Homily: 4th Sunday of Advent – Cycle C
The Saint Meinrad Archabbey church was built in the late eighteen-hundreds and was finished in 1907. It is a beautiful Romanesque church with twin spires on one end and smaller turrets on the other that give its strong arched entryways a truly majestic feel. The locally-sourced sandstone that makes up its exterior has aged very well and gives this church a unique appearance. Inside, its high ceiling and long nave evoke images of the great basilicas and cathedrals throughout Europe. Although the interior was originally arranged in a traditional manner—with the monk’s choir stalls nearest to the sanctuary and the pews arranged in rows facing the sanctuary like they are here in our church—a renovation in the nineteen-nineties resulted in a new concept of layout.
Now, I’m going to ask you to put your “imagination hats” on, so stay with me here as I try to describe this new layout. First, much like our sanctuary is elevated in what is known as the apse of the church, so was the sanctuary in the original Archabbey church. The first major change that they made was to level out the floor, so that everything would be on the same level. Then they placed their choir stalls—which are basically like “stadium seating” for the monks that they use when they come together to pray—on either side of the nave and facing each other. The monks recite the Psalms daily and they do so by alternating side to side for each stanza of the Psalm. And so this is a very normal setup for the monks’ prayer space in the monastery church. Seating for any guests that join them in prayer, however, follows the same pattern. Although not set up like the stalls, they are arranged on either side of the nave and they face each other.
Processions are a big part of monastic liturgies and so to accentuate that fact, they decided to place the altar and the ambo at opposite ends of the wide center aisle created by the seating arrangement so as to give them opportunities to make a procession to the altar during Mass. So what you have here is a “three aisle” setup: the wide center aisle, with the ambo on one end and the altar on the other, and two side aisles, one each behind the seats in the nave. It’s a very unique setup that (my personal experience can attest) works better than it might sound like it would at first.
One of the things that often gets missed by visitors to the church is the floor. It’s a terrazzo floor—which is made of chips of marble, glass or other aggregates embedded in tinted cement, and ground smooth and polished to a silky sheen—and the design was intended to accentuate the seating arrangement in the church. (Keep your imagination hats on, because we’re going on one more journey.) In the side aisles (behind the seats), the floor is marked by stones of various shapes and sizes, arranged without any pattern or sequence. The center aisle, however, is marked off by a continuous line that weaves back and forth from one end of the aisle to the other and then returns to make a complete loop. Inside each circle that is created by the weaving line there is a six-pointed star (a “star of David”) made up of two opposite facing triangles. Inside each of these triangles are smaller triangles; and inside of those, even smaller triangles, all of varying, yet ordered colors. To the uniformed observer, the floor is an interesting piece to look at, but its full meaning doesn’t stand out. For the monks, however, the floor is full of meaning.
You see, as I mentioned before, processions are a big part of monastic liturgies. On Sundays and the more significant feasts of the year, the monks assemble to pray in procession. This means that they process in from the monastery along the side aisle, where the stones are uneven and randomly ordered, into the center aisle, where the stones are balanced and highly ordered, as they make their way to their choir stalls. For them, this represents moving from the chaos of the world into the harmony of the liturgy: from disorder to order. What the monks acknowledge is that when everything works in harmony, things are whole; and when everything is whole, there is peace. Thus, for the monks the liturgy, well celebrated, is their wholeness and through it they find peace. Then, after being strengthened by their experience of wholeness, they return back to the world, ready to face its chaos once more.
The same is true for us, of course: that when everything works in harmony, we are whole; and when everything is whole we are at peace. In order to be whole, however, we have to work in harmony with our creator, who is God. The monks do that by their focus on the liturgy. So how do we do that? In a word: obedience. Through the disobedience of our first parents we lost our peace because we lost our wholeness, our harmony with God. Yet, through obedience to God—first Mary’s and then Jesus’—our harmony (and, thus, our wholeness) with God has been restored. Through obedience to God, Mary brought forth a savior for us. For this reason, as we heard in the Gospel today, her cousin Elizabeth could say “Blessed are you!” And through obedience to God Jesus brought forth salvation for the whole human race. Because he would restore wholeness, and, thus, harmony, to the human race, the prophet Micah, in our First Reading, would prophesy well about God’s anointed one and say that “he shall be peace”. And so we see that Jesus, who is humanity perfectly restored to wholeness, is peace in himself.
So, if Jesus has restored wholeness—and, thus harmony and peace—to the human race, then why is there still chaos and disorder in the world? That, my friends, is because you and I have not yet fully allowed the harmony of obedience to rule our lives. In other words, we spend a lot more time trying to do what we want to do, rather than doing what God wants us to do. Believe it or not, this is one of the main reasons for Advent. You see, Christmas is not just a hyped-up birthday party for Jesus. It’s actually a reminder to the world that the Lord, the Mighty Savior, has come and that he is harmony, he is wholeness, he is peace. Our work during Advent, therefore, is meant to restore our obedience to the Father in Christ by reconciling us through him, so that on Christmas Day we will be truly ready to experience peace in the midst of this chaotic world.
My brothers and sisters, five days of Advent remain. Let us use these days to pray a little more, to spend a little extra time in silence (and darkness!), and to slow down a little so as to allow ourselves to be more ready to be obedient to what it is that God is asking of each one of us: for when we have been restored to perfect obedience to God our Father then will we be truly ready for the celebration yet to come.
Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – December 20th, 2015