(From the September, 2015 issue of Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, my monthly column, “Bridge Work”)
Advent: unplanned presence
I have moved ten times in over thirty-two years as a priest, crisscrossing the country from place to place. Each transition brings me great grief about leaving behind significant relationships and opportunities for ministry. After letting go of one ministry in a certain geographical area, I usually wake up one day in the next place and realize the people and situations that eluded my focus in the past few years. I regret not paying more attention in the moment, in the place of ministry and among the people with whom I pray and work.
With every new assignment, I learn to carry fewer possessions. Even though my relationships continuously change and I want to cling to my “stuff”, I let go of what weighs me down. I focus more clearly on what I possess within my own heart, my own relationship with God. I learn to trust more in times of transition even though my first reaction is usually fear.
I usually do not put all the pieces of opportunities and friendships together until I have actually left a ministry setting. Hindsight teaches me real love for people when I finally pull up stakes. Transitions are never easy.
However, starting again always brings unplanned grace. Unpacking my bags and opening my heart in a new parish takes time, patience and my full attention. I usually spend the first few months living in fear and wondering whether or not my gifts and talents will be wanted or accepted among the next group of people. My planned fears have always melted away into moments of unplanned grace in each encounter and relationship in ministry.
I reflect again on these transitions as we begin our new liturgical year in Advent. As I ponder the first birth of Christ, I realize that Mary’s pregnancy was unplanned. Mary’s unexpected pregnancy brought great fear and even threatened the future of Mary and Joseph’ plans for marriage. The presence of Christ even in the womb threatened people, caused them to adjust to a new way of thinking, and ultimately called everyone involved to trust more deeply into the call God had for each one of them. This unplanned presence of Christ was made flesh when Jesus was born on the margins of a village in a animals’ shelter in the nighttime.
From these Advent gospels, we are now called to prepare ourselves for the unexpected second coming of Christ. In this ultimate transition, people will die of fright in the anticipation of what is coming into the world. The powers of heaven will be shaken. We are to wake up and not let our hearts become drowsy from the anxieties of earthly life and in our daily routines. This unexpected presence of Christ will catch us in our complacency and uproot us from our most intimate relationships, our most valued of all possessions.
John the Baptist cries out in full trust in behalf of the Kingdom of God. He shreds our notions that we are to cling to anything on earth. He yanks us out of our daily illusions and shakes us from our notions that we are to rely only on ourselves. John challenges us to live our lives ready for the ultimate transition of Christ’s second coming.
In these Advent days, we are challenged as ministers to cultivate a new desire for God within our assemblies. This challenge becomes more countercultural during these months when we naturally turn to our human families in love. We often believe that these relationships are all that we need. We also cling tightly to our possessions for ultimate satisfaction.
However, this is the time of year that we must articulate even more the presence of Christ in people who fear their families of origin, or people who have not been accepted by them, or even abused by those they love. We are to wake people up to those who wait at our country’s border for housing, employment, and safety. We are to open people’s eyes to our own children who walk the streets at night searching for drugs, waiting for acceptance as they sell their bodies. We are to wait with people who sit at the bedsides of their family members who are ill and afraid of the nighttime.
We are to crouch down and care for our neighbors who sleep on our sidewalks or in the doorways of our churches. We are to befriend and listen to our teenagers with blue hair and with their new piercings. We desperately need to wake people up, to remind them that we are always in transition. We need let go of our beliefs that life should always be secure and lived according to our own plans. We need to call people back to an ultimate trust in God and to loosen their grasp on their own riches and their stockpiled reliance on human ways.
Advent challenges us to always live in transition. However, these transitions help us open our eyes to the ways Christ is revealing hope, love and salvation among us. These transitions also help us to really see people who are different from ourselves. We celebrate Advent by reflecting on our ultimate transition from our earthly cares into our reliance on Christ’s real presence leading us into the Kingdom of God.