My Dear Friends,
Peaceful was the drive through rural Missouri, the black trees silhouetted against the browned fields and a gentle grey sky. And peaceful too was the monastic church -- with a solitary Christmas cactus marking the altar, and four candles naming the way for hope, to faith, through joy, and finally peace. A number of changes have been happening. Although this was new to me, the Superior and one monk went with Austin to his home to meet with his parents and to learn more about his home situation. Austin and Fr. Alberic (NM) are scheduled to leave for a transitional year in Vietnam as soon as visas and transportation are opened. Fr. Michael, a Vietnamese Benedictine priest, has begun a three year novitiate with us. Br. Peter B. has left, developing kidney stones for which he has requested treatment by Vietnamese doctors. Br. Hillary has joined us -- young, and having spent much of his life in the U.S., has a good command of English. That presently makes thirteen of us, with two more waiting for visas.
Daily Lauds/Mass now begins at 6 A.M. instead of 6:30, in order better to accommodate preparations by the bakers. There is no baking during December and January in order to do the annual cleaning, during which time we hope to have two local men install a more moderate type of LEEDS lighting in the Bakery than we now have in the rest of the monastery. We sold out our fruitcakes in record time this year, suggesting that we now bake additionally on all Saturdays. Our Annual Retreat is set for January 24-30, with retired Bishop Liebrecht serving as Retreat Master. At Tuesday lunch I presented our Superior with a copy of my 15th book, Remnant Christianity in a Post-Christian World. My schedule for times at the monastery was posted on the bulletin board as follows:
January 10 - 16; February 14-20; Feb. 28 - March 6; April 9-17; May 16-22; June 13-19; July 11-17; August 15-21; September. 12-18; October. 10-16;Oct. 31-November 6; December 19-25.
Tuesday’s homily began with St. Paul’s joy over the miracle that happened to him on the Damascus Road. The Christian faith that he hated has become the center of his life, and the Judaism that had been his center he now regards as rubbish. He fully expected that when he preached this life-changing Christian gospel to his Jewish compatriots, they would accept this good news with enthusiasm. But it did not happen that way. The Jews became his enemies. Yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, Paul trusted that Christ must have good reason for delaying this wholesale Jewish conversion -- hoping that it was to bring the Gentiles into his Kingdom first, and then the conversion of the Jews would happen. This trust shown by Paul discloses well the meaning of the Advent season, as well as the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Scripture makes clear that becoming a Christian happens through “justification by faith.” But what is “faith?” Often it is misunderstood as meaning “belief” in doctrines -- such as the incarnation and resurrection. But for Paul, “faith” means “TRUST.” The life that Jesus teaches is that of humility, of relinquishing all control by TRUSTING God alone in each moment. And because Jesus was like us in every way but sin, he too never knew in advance how things would work out. Even when the path became rocky, still Jesus trusted that God knew what he was doing. Our Responsorial Psalm says this well: “Even when I say that my foot is slipping, I trust, O Lord.” Yet after living his whole life in trust, he finds himself being led by God to Gethsemane -- experiencing an incredible fear, with sweat oozing from his face like drops of blood. Three times he returns to God in prayer, as the mob with clubs approach closer and closer. He needs to be dead sure; and only then can he say what he had been saying throughout his whole life: “Not my will, Father, but thy will be done.” And when God’s leading takes him further to a torturous cross, where in pain he is forced to scream out at the impending darkness, he ends his life with that same trust: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” This is faith -- trusting God even when nothing seems to make sense. And Christmas is the GIFT of TRUST that dawns in our Advent deserts when we find ourselves serving a God whom we do not see, loving a God whose love we can only hope for, trusting the wisdom of a God whom we do not understand, and thanking a God who in the Advent darkness threatens to take away from us everything except the longing for him. We Christians are Advent people.
The Christmas trees were cut, brought in, and trimmed on Wednesday -- but unlike Trappists, there was no waiting until Christmas Eve to turn on the lights. Everything was as always, except for the absence of tiny ribbons on each Cell door and a large Christmas Wreath in the hallway. I was Deacon on Friday, when the Nazareth Hermits joined us for Mass. Our Midnight Mass began at 11 PM, followed by refreshments. On Christmas day, the Shepherds Mass was at 6:15 AM, and I was priest at Day Mass.
The word most frequently used in the scriptures this week has been JOY. On Tuesday Isaiah speaks of the watchman crying out for joy. The Psalter speaks of singing a joyful song to the Lord. Subsequently Zephaniah shouts for joy. Psalm 33 cries with joy a new song to the Lord. Even Elizabeth’s baby stirs in her womb for joy when the pregnant Mary appears. On and on go the scriptures, expressing joy with harp, trumpet, and horn. Yes, Christmas is to be a day of incredible joy. But this makes me wonder -- have I ever really experienced joy, of being in a throng of people deliriously joyous? Probably only hints of this, in the secular world. There were a million and a half persons who in sheer joy spontaneously flocked to downtown K.C. the night the Chiefs won the Super Bowl in football. But that didn’t last long, for the very next year we were humiliated in defeat. Or the time when at the Lincoln Memorial Martin Luther King spoke joyously to a huge crowd about having a dream -- only to be assassinated. Or that joyous gathering in Lincoln Park in Chicago the night when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the U.S.-- as in joy a million lights were lifted high in hope -- only to follow with a disappointing administration. The history of our country is a series of joys ending in punctured dreams. Yet we should not be surprised, for today’s gospel from John gives us these joyous words -- “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” Yes! But then come these words: “Yet the world did not know who he was; and when he came to his own, they did not accept him.” Where is the joy? In fact, the very day after Christmas, the church makes clear the price to be paid for believing -- as we observe the martyrdom of Stephen, one of the first Deacons. The next day we observe the martyrdom of John the beloved disciple. The very next day we encounter the massacre of the children of Bethlehem because of Jesus. Then the very next day we are plunged into the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket. On and on it goes. Where is the joy? Christmas day is soon over -- as toys get unwrapped and just as quickly broken; the festive dinner that takes hours to prepare is quickly consumed, leaving only leftovers and dirty dishes. All of this makes me wonder if the heart of Christmas is experienced not so much on Christmas Day as on Christmas Eve -- when at midnight mass the world seems ignited with expectation, with HOPE about what is to come. The joy associated with Christmas comes through being given the gift of HOPE. Two weeks ago I received a letter that speaks for many persons in our society who are experiencing the world as being as bleak as it has ever been. It began: “This has been a terrible year, and this is a very sad letter.” This is what it is like to be a person without hope. The question Christ asked the blind man is what he is asking each of us: “What is it that you wish for me to do for you?” Our response is that of the blind man: “I want to see.” For those of us who believe that Christmas marks the Incarnation of God himself, we are enabled to see God incarnated as hints and guesses all around us, yearning to be born and reborn -- in the birth of each child, the angelic song of mocking birds, the sunrises choreographed with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. God is incarnate everywhere for eyes awakened to see. In the musical “The Man from La Mancha,” Don Quixote is portrayed as\being all of us, yearning for an impossible dream and an unreachable star. Ah, be joyous, my friends, for Christmas is the HOPE born when the unreachable star with its impossible dream COMES TO US.
May it be with such hope that the Christ gifts us all this Christmas Season.