Sunday, December 8, 2013


   Second Sunday of Advent   A 

It’s just about a month ago
that I left for my annual retreat.
The Sisters of Bethlehem—
at whose monastery I spent the week—
take their silence pretty seriously.
In fact, the first time I asked to make a retreat with them,
I was sent a sort of contract to sign,
stating that I understood just how quiet I was expected to be.
Pretty much the only spoken words I heard all week
(unless I was talking to myself)
were when I offered Mass each day for the Sisters
or when I joined them for Morning and Evening Prayer
in the monastery church.

When you speak or hear so little,
you choose your words very carefully.

The Sisters have a beautiful custom
with which they conclude Vespers each night—
their last prayer together for the day.
First, they turn down the lights in the church,
until the only remaining illumination
comes from the two candles left burning on the altar.
And then they begin to chant
one of the most ancient of Christian prayers: Maranâ thâ!
In Aramaic—
the language spoken by Jesus and his Apostles—
it means, “Come, Lord!”
Now, when I say that the Sisters “chant” it,
you probably think of something very somber and subdued…
…but that’s not the case here;
“haunting” is the best way I can describe this brief song,
whose piercing notes echo through the rafters
of the chapel all in shadows.
It’s clearly a heartfelt—almost a heart-wrenching—
cry shot straight up to heaven,
and each evening as I walked back in the dark
the half-mile road to my cabin,
it was something that just wouldn’t stop ringing in my head.

It’s fairly obvious—to me, anyway—
that the Sisters really mean what they’re singing.
When they plead, “Come, Lord!”
they’re taking it absolutely seriously.
Which got me to thinking one night
as I walked amid the moon-lit trees:
What if Jesus takes these Sisters seriously?
What if he’s listening one day
and decides—well—to heed their call?

Throughout these days of Advent,
we echo that prayer of the early Church
as we sing and say, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
But do we really mean what we’re saying?
Do we realize what’s involved
if we take these words seriously?
Or are we sort of play-acting—
routinely looking forward to December 25…
…but not to another coming of Christ?

While the last days of Advent rightly focus our attention
on such immediate preparation for the great feast of Christmas,
these first weeks of the season
are meant to have a very different tone:
one not so much concentrated on getting ready
to recall when the Son of God first came in human flesh,
as getting ready for the day when Christ will come again.

The whole history of the Jewish people
had been a preparation for his first coming:
from the call of Isaiah to make straight the way of the Lord,
to the desert preaching of John the Baptist,
who challenged his hearers—from the greatest to the least—
to drown their sins in the waters of the Jordan
and emerge with hearts made clean.  (cf. A. Esolen)

If the whole history of the Jewish people
was a preparation for the Messiah’s first coming,
then the whole history of the Church
ought to be a preparation for his return in glory.
That certainly was the perspective of Saint Paul
and the first believers to whom he wrote letter after letter
of encouragement and hope.
But what about us, all these twenty centuries later?
Do we still take faith in the Second Coming seriously?
Most of us could list the careful preparations
we’ve already made to celebrate Christmas
(or least we’ve got a pretty good idea
of all the work that’s yet to be done).
But what if, one quiet night,
Christ listens to those singing nuns down in the Catskills?
What if we don’t have until December 25?
Do we live in such a way that we’re ready to meet Christ
whenever he should come again?

I challenge you, this Advent:
take things a step further.
Each day,
whether in the first light of the morning 
or at day’s dark end,
pray with sincerity for Christ’s return.
It’s a practice that has the power
to completely change your perspective.
But choose your words carefully!
He just might take you seriously.

Maranâ thâ!  Come, Lord Jesus!

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