Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
First Sunday of Advent, Year A
December 1, 2013
Is 2:1-5, Ps 122, Rom 13:11-14, Mt 24:37-44
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click here:
The guiding text for the homily is below:
Going deeper in faith in the next rotation of the liturgical spiral
We begin today, on this first Sunday of Advent, a new liturgical year, which is meant to give us a totally new spiritual start. The liturgical year — in which we retrace all of the events of salvation history from the long wait for a Messiah to the crowning of that crucified and risen long-awaited One as the King of the Universe — is not meant to be a liturgical cycle but a liturgical spiral, not a “same old, same old,” but something that helps us to enter into the mysteries we celebrate far more profoundly than the last time. Like re-reading a great book or watching anew a classic movie, each pass along the liturgical spiral is supposed to reveal to us elements we haven’t seen before and remind us of important things that we once knew but have forgotten about the mystery of God, his love for us, his hopes for us and his plans for us.
Three angles to Advent
The proper attitude God wants us to have as we begin with this season of Advent the new liturgical year is given to us by St. Paul in today’s second reading. As if he were responding to the question, “What time is it?,” St. Paul says, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” We learn a few things about Advent from what he says:
- Advent, he tells us, is first meant to be a time of spiritual reawakening, of spiritual rebirth, as we return to what should be the proper foundation of our life — Christ himself — and build our life on him.
- Second, it’s a time of excitement. Salvation is nearer to us that when we became believers. It’s nearer to us because we’re a full-year closer to meeting Christ face-to-face that will happen when we die and are judged by him, the day, we pray, that we will be able to say with the Prophet Isaiah, “Behold the God to whom we looked to save us! This is the Lord for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!” Advent is a time when we not only look to the past, to Jesus’ coming in Bethlehem; it’s not merely a time when we look toward Jesus in the present, as he comes to us to teach us by his Word, feed us with his body and blood, forgive us in the Sacrament of Penance, and guide us each day through prayer; it’s also a time when we look ahead with joy to Christ’s coming at the end of our life or at the end of time, whichever comes first. And we look forward not with anti-Christian, spiritually-worldly dread, but with truly Christian hope. Salvation is nearer to us now than last first Sunday of Advent, than two years ago, than the day of our confirmation and first communion, than the day of of our baptism, than the day when we first became believers! That’s something that should get us more excited than the most energetic Pats fan gets at the thought of another Superbowl championship.
- Third, Advent is a time of journeying. Christ is coming — that is what the term Advent means — and we are called not to stay where we are, but to journey toward him and journey with him. Pope Francis said this morning in his Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square: “Today, we begin on the First Sunday of Advent a new liturgical year, that is a new journey of the People of God with Jesus Christ our Shepherd, who guides us in time toward the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God!” In today’s opening prayer, we turned to God the Father and asked him to grant us “the resolve to run forth to meet” Christ “with righteous deeds at his coming.” Advent is the gun at the beginning of a race that gets us to begin a spiritual sprint, to go with haste, to meet Christ as he comes. Isaiah in today’s first reading, looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, compared Advent to a hike: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.” Advent is a time for climbing up a mountain to meet the Lord, to learn his ways and begin to walk in them.
So Advent is a time when we get up, get excited, and get moving. We know that none of those things just happens to us. They require our will. They demand our free choice.
- First, we have to get up. Sometimes many of us spiritually are like slumbering teenage boys against whom you need to take out defibrillating paddles in order to get them out of bed! Many of us routinely hit the snooze button on the Lord’s calling us to become fully alive. We know we should make our faith a priority, but we just hit the snooze and put it off to later. Advent is like a set of spiritual defibrillating paddles meant to jolt us out of the spiritual comas into which out of weakness we can fall.
- Second, we have to get excited by stoking our love for God, for his promises, for heaven, for holiness, for happiness. This, too, requires a choice to start placing our heart more where our true treasure ought to be. It means wanting to make more time for prayer than shopping, more time for reading Sacred Scripture or good spiritual books than watching television, more time for loving our neighbor — especially those in greater need of love — than we give to our hobbies and diversions.
- Third, after getting our excitement and desires right, then we need to act on those desires, and get moving to Christ where he awaits us. We need to go meet him in adoration. To go encounter him in Confession. To go receive him in the Eucharist. To go to find him in the disguise of those who are in need. And then to continue to walk in his ways by walking with him and continuing that holy, exciting adventure of faith.
The great stakes of Advent’s wake-up call
As Jesus teaches us today in the Gospel, there are great stakes in whether we wake up, get excited and make that journey. Jesus describes how at the time of Noah, there were only a few alert to what was really going on and the rest perished. He said two will be in the field, one will be taken, the other left; two grinding meal, one will be taken, the other left. In St. Luke’s account, Jesus adds, “There will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left.”
This means that it’s not enough for us to say, “My wife prays the Rosary. That’s good enough for both of us!” One will be taken, the other left! It’s not enough for us to say, “My uncle’s a priest” or “My best friend from school is a nun.” One will be taken, the other left! Jesus describes that two people doing the same thing at the same time will have two totally different outcomes. This doesn’t mean that the decision is going to be arbitrary, as if God is just going to flip a coin and determine who gets taken by him to eternal happiness and who gets left alienated from him forever. The ones who will go with the Lord will be those who are not asleep, not dead to what really matters, but alive. They’ll be the ones who are excited for the things of God rather than treat what God asks of us as burdens and the drama of life with him a boring imposition. The ones who are taken will be those who are seeking God, striving to grow spiritually, rather than being content with doing the minimum or even less. The ones who are taken will be those who are journeying, seeking to change in the way Christ wants to change them, who are making the effort to come to meet him, and who even when they’re working the fields, or grinding meal in the kitchen, or resting in bed are seeking to unite their whole life to God.
Jesus uses an analogy of the owner of a house who stays awake and alert so that his house doesn’t get broken into. Advent is like a burglar alarm that goes off to reawaken us to the reality that there is a burglar — the devil — and makes us attentive to the treasure of our soul that we don’t want to lose or have stolen. Perhaps even better, Advent is like an alarm clock that helps us wake up from our dream world and seize the gift of the day and whole near year God has given us during which he wants to love us and strengthen us to use the talents he’s lent us to help him redeem the world.
Many times Catholics behave as if they believe that they’re supposed to go through this world quietly, minding their own business, not disturbing anyone, leaving the world unchanged. But that’s not Jesus’ plans for us at all. Changing the world is part of our mission. Jesus wants to form us to be his change-agents for the world, to clean up the world that is often so messy, to take responsibility for helping the world to get better.
But the way that we help the world to improve is by first responding to God’s assistance to improve ourselves. That’s what God wants to bring about in this new liturgical year. He wants to form and transform us to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and a leaven lifting everyone up. He wants to give us a renewed passion for our faith so that this year will become a true year of the Lord.
Becoming dynamic disciples
Advent is a dynamic season meant to feature a double-movement: Christ’s journeying toward us and our going out of ourselves, out of comfort zones, out of our old habits, to meet him. It’s a time for us to cast off the deeds of darkness, as St. Paul tells us in the second reading, and put on God’s armor of light. If we’ve gotten into any bad habits, Advent is a time to hit the reset button on our spiritual life so that we can with renewed help from God complete Jesus’ mission. The spiritual spiritual New Year we begin today is a time of setting spiritual “New Year’s Resolutions” and responding to God’s help to keep them so that we might in fact stay alert, excited and moving. That way, no matter when the Lord comes, we’ll never find him a thief but a Friend. That way he’ll never catch us off-guard but find us ready to continue with him the journey we have been seeking to walk with him each day.
In response to Jesus’ continued dynamism, we need to become, in short, dynamic Catholic disciples, those who are growing in the faith, those who are taking advantage of the time God gives us to move closer to him who came into our world to be close to us and who wants to enter into a communion with us that will last forever. But how do we become truly dynamic disciples? How do we grow in the way God is asking us to grow? How can we respond to God’s help to make this new liturgical year the best year of our spiritual life up until now?
The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic
Next weekend, I’m going to be giving as a pre-Christmas gift to every family in the parish Matthew Kelly’s great new book, The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic. Matthew Kelly is one of the great young Catholic authors whose writings are helping so many to grow in faith in practical ways. He’s an Australian who after business school came to the United States to become a business consultant. He’s become so successful in that work that now he’s able to work four days a month advising Fortune 500 clients so that he can dedicate the rest of the month to trying to help Catholics come truly alive in the faith. The book I’ll be giving you next weekend is really a very straightforward presentation of the difference between Catholics who are awake and alert versus those who are sleep-walking, those who are excited versus unenthusiastic, those who are journey and growing rather than those who are stuck in a rut. Even more importantly, Matthew Kelly’s book presents a clear path for all those who are not really growing to enter on a doable plan to become more and more spiritually alive.
Matthew Kelly’s book began when he heard an old priest who had been the pastor of seven different parishes over 40 years tell a young one who was struggling to help his parish come alive not to kill himself, because, he said, no matter what parish you’re in, you’ll only be able to motivate about 50 people to do anything. The comment intrigued Matthew. He decided to ask some other priests he knew whether that was basically true, that there is really only a small number of Catholics who get involved. They confirmed it. Then he decided to use all the skills he has acquired in business school and as a business consultant to see what the actual data was. He started to ask questions about what percentage of parishioners get actively engaged in a parish and why they get engaged and stay engaged. He anticipated there might be a Catholic version of the Pareto Principle, that 20 percent of people cause 80 perfect of the effects. But what he actually found surprised him. He discovered that not 20 but 6.4 percent of registered parishioners contributed 80 percent of the volunteer hours; that 6.8 percent of registered parishioners donated 80 percent of financial contributions; and that there was an 84 percent overlap between the two groups. That meant that for the most part, only 7 percent of parishioners are giving 80 percent of the time and treasure of a parish and 93 percent are giving less than 20.
While that seems like bad news, Matthew approached it with hope. He said imagine what it would mean if we could increase the percentage of actively engaged parishioners in a parish from 7% to 8%. That would mean that volunteers hours in a parish would increase by 15% and in general collections would grow by the same margin. If a parish was able to succeed in getting 14% of parishioners to become truly engaged, the volunteer hours and the collection fueling so many parish programs would double. Imagine what would happen if 70% of parishioners were actively engaged, or if almost all of them were. Here at St. Bernadette’s, if every registered parishioner imitated the habits of the 7% that are already engaged, we’d be able to have a Christian service corps that could make a real difference in turning our city right side up and a collection of about $42,000 a week in which not only would we be able to pay off our debt, but we would be able to run programs to help so many grow in faith and care for so many who are need. The key is to expand the number of actively engaged parishioners, and the way to do that, Matthew surmised, was to study the habits of those who are already in the 7% and encourage and help all other parishioners imitate those habits.
The four things that distinguishes dynamic Catholics
Matthew began to examine what made the 7% different than the 93%. They were both Catholics who received formation in the faith. They were both Catholics who came to Mass. But their response to the faith was different. As he did his analysis, he recognized that there were 264 behaviors that distinguished the 7% from the 93%. He eventually sifted through all the data to see that those 264 traits fell into four distinct habits:
- The 7% have a daily commitment to prayer — For dynamic Catholics, God is not a distant force but a personal friend and daily advisor. They don’t hope to get around to praying each day. It’s a priority for them. This doesn’t mean that the 93% don’t pray, but for them it’s spontaneous and inconsistent. They don’t prioritize prayer the way the 7% do. The 93% generally give God the leftovers of their time, whereas the 7% give God the first fruits. The 93% may start to pray but if they’re not feeling like prayer, they put it off until they feel in the mood. The 7%, he said, have a routine of prayer within their routine of prayer. Whether it’s the Rosary, or daily Mass, or a meditation from the Magnificat missal, they have practices that help them get into the zone. The have a time to pray, a place to pray and a structure to their prayer. In this book, Matt presents a very doable plan within a plan of prayer that Catholics in busy lives can live.
- The 7% are continuous learners — Dynamic Catholics spend an average of 14 minutes a day, or an hour-and-a-half each week, growing in their knowledge of the faith. They see themselves as students of Jesus and hunger to learn his ways so that they may walk in his paths. They read Catholics books, listen to Catholic CDs, watch DVDs about the faith, and tune in to Catholic radio and television programs. They read good Catholic books and newspapers. They go on spiritual days and retreats. They come to Bible Studies and adult education opportunities. They make a plan to grow in faith and try to follow that plan. You would think that the 7% would think that they already know the faith well enough that they can just coast, but Matt Kelly shows that they approach the faith with humility, knowing how much they don’t know and wanting to know things better. The 93% can think that all the really need to know about the faith they should have learned before Confirmation, or even before first Communion. They may have questions about the faith but they don’t come up with a plan to find the answers to those questions.
- The 7% are truly generous with their time, talents, money and with their whole life — Dynamic Catholics are generally described by those who know them as generous, not just with time and money, but with appreciation, praise, virtue, love and encouragement. They’re generally filled with gratitude, recognize how blessed they are by God, and want to share their blessings with others. His research proves that Dynamic Catholics aren’t a bunch of people with nothing to do and therefore who have the time to dedicate to others, but they’re often among the busiest parishioners, with demanding jobs and lots of familial responsibilities. What distinguishes the 7% is not that they have extra time, or find time, but that they make time to use the gifts God’s given them for the service of their families, neighbors, the Church and others. Filled with gratitude they don’t just give something but sacrifice financially to help make their parishes strong; the 7% are often of modest incomes, but they generally give far more than those who are much wealthier do. They are able to do this because they make a budget in order to know what they really need so that they can be as generous as possible with the rest. Generosity isn’t just a religious requirement for them, but a way of life. They want to make a difference with their lives and they generously spend their lives to improve the lives of others. The 93%, he found, often have good intentions, but just never get around to making a similar commitment to live their life for others.
- The 7% invite others to grow spiritually by sharing the love of God with them — Dynamic Catholics spread the faith, mainly in simple ways. The look at their Catholic faith as a treasure and want others to become rich in faith. It’s not that they feel totally confident in sharing all aspects of the faith with others and answering every question others may have, but they know that they’ve found something good and so they pass on books they’ve read or they good emails or Facebook posts. They invite people to events when they can grow in faith. While they don’t have all the answers, they generally develop a series of websites, or reference books, where they know they can turn to try to be able to respond to others real questions. The 93% often don’t.
In terms of what to do with this information, Matthew’s strategy is not to the 93% of registered Catholics who are not yet truly dynamic to change over night by imitating these four behaviors of the 7%. He knows that for most people that doesn’t work, whether we’re talking about growth in faith, or being successful at losing weight, paying off debt, working on a big project, improving a marriage, running long distances or the like. What he does is to try to get them to commit to growth step-by-step, in small and doable increments, so that they might shift from the unengaged to the truly engaged, from those who are left to those who are taken. He wants to give those in the 93% the tools to become one of the 7% and help them to see if it’s possible. In the long run, we only hit what we aim at, and he wants to help us to aim for spiritual growth in the following ways:
- With prayer, he encourages those who think that life is too full and hectic to make a commitment next week to spend one minute in truly focused conversation with God. One minute. You could perhaps set your cell phone to remind you of that minute each day. All of us can find one minute. We might not be able to find 15 or 20 a day, but we can find one. If we can form that habit, then perhaps we can find two minutes the next week, and three the week after that. Over time we can work up to 15-20 minutes a day. Matthew tells the story of how as a teenager he had a good Catholic adult friend with which he used to play basketball who encouraged him step by step to increase his prayer life. And it turned his life around. Matt’s trying to pass on the same unintimidating, incremental wisdom.
- With learning our faith, he encourages every body to start with reading one page from a Catholic book each day. Again, that’s something that isn’t going to kill us. It might take a minute or two. But once we form the habit, we can build it up to reading two pages, then three, then five pages a day. With his business school training he notes that if we were to read five pages of a good Catholic book a day, 23 would read 1,825 pages a year, 18,250 pages in a decade and 45,625 pages over 25 years. That’s 228 two-hundred-page books. Imagine how much you could learn if you worked yourself up to five pages a day: you’d read 228 books to help you grow in faith, little-by-little.
- In terms of growing in generosity, he encouraged us to commit ourselves to practicing one intentional act of generosity every day. One kind deed. One out-of-the-way compliment. One planned phone call or visit to someone who might be down. Likewise, in terms of charity, he encouraged us to give one percent more than we do. Something that for most of us won’t break the bank. But once we start with one intentional deed and increasing our generosity by one percent, we’re on a path of growth. It’s much easier to go from one to two and two to three than it is from zero to one.
- In terms of sharing our faith, he suggests that we make a resolution that at once a week we’ll do something to pass on our faith to others. Like giving them a calendar from the Church so that they can have good religious art in their own and the parish’s Mass schedule in case they wanted to join us. Or invite them to a spiritual event, like this week’s visit of the miraculous traveling image of Our Lady of Czestochowa or next week’s talk on Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. It might also just mean telling someone who ask us today how we’re doing to say, “I feel great. I went to Church this morning and returned strengthened,” or even, “I’m reading this book on Dynamic Catholicism and I really am being helped by it.” It doesn’t mean we need to challenge an atheist like Steven Hawking to a debate or seek to invite an imam in the Taliban to convert to Catholicism. It means just to share some of the good news that God has given us with others so that they might have a chance to be lifted up in faith.
Matthew Kelly’s book is a really practical program for spiritual growth, for becoming more awake, alert and alive in our Catholic faith, for becoming more passionate about living it and sharing it, for going out to meet Christ in the so many ways he comes to us and accompanying him in the joint mission to save the world.
I’m going to give it out next week after all the Masses in the hope that you’ll read it before Christmas so that on Christmas day you will be able to give Jesus two birthday gifts. The first is a commitment to take the little steps Matthew describes to become a dynamic Catholic, for your own happiness and for the growth and vitality of our parish. The second gift would be to pass that book on as a gift at Christmas to someone else you know who could use spiritual revitalization. I’ve spent my own money to order more copies than there are households in our parish so that I can give some out at Christmas to those we see only a few times a year, in the hope that it might turn their lives around. And if you’ve the book and like it, perhaps you could invite some of your family members here at Christmas saying, “Father Landry is going to give out an awesome book at Christmas to visitors and I’d like you to come to receive it.” That might be the invitation they need to set out on a path to become truly dynamic disciples of the Lord.
Dynamic disciples and the Eucharist
For us as Catholics, the real source and summit, beginning and goal, of our spiritual dynamism happens here at Mass. To use Matthew Kelly’s categories, the Mass is the greatest prayer of all. This is where Jesus teaches us. This is where we learn from his generosity down to the last drop of his blood how to give of ourselves back to him and in communion with him to others. This is where he strengthens us and each week gives us the commission to go and announce the Gospel of the Lord. To use the categories of today’s readings, this is the place we become alive and alert for Christ’s presence. This is where the Holy Spirit comes to try to help us to become genuinely excited about our faith. This is the place that we go out to encounter the Lord Jesus who comes to meet us here. Today we rejoice that we have come to the house of the Lord where he teaches us his ways and helps us to walk in his paths. This new spiritual year that begins today is meant to be the greatest year in our spiritual life. It’s meant to a year of spiritual growth as we become the dynamic Catholics Christ has always intended us to be. Let’s respond to God’s graces that it may indeed become so! And let us help each other by our prayers, encouragement and concrete assistance to go out to meet the Lord who comes with love!
What time is it? It’s time to get up, get excited, and get moving. Emmanuel is coming. Let us go out to meet him with all we’ve got! Amen!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come,
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest mountain
and raised above the hills.
All nations shall stream toward it;
many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
For from Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and impose terms on many peoples.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!
PS 122: 1-2, 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
I rejoiced because they said to me,
“We will go up to the house of the LORD.”
And now we have set foot
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
Jerusalem, built as a city
with compact unity.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the LORD.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
According to the decree for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the LORD.
In it are set up judgment seats,
seats for the house of David.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
May those who love you prosper!
May peace be within your walls,
prosperity in your buildings.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
Because of my brothers and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
Because of the house of the LORD, our God,
I will pray for your good.
R. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.
Brothers and sisters:
You know the time;
it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;
the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light;
let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealousy.
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.
“As it was in the days of Noah,
so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.
In those days before the flood,
they were eating and drinking,
marrying and giving in marriage,
up to the day that Noah entered the ark.
They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.
Two men will be out in the field;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding at the mill;
one will be taken, and one will be left.
Therefore, stay awake!
For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”