Sunday, November 29, 2015

The race to Jesus' coming

Homily: 1st Sunday of Advent – Cycle C
          Racing, in any form, requires not only speed and stamina, but also intelligence and good timing.  Every competitive race has a defined distance or time which the racers use to plan how they are going to run the race so as to finish in front of everyone else.  While each individual racer’s strategy might differ (some will go strong out of the gate to build a lead, others will hold back to save energy for the final push), the goal, of course, is the same: to win the race by being up front at the end.
          Some of the most exciting races happen when the race seems to be dominated by one racer who is then overcome by a racer who didn’t seem to have the right stuff to win until the end.  Horse racing is famous for this, am I right?  Arguably the most famous horse race in America is the Kentucky Derby; and the most famous horse to race the Kentucky Derby is Secretariat.  Why is Secretariat the most famous?  Because in 1973 he made an incredible come-from-behind victory in the Kentucky Derby and set the record for the fastest time ever in the Derby, a record which still stands today.
          Imagine, however, if, as the racers approached the finish line, the organizers said “Keep going, we decided to extend the race” or if, only halfway through the race, they said “Surprise!  The race ends here!”  In other words, imagine if there was a race in which the distance or time was not defined.  That would change everyone’s strategy, wouldn’t it?  Basically, you would have to do everything in your power to get to the front and stay up front, so that when the arbitrary end of the race was announced, you’d have a shot at being the winner.  And it doesn’t sound like a very fun or exciting race either, does it?
          Yet, in our Gospel reading today, as we open the new liturgical year this first Sunday of Advent, Jesus is basically telling us that this is what we are doing: running a race in which we do not know when or where the end will occur.  First he describes what the end will look like: signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars… roaring of the seas and its waves.  Then he exhorts his disciples: “People and nations will be in dismay, thinking it the end of the world (because that’s what it will be).  But it should not be so with you!  Be ready!  You won’t know when that day will come, so don’t get caught taking a rest or, worse yet, running a different, worldly race altogether!”  The implication he is making is this: It doesn’t matter how well you had been running the race; if you aren’t ready when the end of the race comes, you’ll lose.  And so he warns them: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy…”
          Yet, if we take a look at our lives, perhaps we’ll see that our hearts, indeed, have become drowsy “from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.”  Just take a look at the madness that happens in the “black Friday” sales.  Anyone who tackles another person to get a discounted TV has lost every sense that life is a journey towards something beyond this world.  These are the ones who will be caught off-guard on the day that the Lord comes, because their love is for this world, and not for the Lord of the world.  These will be the ones who will be filled with dismay on the day that the Lord comes.
          This, of course, is nothing new.  Saint Cyprian, a 3rd century bishop in North Africa, warned his people about this same thing.  In one of his sermons, he said:
“How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly to obey it when he calls us from this world!  Instead we struggle and resist like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.  And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to who we come against our will!  Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us?  What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we would rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ?”
What he is speaking about is how we allow our affection for the Lord to be extinguished by giving our affection to the things of this world; so much so that when the Lord calls us to him, we go only kicking and screaming, not realizing that this (going to the Lord) was what we should have been longing for all along.  Then, facing the Lord, we will sheepishly plead for the winner’s prize, even though we gave up on the race.
          It is because of this that the Church gives us this season of Advent.  It is a season meant to help “wake-up” our hearts and remind us of the goal of our running in the race: to be ready for the coming of Jesus—both the celebration of his first coming, but also his imminent second coming.  Although not specifically prescribed by the Church, we should consider Advent to be a time of sacrifices, in which we detach ourselves from the things of this world so that we are not dismayed when the signs appear in the sun, the moon, and the stars; but rather stand erect with our heads raised because our redemption will be at hand.
          It’s touching, isn’t it, when we see those images of service men and women returning home and seeing their families for the first time in a long time.  Whether it is in an airport, a bus station, or in front of their home, the sense of anticipation is tangible as you watch the family members looking eagerly ahead, waiting to see their loved one.  And when they do, the run towards them and embrace them with abandon; for the one that they longed for has returned to them.  They remained steady in the race until the day, perhaps unknown to them, that the race ended and so they received the hoped-for reward.  The question that Advent puts before each of us is, “Am I ready to do the same when Jesus comes again?”
          My brothers and sisters, Advent is our time to get ready for that day, so that we are not drawn, kicking and screaming, before the Lord: sad because of what we must leave behind in order to receive the infinite joys that God wants to give us.  To do this we must pray; for in prayer we come to know and, thus, to love the Lord more deeply (and it is love that will send us running toward him on the day of his coming).  We must also fast; for in fasting we detach ourselves from the things of this world, so that there will be nothing holding us back when he comes.  And we must give alms; for nothing demonstrates our detachment from the things of this world then when we freely give of them to those in need.  (Sound a lot like Lent, doesn’t it?...)
          Friends, the saddest come-from-behind stories are the ones that never happen.  If you have become drowsy on this race towards the day of Jesus’ coming, then please take this opportunity to wake-up and start running again.  The Eucharist—Jesus’ ongoing presence with us—is the life-giving bread that gives us strength to keep us running.  May our communion with him propel us forward to the day of redemption, when he will come again to bring us home.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – November 28th & 29th, 2015

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