Sunday, December 2, 2012

To You, O Lord, I Lift Up My Soul

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, 2012

On Friday night of this week I attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Boston Symphony Hall with a group of 25 high school students and chaperones during a parish youth ministry trip to Boston.  The symphony hall is beautiful and the whole atmosphere, especially as we are getting closer to Christmas was warm and inviting.  Taking it all in: the hundreds of people of all ages listening intently, the musicians, the beautiful space; for those few hours the rest of the world fell away for a moment and there was a sense of peace and of wellbeing, a sense of great hope.  In fact, so hopeful and peaceful that a few of the kids soon found themselves dozing.

Our responsorial psalm for today, this first Sunday of Advent, refers to our efforts during these days of preparation for Christmas: “To You O Lord, I lift up my soul.”  As we anticipate the Lord’s coming, we are instructed to raise our hearts, our minds to God, to lift up our souls in hope.  Christ, in the Gospel reading tells us that as we anticipate the Lord’s coming we should “stand erect and raise our heads.”  Not to run from the things to come, but to face the future with hope and confidence.  For we know by faith of the goodness of God and we know the goodness of the future he has in store for us.  In fact, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict noted that a distinguishing mark of Christians is the fact that they have a future.  That even though we do not know the details of what awaits us we know in general terms that our lives will not end in emptiness, but that the Lord will come to meet us.  Christ is our hope, he reveals not only the past to us, but he is present with us leading us into a future of peace.

How important it is for men and women of faith to be witnesses to this hope, especially in our world, a world that is so full of superficial and false hopes and dreams.  We also see a lot of that around this time of year, don’t we – a state of mind, that unlike true hope, which is rooted in the knowledge and anticipation of God’s goodness, is instead rooted in the fulfillment of our every individual want and desire.  The ‘Make a wish’ kind of hallmark hope.  Instead of hoping, of lifting up our souls, in God, we are continually asked to lift them up to ourselves, so that we can see what we really want, or what others really want, and then try to make it happen.  And instead of God’s desires and the future that he has in store for us: we reflect on our desires and the desires of those around us; who wants what, who wishes for what.

But these wishes and wants and desires, when they take control of our minds – whether they be our own or even those of others around us, are bound to disappoint.  Because we are not capable of providing for what we truly need, and nor is anyone other than God.  Even if our every wish were granted this Christmas: if the kids all received every present they wanted, if the sweaters all fit, the electronics all worked, and none of the Christmas cookies burned: we would still be wanting, there would still be something left that we desired – if not right on Christmas day, on the next day certainly when we are trying to find the apps for the electronics and the diet for our waistlines.  These things are not bad, exchanging presents isn’t bad, Christmas cookies certainly aren’t bad – but we Christians must be careful not to allow wants and desires and dreams about passing things to supplant the real hope of Christmas: our savior Jesus Christ.

If Christmas is just about wishes being granted or fairytales coming true, then it will cease to be a season of hope, but instead will become more and more a season of disappointment and bitterness and resentment.  Passing things, earthly things, disappoint.  In Christ alone do we find our peace, our joy, our reason for hope.  But how easy it is to get carried away with the tinsel or start freaking out when we run out of butter or when the item we were going to get for someone is stuck in a warehouse somewhere in Kalamazoo.

And that is why in our readings we hear that holding on to hope is an act of perseverance and persistence.  You have to work to stand erect and raise your heads – you don’t just naturally end up that way.  St. Paul tells us to strengthen our hearts. How can we lift up our hearts, our souls, to God if they are wallowing in earthly things, if they are attached to everything around us?  If they are obsessed with earthly desires and wants that are bound to disappoint if they haven’t already.

These days of Advent urge us to leave behind the false hopes of this world and to persevere in clinging to the true source of hope that is found in our faith in Jesus Christ who is our savior and redeemer.  To stand erect, waiting for him, lifting our souls to him, asking him to instill in us a renewed sense of anticipation for his action in our lives, a renewed trust in his goodness and mercy.  To keep watch, our eyes fixed on him, disciplining our minds and urging them toward higher things, toward spiritual things.  Our Lord tells us to be vigilant at all times, vigilant in placing our hope squarely on his shoulders, not letting it be carried away by the lesser dreams and desires of this life that are bound to disappoint.  To keep our eyes fixed on our Lord, who comes to save us.

One of the great Aria’s of Handel’s Messiah takes up the inspired words of Isaiah and Matthew’s gospel, reminding us of the true source of our hope: "Come unto him, all ye that labor, come unto him all ye that are heavy laden, and he will give you rest.  Take his yoke upon you and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls."

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