Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Reign of Christ

(11th cent. mosaic, Church of San Frediano, Lucca
Photo: Georges Jansoone, 2005)

The liturgical lessons for today bring to a conclusion once again the cycle of the Church Year. As we now stand at the beginning of a new year, beginning with the season of Advent next week, the coming of Jesus, we’re confronted with two images: that of the reigning Christ and that of the newborn Jesus. We celebrate both Christ’s ongoing reign in our everyday lives and in the world, and his coming in the flesh to initiate that reign. In either case, “the time has arrived; the reign of God is at hand.

We can’t know the glorified Christ without first knowing the Jesus of Bethlehem. Yet, it would be mistake to let oneself be seduced by a “sweet-Jesus-in-the manger” image. The Carmelite St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), an Auschwitz martyr, in her magnificent spiritual essay The Mystery of Christmas (which I have read annually for 53 years) observes: “
Darkness covered the earth, and He came as the Light that shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend Him...This is the bitterly serious truth which ought not to be obscured by the poetic charm of the Child in the manger. The mystery of the Incarnation is closely linked to the mystery of iniquity...The Child in the manger stretches out His small hands, and His smile seems to say even now the same as later the lips of the Man: ‘Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened’...These Child’s hands say ‘Follow me’ just as later the lips of the Man will say it...Ways part before the Child in the manger. He is the King of kings, the Lord of life and death. He speaks His ‘Follow me!’, and if [one] is not for Him, [one] is against Him. He speaks also to us, and asks us to choose between light and darkness...

There’s a cartoon depicting a little man with long hair and beard who is carrying a placard with the words: “
Repent, the end is near!” One passerby with a worried look on his face stops to inquire: “When?” The little man replies: “Oh, in a billion years or so!” Today in the liturgy the Church is a little like the man with the placard, reminding us of the necessity to give serious thought to ultimate matters. A number of the Christian liturgies use the phrase: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” It’s that last phrase that we’re bidden today to contemplate, even as we liturgically anticipate Christ’s coming in the Advent/Christmas mystery.

The whole question of “when” Christ will appear has been the favorite focus of self-proclaimed prophets and doomsayers for centuries. It happened as the year 1000 A.D. approached, throwing people into mass confusion and terror. People sold their possessions and fled to the hills to be safe. Our generation heard a little of that as the year 2000 approached, but, of course, it came and passed without incident. More recently the prophetic pundits are at it again, “foretelling” global upheaval and destruction in the year 2012, according the Mayan calendar. (Dang it, that’s the year I finally pay off my car loan!) It’s a little like the Charlie Brown-trying-to-kick-the-football syndrome, only to have Lucy pull it away at the last minute. Jesus tells us: “
The reign of God is within you”. The “when” of Christ’s coming shouldn’t be our focus. Faith bids us to be busy about the work of loving God and one another.

The other temptation during these next four or five weeks, of course, will be to lose ourselves in getting and spending. The surrounding society is already playing upon our national addictions and bombarding us with the glitter and tinsel and talk of the “bottom line”. If we choose to buy into all this, it can be a colossal distraction and diversion from awareness of the realities of the needs of real people around us, and even of our own real inner needs: those who are jobless, those who’ve been ignored and shuttled aside in the health care system, LGBT sisters and brothers about to be victimized, even killed, by proposed legislation in Uganda, those who live alone and in despair.

Today’s liturgy and those during Advent bid us to enter a deeper, more serious reflection on what’s really ultimate in our relationships, both with others and God, and in our living.”
The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.” “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come...who loves us and freed us by his blood.” “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

We’re called to be participants in the reign of Christ, to enter into it intentionally, and the Advent season ahead is as good a time as any. The reign of Christ bids me to live each day as if it were my last, to realize that there is only the “
day of the Lord", and that it is every day.

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