Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Preparing to Meet Jesus - Second Sunday of Advent

Reflections on the Readings
Second Sunday of Advent - December 5, 2010, Year A 
By Dennis S. Hankins

Preparing to Meet Jesus

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Get ready!  Jesus is coming.  John exclaims, "Someone is coming who is mightier than I."  And folks from all over the region responded to John's invitation to be baptized.  Coming to John for baptism was the way to prepare for the spiritual renewal Jesus would give.  John's baptism was a spiritual exercise in which these followers of John embraced to be better prepared for the coming of Jesus.  After all, he is greater than John and will baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  

Spiritual readiness is a prerequisite for having a deeper relationship with Jesus.  I sometimes like asking folks, "How are you and Jesus getting along?"  We could say that Advent asks us the same question.  What is it that we do to embrace the true meaning of Christmas?  We want to be able to sing with a greater understanding, "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity."  The deeper we go in understanding the mission of the first coming of Christ, the more we will appreciate the necessity of Christ's second coming.  The anthems for Christmas announce Jesus as love's pure light.  At Christmas we will sing, "Radiant beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace." When he comes again, he will descend with a shout, and with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  He will come again with no less of love's pure light when he comes on the clouds of heaven accompanied by all the choirs of Angels.  Angels sang at his first coming.  They will sing again when our Lord's justice flourishes and the fulness of his peace is forever and forever.

John reminded the people of Israel of their calling.  His message reminds us of ours.  We are called to be a spiritual people; that is, we need to be filled with the Spirit.  Not once, or twice, but always.  We should always pray, "Holy Spirit, lead me."  This is the Spirit Jesus gives us so that we will be like him; so that somehow in our face  those dearest to us will see Jesus.  In this holy season, let us fervently pray for the Spirit of kindness and gentleness.  Together, as the people of God, let us give place to the Spirit, who will help us be in harmony with each other.  Then will we glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one voice.  

Listening to John the Baptist, we hear him preaching about an ancient prophecy.  He proclaims that this prophecy is nearing fulfillment.  Sharing with all who came into the wilderness to hear him, he invites them to prepare for the fulness of salvation.  He pressed his audience to believe that they belonged to God and to each other.  Relationship matters.  It matters because we matter to God; we should matter to each other.  We have within each of us an eternal space that belongs to God's Spirit.  Isaiah describes God's Spirit in our lives as bringing seven gifts: Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.  It is into the depth of our inner life in which the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirt restore in us the beauty of holiness.

In this Advent Sunday, we are aware of things that can mar the beauty of our soul and of those we love.  We can suffocate the breath of God in us by unloving thoughts and unkind words.  How special it is when we allow God's beautiful presence in us to refresh the people around us.  Especially we want to let this season of Advent to help us grow in love of one another.  It is this love that acknowledges the beauty of God in each other; this love can help someone we befriend to breathe deeply again the life that comes from the Holy Spirit.  

How promising and inspiriting John's message was to the people of God.  He inspired his followers to think deeply about God.  John equipped his listeners to prepare themselves to meet God in the flesh.  God was coming among them.  He would have skin and a face.  Soon John would say, "Behold the lamb of God."  As we come to the Lord's Table this morning, again we will hear, "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." 

That we might be properly prepared to receive him today, we will pray, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed."


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

We Must Be Ready

Reflections on the Readings

First Sunday of Advent - November 28, 2010, Year A 

By Dennis S. Hankins

Readings For This Sunday

We Must Be Ready

"Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect." - Jesus

It's beginning to look a lot like...  Well, not really. In Advent, we do anticipate celebrating the first coming of Jesus. And we will do that with great joy when Christmas day arrives.  But now, during Advent, it's time to think on the blessed hope, the Second Coming of Christ and the priority of seeking first the Kingdom of God.  It's in Advent the Church enters into a short penitential time leading up to Christmas.  Making room in our hearts for the coming King is important whether we are talking about Christmas or the Second Coming of Christ.  Either way, we want to be ready!

The Christian life is about setting priorities; letting first things have first place in our heart.  This requires vigilance; something that many did not possess during the building of the Ark.  Noah, a preacher of righteousness, invited his generation to salvation, by entering into the Ark.  It was the only way to be saved from the flood.

Only Noah, and his immediate family, along with the animals that entered the Ark with them were saved from the flood.  Those who were left, to begin history again, were in the Ark.  Many perished in the flood.  They perished because they went about life without any concern for the things that really matter.  

It is not necessary to know when or how the world will end.  There is an end that will come for each of us.  And of that day and hour we have not a clue.  But when it comes, it will be the end of time for us. We want to be ready when that time comes.  

Such reality is an encouragement to be vigilant, to set our hearts on eternal things, the things we learn from the Church about Jesus.  Some Christians arrive at the house of prayer on Easter and Christmas.  That is better than nothing at all; but is it enough?  Is this an example of right priorities?  I assume that we will all agree that it is not.  It certainly is not the vision Isaiah saw concerning the house of the Lord.  

The prophet Isaiah saw the Lord's house established on the highest mountain; a place where people from every tribe, country, language and color under heaven came.  In the Church is where a kingdom that is not of this world is taught.  Instruction about that kingdom is learned here and true justice described.  And a different type of resistance is advocated as well; the Church is not an arsenal of swords and spears, but a place where the armor of light is given to us. Maybe that's why the Psalmist exults so when he says, "Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord."

Now is the time, during this holy season of Advent, to make a clean break from the things of darkness.  Is there a way to partake of the desires of the flesh, and not be captured by the sin that lures us?  How close can anyone live to the fire, and yet not get burned by its flames?  We all know the answer to these questions.  Advent is a time that urges us to think about what it takes to be ready for the coming of the Lord.  

Paul describes the Christian life as a life of awareness, of recognizing that our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.  "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ," Paul says.  It is an invitation to make room for God, for God is light and in him is no darkness.  We must let the strength of God's light and love pour into our life, so that in our face Jesus is seen.  With God's strength, we can push back the darkness in our home and in our community.  

Be the light in someone's life; let your light shine into the brokenness and heartache of your sons and daughters.  Defeat the power of darkness; put on the armor of light.

It is vital that we have the strength of God's presence in our lives.  We stay strong in the Lord when we remain faithful in coming to Mass.  At the Lord's Table, we are nourished and partake more of the divine.  When I was a kid, growing up in the Pentecostal church, attendance was first nature for me and my family.  It never was a question about where we would be on Wednesday night, or Sunday morning and then again Sunday night.  And Friday night, I was at the youth service. Today, it still is not a question of where I will be on Sunday morning:  "I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord."

Advent give us another way to grow in our love of the Savior.  The more we examine our hearts the more we may need the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And confession is good for the soul; it helps us to more faithfully walk as a son and daughter of the light.  This is what we all desire.  We want to live the way that is pleasing to him who loves us with a love that can never end. It is that love we meet when we enter the confessional.  It is that love that fits us with the armor of light as we go back into the world.

Advent begins this year right after Thanksgiving.  Traditionally, this is a time for family and friends to get to together.  It also is a time to reflect on the needs of others.  We will be able to let our light shine by helping the poor and the hungry among us.  To be in solidarity with these our brothers and sisters is to set our hearts on things that are near and dear to God's heart.  Its a good way to stay strong in the armor of light.

Let us live our lives in the glorious light of the Second Coming of Christ.  Because ready or not, Christ is coming again.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Remember Me

Reflections on the Readings

The Solemnity of Christ the King 

November 21, 2010 - Year C 

By Dennis S. Hankins

Readings For This Sunday

Remember Me

And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

The rulers scoffed him.  Soldiers mocked him.  And one of the criminals railed at him.  Yet since Calvary, the cross is a sign of victory; an invitation to return to Paradise.  

Because of disobedience, Adam and Eve had to leave Paradise; a place of divine fellowship with the King of Creation.  Something other than the joy of the Lord had captured the hearts of our first parents.  Adam and Eve were escorted beyond the entrance to the Garden of Paradise, until he who is the way, the truth and the life, could lead us back to Paradise.

Perhaps Adam paused for just a moment.  Looking in front of him into a world he did not know, maybe he looked back into the fading scenes of Paradise.  With tears running down his cheeks, I can hear him praying, "Remember me." Did he hear any response to his prayer?  Maybe he is the first to hear the promise, "I will never leave you; I will never forsake you." 

Throughout the history of Israel is their prayer that God would not forget his people.  Hearing their prayer, God visited his people held in bondage in Egypt.  While they wandered throughout the desert, sometimes marching as to Zion, sometimes just clogging around in a circle, they pled for God to arouse his memory and come to their aid.   The prophets would prick the conscience of the chosen people, and they would pray again, "Look not on our sin, but remember, remember your vine you brought up out of Egypt and planted in the land of promise."  

Many expected the Messiah to come with pomp and circumstance.  Instead, he came through the humble and holy womb of the Virgin Mary.  At about age twelve, he announced that he must do the Father's will.  How was that?  "I must be about my Father's business," he said.  For three years or so, he healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and ate with sinners.  At about age 33, he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey; Jesus, the lamb of God, was coming to take away the sins of the world.  

Many may think the cross is a sign of defeat and ignominy.  Just the opposite is the case. In the cross God say's to you and to me, "I remember." The cross reminds us that never once did the Almighty forget the crowning work of his creation.  In the cross, the thief finds, as do all the sons and daughters of Adam, the way to Paradise.  

Recently I wrote about the horrific nightmare of death unleashed against the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance, in Baghdad.  This unmitigated tragedy occurred on Sunday, October 31, 2010.  When the parishioners of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad returned to their parish, they did so with heavy but forgiving hearts.  One parishioner said, "We forgive them.  They gave us blood, and we give them forgiveness."  Only those who are no longer under the power of darkness have this kind of heart.  This parish is walking as we must all walk, as citizens of the kingdom of the Father's beloved Son.  It is in Christ alone we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins; the power to be forgiving.

The returning worshippers did something extraordinary.  With their lighted candles they made a cross through the nave of the Church and along the axis at the altar.  In this very place, those who had died had met the Lord in the Holy Eucharist; that holy meal which we eat in remembrance of Jesus.  It is at this table we learn that the power of reconciliation is in Christ alone.  By the blood of his cross, Christ has restored peace between us and God.  In the blood of the martyrs, we are reminded there is yet to be peace on earth.  

Sixty of our brothers and sisters perished within this house of prayer; martyred because they were Christians.  The church was filled with pock holes from the gunfire and the walls were stained with the bloody palm prints of those who were slain.  Many of those who died no doubt prayed with their last breath, "Remember me."  And the King of Martyrs,  who himself was slain for their redemption surely said, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." 


Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Suffering Church

Reflections on the Readings
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - November 14, 2010 - Year C
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
By Dennis S. Hankins
The Suffering Church

"But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake." - Jesus

Today's Gospel, like Matthew 24 and Mark 13, is Jesus' prediction of Jerusalem's siege and destruction of the Temple.  This took place in 70 A.D., about forty years after the ascension of Jesus.  Each of the synoptic gospel passages include the basics of Jesus' prophecy: 1. Wars, 2. International strife, 3. Earthquakes, 4. Plagues and famine, 5. Persecution, and 6. De-Creation.

Jesus' words of 'not one stone of the temple remaining upon another' no doubt startled the disciples.  And Jesus saying, "This generation will not pass away till all these things take place," give his words an imminent meaning. (Matthew 24:34)  History confirms that these words of Jesus were contemporary: Roman armies destroyed the familiar and sacred Temple representing the Old Covenant in 70 A.D. 

It is wrong to think that somehow Jesus had something against the Temple or the city of Jerusalem.  Jesus, like the prophets preceding him honored the Temple with deep reverence.  Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth. At the age of twelve he identified his mission as His Father's business at the Temple.  He even regarded the Temple as a special dwelling place of his Father, calling it a 'house of prayer.'  But Jesus, speaking of himself, taught that, "Something greater than the Temple is here;" Jesus now describing himself as God present among the people.  

The crucifixion of Jesus presaged the demise of the Temple.  Jesus' death also prefigured the hostility and betrayal that has accompanied the Church in every age since Pentecost.  Jesus said, "If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you...if they persecuted me, they will persecute you."

In regard to Jerusalem, the city of the great King, Jesus lamented, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!  No one should miss the divine affection dripping from these words.  Jesus did not want anyone to perish outside the door of salvation; Jesus himself said he is that door.  The divine caress of urgency to draw his covenant people unto himself is felt in every word of Jesus' heart cry for the City of David. (Matthew 23:37) And upon the cross, Jesus embraced not only Jerusalem, but the whole world,  pouring out his love upon all without distinction of race, tribe, color, or language. 

Jesus described worship as "in the Spirit, for God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." Everywhere that the faithful are gathered, or working, playing, or moving in next door, the Church is present.  It is present in you and in me, for we like Jesus are temples of the presence of God in the world.  And like the early Church, the first temples of the Holy Spirit, the Church today is persecuted and maligned.  In some places of the world, where the Church has been present since the first century, the Church is under attack and being scattered.  Those with a fundamentalist urgency view the ancient people among them as foreigners and infidels; yet they are people who have roots as deep in the ancient world as those who persecute them.

Jesus, the Lamb of God, by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension has entered into heaven itself to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Through Christ, the new covenant he mediates is better, since it is based on and enacted upon better promises. (Hebrews 8:6)  
This sacrificial gift of salvation through Jesus captured the hearts and the imagination of the common folk and fisherman in Israel.  God's laws now were written by the Spirit on the hearts of the faithful; their new life described by St. Paul as 'life in the Spirit,"  and their very being as "temples of the Holy Spirit."  

It is within the years between the Ascension and the destruction of the Temple that we find the suffering Church in Jerusalem.  Luke records in his Acts of the Apostles the persecution of the first generation of the Church in Jerusalem.  It is Stephen, a newly ordained deacon who speaks to the Temple Council asking them, "Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?  And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it."  Enraged at this, they took Stephen outside of the city and stoned him. (Acts 7)

On the day of Stephen's death, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. (Acts 8; cf. Luke 21:12-17; Matthew 24:15-22; Mark 13:14ff)  Daily, the infant church picked up its cross and followed Jesus.  Caring not for their reputation or their lives, they accepted the repudiation of their faith as a crown of glory.  And to this day, persecution remains the experience of the pilgrim Church.

To Tertullian is attributed the statement, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."  It is said more martyrs were made in the twentieth century than all of the previous centuries combined.  Their voices are united in declaring, "We have only one King and his name is Jesus!"  

Some have time to see what may be the necessary end of their life.  Others do not.  Deranged zealots strapped with explosives and artillery, spill the blood of innocent worshippers.  Such absurd violence rarely shows up on the radar screen of the American evening news.  Yet women and men and their children lay strewn in the house of prayer and the world remains unmoved and uninterested.  But God knows. And God opens wide the gates for these newly crowned martyrs whose last prayer on earth is finished with an "Amen" in heaven.

It is difficult to read of such unprovoked violence.  The recent brutality unleashed against the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad, Sunday, October 31, is one such story.  The Bishops representing the Catholics of the region including Roman Catholic, Melkite, Maronite, Syrian, Armenian, and Chaldeans issued a statement regarding the massacre.  

Together the Bishops said in part, "Words of distress, condemnation, and incrimination, are no longer enough in the face of the horror that is taking place repeatably in Iraq, especially with regard to Christians over the past years and which reached a pinnacle of savage insanity with the massacre on Sunday.  Before all else, we want to come and pray in reverence and incline ourselves before the bodies of these heroic martyrs, the sufferings of the innocent wounded, the pain of the relatives and victims and the injured.  We ask Christ our Lord to receive in the glory of His love this new convoy of heroic martyrs, who join the millions who went before them, from the days of St. Stephen until today."

With eloquence born out of tribulation, Peter described the church as living stones; a temple built out of persons covered with grace into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  The spirit of the age often seeks to destroy this temple, but Jesus Christ is our precious and enduring cornerstone.  He is the stone that the builders rejected, a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make the disobedient to fall; for they stumble because they disobey the word.  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Christ who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (I Peter 2:5-9) 

The suffering Church is a brilliant light of grace in a world of much darkness.

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body. Hebrews 13:3

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Life and Love in the Age to Come

Reflections on the Readings

Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time - November 7, 2010 - Year C

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

By Dennis S. Hankins

Readings For This Sunday

Life and Love in the Age to Come

"But those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage."

Through baptism we have tasted of the powers of the age to come.  At our baptism the minister or priest invoked the Holy Trinity.  At the moment of our baptism, the Holy Spirit introduced our soul to divine life and love.  And the love of God in us gives praise to the God of love above us as we walk in this life the path to union with God forever.  

Every new follower of Jesus Christ thinks about heaven.  Even while living a totally human experience of Christian life and love, heaven is on our mind.  It's on our mind because this world is not our final home.  There is much beauty in this world.  God is the creator of everything good in creation including the fading rays of an indescribable sunset on a crisp fall evening in October.  But Christian faith and hope is inspired by a love that is greater than this life; it beckons us to a joy that is beyond human words and beyond this age, to a place where there is no need of the sun.    

In his mercy, God does not allow this life to continue ad infinitum.  He does, however, give us joy in the journey, teaching us that there is an existence, an age where there is no more sorrow and no more tears.  Beyond this veil of trials and temptations there is a place where love is the unfading light of our life.

I have a dear friend who experienced what we now call a near death experience.  He was in a serious car accident several years ago.  Leaving his body, he felt himself drawn toward an incredible light.  My friend said that around him was darkness, but before him was an indescribable light.    Tom, (not his real name) told this story to me and a friend at dinner one evening, but he was not emotionally equipped to explain the penetrating light of love he felt absorbing his being.  Since that experience many years ago, Tom has not only the memory of that experience, but also a joyful anticipation of its fulfillment at his death.

The Sadducees did not possess this kind of hope.  The resurrection seemed impossible to them.  They posed the problem of a wife who shared life and love with seven consecutive husbands.  In the resurrection, which husband would she belong to?  Although Jesus tells the Sadducees that marriage is only for this age, he upheld the sacrament and sanctity of marriage in his teaching.  Jesus taught that marriage between a man and a woman was instituted for the human family from the beginning of time.  Even at a marriage feast in Cana, when the wine was running out, Jesus embraced the joy and happiness of marriage by turning the water into wine.  And the writer to the Hebrews admonishes us to let marriage be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed be undefiled.  

We can certainly see the vital importance and necessity of Holy Matrimony in this life.  In marriage a husband and wife know each other.  It's a lifetime of mutually holding each other's heart.  Obviously this is not exactly the same meaning when we say, "I know so and so."  Marriage is about belonging exclusively to each other, not as property, but as heirs together of the grace of life; welcoming the new life such love creates.  This high view of marriage is necessary lest our prayers for each other and for our world become powerless.  So from the beginning, marriage was a lifelong commitment to each other's completeness and holiness; till death do us part.

For sure there is a genuine experience of completeness and wholeness in the gift of marriage.  But as sons and daughters of the resurrection, our need for completeness of self will come in the gift of God himself:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We will be complete, not from drives and desires, but rather from a boundless energy of love emanating from God who is love.  Such unblemished purity of acceptance is inebriating.  The Apostle of Love himself felt this intoxication exclaiming, "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as is is.  And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure."

Every morning we wake up to an array of imperfections and impurity we see in ourselves and in our world.  Perfect love does not rule; there are wars within and without.  Bloodshed and absurd violence is headline news.  Hatred and distrust of each other fills homes, communities and nations.  But if we can let it, love's pure light can shine in our hearts now, and in every dark corner of this world. Such love casts out fear and restores trust in God and each other.  

Let us seek to live in the power of this life and love of the age to come so that our families and friends can see our good works and glorify God with us!


Dennis Hankins is a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN.  Prior to his uniting with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 2006, Dennis served as a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. You can email him at dennishankins@gmail.com   His website is:  www.dennishankins.com