparing the number of talents the Lord has given us. In the story, the master gives talents to his servants. One was given five, another two, and finally the last servant was only given one. At the end of the story, we might ask why the servant with one talent failed to even invest it. Maybe it was because he was discouraged by jealousy, and was comparing himself with the servants who had two or five.
Yet, the importance of the Gospel is not in how many talents we are given, but in what we do with the talents! The Lord gives unique gifts to each person. And yes, some gifts are different and are given in different proportions. And that’s okay! The question we need to focus on is “how can I use the gifts the Lord has given me?” At the end of the parable, the servant with five talents and the servant with two talents both received the same reward because they used their talents them wisely. Let us turn away from jealousy and comparison, and ask the Lord for the ability to see the gifts we have received and for the strength to use those gifts for his glory.
The Church has a beautiful tradition of adoring the Blessed Sacrament during the night. When I was in college, I would reluctantly sign up for a Holy Hour in the middle of the night, knowing that I would probably fall asleep. And sure enough, I would fall asleep almost every week at some point in the hour. One week, when my hour was up, my friend who was coming in for the next hour, found me sleeping, and I embarrassedly got up and went to bed.
In the Gospel, we have a similar situation. There are ten virgins who are waiting with lighted lamps for the Bridegroom to arrive. Because he is delayed, they fall asleep. The five wise virgins have enough oil to last them through the night, while the five foolish virgins need to go out to buy more, and so are absent when the bridegroom arrives.
Even when it wasn’t nighttime, I would periodically fall asleep during prayer, so I brought it up to my spiritual director. I was going to bed on time, and I was praying at a normal time during the day, but I still fell asleep. I said that at that point, I had done all I could, and I just had to leave it in God’s hands. The director said that that kind of dependence on God is the attitude that we need in order to receive the good gifts He desires to give us.
All ten of the virgins are living a life of virtue, walking the walk of being a Christian. However, only the five wise virgins have the oil of God’s love to help them to be ready to greet the Lord when He comes. We can do all the good works we want, but we need to have the love of God as the reason behind them. As we do this, no matter how well we do, we will come face to face with our human weakness, such as my falling asleep. In those moments, we have the choice whether to give up because our human efforts have failed or to surrender into the hands of God, and receive the oil of His love as a free gift. This is the only way to have enough oil so that our lamps can be lit to meet the Lord when He comes.
I still sometimes fall asleep during prayer time, but I don’t sweat it as much anymore. After all, even the wise virgins fell asleep. But we need to see it as an opportunity to rely on Jesus. When we do this, we can receive the oil of God’s love so that we are not holding empty lamps, but can meet Jesus with lamps brightly burning.