A time of waiting for "the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ" is the way the new translation of the Roman Missal puts it. Sounds great, but what does this really mean? "Blessed hope" for what, exactly? And what will the coming of Christ mean THIS year? If these words are to have any meaning beyond being part of a new liturgical ritual, it seems to me we have to make them truly incarnate, to "flesh them out" a bit.
I've been doing a lot of praying and reflecting about life this Advent, trying to figure some things out. The older I get the more comfort I find in the words of St. Peter on Pentecost. The people of Jerusalem, hearing the apostles speaking in tongues under the influence of the Holy Spirit, think that they are instead under the influence of new wine. "But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: 'Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
"In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams."
So, this reflection is nothing more than an old man dreaming a dream.
When I was a young man, I was strongly influenced -- as I've written about before -- by the visions and dreams of the bishops of the Second Vatican Council. Some of those men were young and were seeing visions; others were old and dreaming dreams. Now I'm an old man, and I've seen some of those early visions become reality, but so much more still remains a dream.
What do I see in my dream?
It begins with a nightmare. There are people living on the streets, under overpasses, in dark alleys. They are dirty, smelly, with runny noses and open sores. Many of them are drunk on booze or drugs, and this is a violent nightmare, with people attacking each other for money or food, people selling themselves to earn money. They are in a downward spiral, without hope, joy or reason for either.
The nightmare continues. There are people who have been ostracized, cut off from family and friends because of things they've done in the past, or because of relationships they're in, or because they're "different" or hard to handle in "acceptable" circles of society. There are young people who feel isolated and abandoned because they have realized that they are homosexual and they are pushed into suicide out of overwhelming depression and a sense of permanent and total exclusion.
The nightmare grows. Old people, people who were once vital and ran through life with creativity, passion and generosity, now shunted aside because they are no longer able to contribute anything to anyone. They are dried up, used up, and kicked to the curb of life. Sick and dying people, whose fear of death is often faced with courage and strength, are also forgotten or relegated to the sidelines as if association with them might lead a healthy person to fear their own vulnerability.
The nightmare includes the treatment of the stranger, or people who speak different languages or who look at life and the world through eyes different from others. The nightmare recalls an incident at a "Catholic" parish in the Midwest in which a bilingual program on pastoral planning was being held. As signs in English and Spanish were being placed around the room, several Catholic gentlemen came forward and told the presenter to "put the American signs on this side of the room." When the presenter said, "You mean, you want the English signs on this side of the room?" the men -- those good "Catholic" men -- repeated, "You heard what we said, you put the AMERICAN signs on this side of the room."
The nightmare? So many people, all cut off, isolated and alone. Where can they find hope, joy and a reason for living?
The dream? The catholic -- truly universal -- people of God! Every person who is cut off from everything and everyone else, is WELCOMED by the catholic people of God. In a very real sense, the catholic people of God is the home for the homeless, the family for those who have been disowned and rejected by others, are the ones for whom this church is designed. In the ancient catholic people of God, they were often the ones cut off and persecuted by society and those in charge, often to their deaths. But the ancient catholic people of God rejoiced that they were a people called by God (an "ekklesia theou"), a people without church buildings or temples. What united them and gave them hope and joy was their common faith that God had called them to be a people for each other, PRECISELY because they were cut off from everyone else.
The dream? At Midnight Mass this year, that the doors will open and everyone -- absolutely everyone -- will walk in to applause, laughter and joy-filled welcome. Those dirty, smelly children of God who are living under the overpass, those depressed and lonely gay teenagers who are walking on the brink of despair, those people who look and sound different from others, and even those who find themselves here without legal status -- all of them will pour through those doors and into the welcoming arms of this catholic people of God and find a true home and the love that has so often been denied them by society. "If society has rejected you, we welcome you" is the mission statement of the catholic people of God. And to the bishop who once remarked that the song "All are Welcome" was incorrect, and that all people are NOT welcome at Catholic Mass, I say, "Sorry, bishop, but you are wrong. In the Catholic Church, in the authentic catholic people of God, all are indeed welcome in this place."
I know. Right now we have many Catholics who don't even like to reach out and take someone else's hand at the greeting of peace before communion. Those folks are really not going to like my dream, since not only do I hope that they will shake someone else's hand, but actually, beginning at Midnight Mass this Christmas, I'm hoping that they will open their arms and embrace tightly that dirty, smelly homeless man who's been living in a cardboard box down the street from the church. In fact, it is precisely to those who have been excluded by everyone else that Christ is coming into the world.
My dream is really quite simple. Christ willingly emptied himself completely into human nature. We either believe that or we don't. Human nature is the common denominator here. If Christ is to be found there, then we are to be found there. The "Church" isn't a place for those who have successfully navigated life. It's a haven for all those who admit their sinfulness, their brokenness, their need for others and for God.
And then I wake up.
What do I have to do to make the dream a reality?