Don’t Get Used to This!

The following is a homily for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year A. The readings can be found here.

Being able to stay connected with our worshiping community even in the midst of a pandemic is great. What a blessing!

And yet, it is not the same. It is not something to get used to. On this feast of Corpus Christi, we are reminded why we gather for Mass, and what the fullness of that celebration should be.

The following is a homily for the Feast of Pentecost, Year A. The readings can be found here.

For those who are still wondering if God has a sense of humor, I point you to today’s Gospel. Here we are on the first weekend open for public masses, in a world where we’re trying to get people to stay home, to social distance, to cover their mouths—and we get a Gospel criticizing those who stayed home in fear and Jesus straight up breathing on the disciples. As a preacher you just have to look at that and go… are you kidding me?

Luckily, there are other readings to talk about, and so we’re going to hold off on the Gospel for a second and focus on the image we’re given in the first reading. The passage from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the Pentecost event, describing it as something coming from the sky like a “strong driving wind.” If you look to most other English versions of the Bible, this phrase is translated as a “rush of a violent wind.” This is not some light summer breeze. You don’t feel this air on your face and go, “Oh, isn’t that refreshing. Isn’t that nice.” When I hear “strong driving wind” or “rush of a violent wind,” I think of my days in Chicago where the wind was so strong that it could literally knock you over. Walking to seminary each day in my habit, basically a human sail, I was afraid of being swept up sometimes, just blown away. For those here in the southeast, I think of the powerful hurricane winds that rush through our coasts each year. What a terrifying display of power, wind so strong that it can uproot full-grown trees, hurl debris through windows, even topple houses. Look to a city after a hurricane runs through and you will see what a “strong driving wind” can do, what a “rush of violent wind” can accomplish. Wind has the power to destroy.

But interestingly enough, it can also be absolutely life-giving as well. As much as the violent winds of a hurricane cause damage to property, they also churn up the deep waters of the ocean, infusing oxygen into the water and bringing nutrient-rich water to islands and coastal lands. They distribute warm water to colder regions and work to break up bacteria and red tide. Despite their violence, Hurricanes actually replenish dying ecosystems. Where life is stagnant, where things are dying, “strong driving winds” bring life.

A destructive, life-giving force. What a perfect description of the Pentecost event; what a wonderful image of the Holy Spirit. 

On the one hand, the Spirit does come to destroy… injustice, that is; to break down all that acts against the Kingdom of God. Whenever God is angered in the Bible by oppression, idolatry, or murder, we hear that the winds are raging, that he has sent a scorching wind. The Egyptians were cast into the sea; the false prophets were killed by blowing fire; Jonah was caught in a violent storm; idols and temples to other gods were burned down. Like a hurricane, like a violent wind, the Spirit comes to his people to tear down what stands in the way of justice. Thus, those who were prophets, people filled with the Holy Spirit to speak on behalf of God, brought destruction with their words. Think about Isaiah and Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah. Were these men who asked nicely, who came in like a nice summer breeze, politely requesting that people change? No. They came to the people like a violent wind—“Stop abusing the poor! Stop putting your own people into slavery! Stop worshiping false idols… or you will be destroyed!” They condemned oppressors, cried out for justice. The Spirit, living in them, rolled in like a hurricane to tear down everything in its path.

But this same spirit, this violent wind, also came to bring life. In the very beginning, remember that it was the wind that separated the land from the sea to allow for life; after the flood of destruction, it was the wind that dried up the waters to make it livable again; it was the violent wind that parted the Red Sea, leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom; all throughout Scripture, it was the west wind that came from the sea, bringing moisture to the land, saving the people from famine. Just as a driving wind was sent by God to express his anger, so too, is one sent to accomplish his saving, life-giving work. Just like a hurricane, this strong driving wind churns up what is stagnant, awakens what is dormant, gives life to what is dying. It does not simply denounce injustice, it breathes life; it helps to build a just society. The Old Testament prophets didn’t just bring anger at injustice, they brought consolation for the oppressed, hope for the future, a reminder that God was with them always. This is the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is like a driving wind: he has the power to destroy and give life, all for the sake of the Kingdom.

This is the Spirit that Jesus breathes into his disciples at Pentecost, and the Spirit that lives in us. That violent wind, that strong driving wind, lives in you and in me because Jesus has anointed us with it. That violent wind is alive in our world, just as he was with the Old Testament prophets, because we are his hands and feet. As baptized Christians, those sent out on Christ’s mission, we are that driving wind; we are that rush of violent wind.

As a church, we must be a force of destruction against injustice, a people who tear down all that is against the kingdom of God. We stand against affronts to life like abortion and euthanasia; we demand justice in the face of oppression and poverty; we cry out like a violent wind, breathing out the spirit in the world when others have had their breath taken away. How utterly disgusting it is to see racism continue to rear its ugly head this week—a woman lying to the cops in an attempt to hurt a black man; a police officer killing a man in handcuffs, kneeling on his windpipe for 9 minutes while he choked “I can’t breathe.” How do you think the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, feels about someone taking another’s breath away? How do you think he feels about those who stood by and watched, refusing to speak up, to give their own breath? As a people in the Spirit, those who have been anointed at Pentecost, now is not the time to stay silent; now is not the time to keep our breath to ourselves—like a violent wind, we must cry out for justice, we must rush in and destroy all that is against the Kingdom.

But we must also work to bring life. Being a prophet, being anointed in the Spirit, being a violent wind in our world, means being a destructive force, yes, but it also means being a life-giving force as well. It means being that wind that brings the rain to dry land, life to those who hunger and thirst. It means churning up what is good and spreading it around, bringing warmth to those who are cold. Just like the Old Testament prophets, it means being a voice of hope, of consolation, of reconciliation. Look at our world today and we see so many disparate voices, so much division. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings together all of those languages, all of those people who cannot communicate, and makes them one people in peace.

Yes, I tell you, if we are anointed in the Spirit, if we are filled with what Christ has left us, if we want to build the kingdom of God in our midst, a warm summer breeze simply won’t do. The Spirit is a violent wind come to shake up this world, and we are his hands and feed. Rush out into the world, and don’t go quietly.

The following is a homily for the Feast of the Ascension, Year A. The readings can be found here.

Technology is amazing these days, isn’t it? Despite being trapped at home, away from everyone we know, we can just pull out our phones, open our computers, and not only hear the voices of our friends and family, but see them. During lent, the students at UGA got together each Friday and prayed the stations of the cross together. This week, the women’s group hosted more than 30 people on one call for prayer and fellowship. I mean, c’mon: My family has been getting together every so often for a virtual happy hour. Just stay grab a drink wherever you are and hang out with the family.

It’s absolutely amazing. It’s like they’re in the room with us. It’s why everyone is completely fine social distancing, feeling like everything is normal, no one thinks they’re missing anything at all and hope that we stay like this forever!

Okay, maybe not.

Even with the advances in technology, something is missing. It’s not the same. No matter how spectacular it is that we have this, many of us are starting to get a bit tired of it, wishing we had more, realizing how important it actually is to be in the same room with someone, to have a physical presence. It is not enough to have a voice, not enough to have a vision—there is something to this bodily experience that really, really matters.

Unfortunately, we too often have a limited view of the human person, a dreadful one, really.
Whether conscious or not, we have this sense that a person is simply soul trapped in the body, that when you die, your soul is freed and goes to heaven, while the body stays here and doesn’t matter. We see it in cartoons and movies all of the time, and I suspect that many people believe that that is how things actually work. But that is not what we believe. In fact, it’s kind of a heresy. Look at the Apostles Creed, pay special attention to the very end: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” Ever notice this? It’s pretty important, actually. Against this notion that we are just souls trapped in a human body, what it says is that we believe in the inherent importance of the body, that it will be with us, even in heaven. We believe that the soul animates the body and the body gives substance to the soul, that they exist together as one, that you cannot know a person without their body.

So why do I bring up this up? You see, today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension, the culminating moment of the resurrection, really, the culminating moment of Jesus’ life on earth, when he returned to heaven. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We’ve heard 100 times over the past few weeks that Jesus came from the Father, and he will return to the Father. He lived among us for a while, and now reigns in heaven. But what part of him reigns in heaven? Just his divine spirit? Just his disembodied soul?

I think not.

When Jesus was resurrected, he had a physical body. Remember the other stories we’ve heard this Easter
Thomas touches the wounds in his flesh. Pretty tough to do if you’re just a spirit. Jesus shares a meal with those on the road to Emmaus. Pretty much impossible without a body. While we don’t know exactly how it worked or what he looked like, we know that when he was resurrected, he had a body, and when he ascended to heaven, he left nothing behind. All of him—not just his soul, but his body as well—ascended into heaven to live forever with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This point was so important to the early Christians that a devotion began to develop around what was believed to be his footprints at the ascension, the place where his body literally made marks in the earth before he left. Look to famous paintings of the ascension, and you will see footprints on the ground below his feet. This was not just some spirit rising, it was a whole person.

But again, you might be wondering, why is this any of this important? What’s it got to do with me? I tell you, everything. This very fact may be the most important detail for us in the whole Bible: The fact that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, taking with him his physical body, his human nature, opened the door for our own eternity in heaven. Think about it: our human natures—our bodies, something God created, something finite, something contingent—now exists in eternity, never to be lost or forgotten. At the Annunciation and Christmas, feasts of the Incarnation, we celebrate the fact that Jesus came to be like us, but now on the feast of the Ascension we celebrate the reason for it all: Jesus came to be like us, so that we could become like God. A few weeks ago we heard Jesus say that he was returning to the father, that he was preparing a place for us in heaven, that this place was not to be found in some temple but in the heart of God. This is what he meant. We have a place in God because our natures, our bodies, something completely other than God, now exists in God. We will live forever in heaven, body and soul, because Christ ascended with his human nature, body and soul, to make room for us.

So, yeah. Our bodies matter. And so do the bodies of those we serve. I hear people say it all the time, that the role of the priest is to save souls, and that’s it. We shouldn’t be getting into social work or politics or social justice. All that matters is the soul, they say. But as we can see, this is clearly not the case. Knowing what we know about Jesus’ Ascension, hearing his command in this passage, we know that we are called to serve the whole person. As he leaves his followers for the last time, he gives one final command: make disciples of all nations. He doesn’t say to go save souls, doesn’t say that our mission is simply to teach divine truths. He says make disciples, make people who do what he did, who want to go where he went.
And what did Jesus do? He gave the hungry food, cured their illnesses, cared intimately about the entire person, not just the soul. For if a body is hungry, if a body is abused, if a body is left in destitution… the soul will suffer as well. The two cannot be separated: the soul gives life to the body, and the body gives substance to the soul. If we are to be true believers in the resurrection, making people true disciples of Jesus, then we must teach, yes, but we must also heal, feed, console, and protect, just as Jesus did. We must care not just about the soul, but the body as well.

It is not enough to have Zoom calls to fully experience someone we love. It is not enough to watch the mass from home for the rest of our lives. It is not enough to treat the soul and ignore the body. Christ shows us that the body is integral to everything we do, that it has a place in heaven, and so we must do everything we can here on earth to honor and cherish it. Our own, and our neighbors’.

You Are a Temple of the Lord

Today’s video is my homily for the 3rd Sunday in Easter. The readings can be found here.

Once again, I find myself a bit behind posting videos to the blog. Here is a video I posted on Friday:

Greed, Inequality, and a Pandemic

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” Is this from the Communist Manifesto? Did Mao Tse-Tung write this? No. But those are good guesses. In actuality, this quote is from the Acts of the Apostles, a line taken from our readings today. It describes how the early Christians lived, how they shared amongst themselves so that no one went without.

And it makes me wonder: how well do we live up to this idyllic image of Christian living? What the current coronavirus is revealing is that we as a society fall pretty far short.

This Easter, maybe more than any other, we are able to identify with the Christians of the first Easter. Like them, we are celebrating in our homes, behind locked doors, confused, heartbroken, and a bit afraid.

Jesus had a message for them and he has the same message for us: Do not be afraid.

It’s Palm Sunday! Which means free leaves, a super long Gospel, and a short homily! (Okay, well, at least you get two of those things today!) Here’s a quick reflection as we look to the end of Lent this week. Things may not have gone as we wanted since Ash Wednesday, but there’s still time to prepare for Easter!

Do you REALLY believe?

The following is a homily for the fifth week of Lent, Year A. The readings can be found here.

 

The following is a homily for the first week of Lent, Year A. The readings can be found here.

On Ash Wednesday, I had the great opportunity to distribute ashes on campus. Myself and a handful of students stood in the quad, and just met people where they were. It great to see so many students wanting this visible sign of our faith, so many I didn’t recognize.

There was just one problem. The way the it works on campus is that you are assigned a table, and you have to stay at your table. Which was fine… until we realized that the table to our right was for people selling girl scout cookies. Okay, fine. No big deal. But being close to Tate, the wind kept blowing in our face, meaning that whenever the door opened, the smell of Panda Express and Chic-fil-A blew right in our face. This, I remind you, a day of fasting and abstinence. As if those two things weren’t temptation enough, up walks the Georgia Moms at their table, right next to us on the other side, offering freshly baked cookies and brownies—for free! They walked over and held them out, “Go ahead, take one.” I looked at the woman and said, “Get behind me Satan.”

Okay, no I didn’t say that. But I wanted to!

It was a pretty strong temptation all around. Because, really, it would have been really easy to justify, right? I mean, was a little cookie going to hurt my fast? I could count that as a part of my small meal. Even the chicken: Jesus never said that we couldn’t eat meat on Ash Wednesday, it’s just a Church rule. I was really hungry, it was slowing me down; think about how much better of a minister I would be if I wasn’t hungry. I could serve more people. And Jesus doesn’t want me to suffer. Easy to justify.

I didn’t, don’t worry, but sadly, I do this sort of thing all of the time. Maybe you do too. We know we’re not supposed to do something, but we come up with a good justification why it’s okay. I know I shouldn’t eat this whole pint of ice cream… but I’ve been working hard lately. It’ll motivate me to work out harder tomorrow! I know I shouldn’t watch this movie, have a drink, I need to write this paper… but, maybe a drink will loosen me up, I need to relax before I start.

This sort of thinking, this justification, is on display in our readings today. In both Genesis and Matthew, we see how people of faith are tempted to do something they know is wrong by justifying their actions.

In the case of Adam and Eve, they know that they are not supposed to eat of the tree, but Eve notices that the fruit was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom. Good things. Jesus is in the desert with Satan, and notices that everything being offered, believe it or not, is a good thing: Food for the hungry, safety and protection, king of the earth. Think about how all of this would make the propagation of the Gospel much easier. He could use these things for others.

In both cases what is being offered is good, and it would be easy to see how they could look past knowing that it was wrong and do it anyway. Look at all the good it would do!

And so Adam and Eve fall to temptation… but Jesus doesn’t. Why? I think it comes down to this: he didn’t forget who he was. You see, the devil isn’t just a snake, he’s a snake oil salesmen. He gives us the illusion that he is giving us just what we want, the fulfillment of our wildest dreams, when in fact… all he can offer us is a worse version of something we already have. He tricks us into forgetting. Remember how he tempts Adam and Eve: “If you eat this fruit, you will be like gods who know the difference between good and evil.” Sounds great! Who wouldn’t want that? Only, what happened just a chapter before in Genesis 1:27? “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” They are already like gods because they are created in the image and likeness of God. They are already in God’s presence, already higher beings than anything on earth, capable of free will, capable of reason, capable of loving and serving God.

But they forgot this.

In the moment of their justification, they forgot who they were, who they were created to be, who the source of their life is… and so they fell to a foolish temptation. They gave away everything… for a chance of gaining what they already had.

Jesus faces the same temptation, but acts very differently. The devil says worship me and I will make you the most powerful king of the earth. Again, sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be King? Think of all the things you could do to make the world better! Except, there’s just one problem: Jesus is already a King. Just three chapters earlier in beginning of Matthew, we hear that long genealogy from Christmas, showing that Jesus is in the line of David; in chapter 2, the magi refer to him as the “king of the Jews” and Herod seeks to kill him because he sees him as competition. What is abundantly clear all throughout the Gospel of Matthew is that Jesus is a king… but not like the kings of this earth. He does not desire to rule nations, to command armies, to have subjects beneath him: he is a servant king, one who leads through humility and sacrifice.

At no point does he forget who he is, at no point does he forget his purpose, and so at no point is he truly tempted. What Satan offers is ridiculous, and he sees right through it.

Too often, I have to admit, I forget what I already have; I forget who I was created to be; I forget who I am… and so I fall to foolish temptation And I don’t think I’m alone. As a people, we make compromises all of the time, justify what we know is wrong by telling us that it will ultimately serve the good.

On a macro level, I see it in the way that some support deeply flawed politicians, men and women who are against the teachings of Jesus in 100 ways… but offer a chance to get the issue we really want passed. “Sure, he may be an awful human being… sure, she might lie and cheat, but if we elect them, they’ll do good for this one thing.” Like Adam and Eve, we justify doing sinful things because some good will come out of it. We forget who we are and who we were created to be.

On a more individual level, I see it, and trust me, I hear it in confessions, when it comes to, shall we say, the sins of the flesh. You know what I mean. Drinking, eating, lustful actions. “I know I’m not supposed to do certain things, I should be more respectful of my body, shouldn’t look at certain things, do certain things with my girlfriend or boyfriend… but, you know, I am really stressed, I need to relax, it will bring us closer together, a little bit won’t hurt.” Like Adam and Eve, it is very easy for us to justify certain things because some good will come out of it. The fact of the matter is that all of these things can be good things. They bring pleasure, comfort, safety. These things are certainly created by God. The problem is that we’re trying to buy knockoffs. We don’t look for the real thing, we buy the cheap version. We forget who we are and who we were created to be.

This Lent, remember who you are and what you were made for. You are a child of God, wonderfully blessed and infinitely loved. You already have everything you could ever want, and you will never be happier, more comfortable, or as fulfilled as you will be with God. We can justify just about anything we want, but what good is it to gain the world if you lose your soul?

The following is a homily for the Christmas mass during the night. The readings can be found here.

The manger. Is there a more important symbol of Christmas than the manger. As Easter has the cross, Christmas has the crib, the manger, the place where Jesus was laid after he was born. To many, it may seem like nothing: just ordinary wood, a pile of hay… and yet, the shepherds were told that this would be the sign for them, that they would see a child laid in it, a sign of God’s work in the world. To many, it may seem like nothing. Just ordinary wood, a pile of hay… and yet, it says everything we need to know about who Jesus is.

This manger is a sign of the fact that Jesus is willing to make sacrifices, endure pain. This is not a fancy incubator at an expensive hospital, not a sign of luxury or comfort. Forget about thread count!, this is a wooden box with hay in it, a place that none of you would place your own children.
And, yet, that is where our Lord—the God of the universe, the savior of the world—was laid to rest after his birth. It shows us that he did not come to be a king concerned with luxury and comfort, who would live in a palace while his subjects served him. No, Jesus came to be the least, to live a humble life, to endure pain and suffering for the sake of others. From the very start, even as a baby, the manger shows the world that his life is not about what he wants.

The manger also a sign that Jesus is a God who is was wiling to go among the outcasts. If you were placed in a manger after being born, I think it’s safe to say that you were not born in the place of the rich and powerful. He was not going to be visited by the “who’s who” of Bethlehem, the important and popular people of society. No, the manger was where the animals were. It was where “the help” stayed, the people not fit for the palace, not welcome at the table, not allowed in the Temple. We’re talking about shepherds, the people on the outside, people looked down upon by the rest of the world. These men were dirty, believed to be scoundrels, letting their animals trample on other people’s land and eat other people’s food. They were sinners and unclean, and most of society wanted nothing to do with them. But Jesus did. These were the ones that he chose to witness the amazement of his nativity. The manger makes known from the very start, even as a baby, that he associates with the people that no one else wants.

But there is one more thing, maybe the most important thing of all. The manger shows us that Jesus is a gift to the world, food to be eaten.
Remember what a manger is: it’s a food trough. This is the place that the animals would have eaten. This is their source of life, nourishment for their bodies. For many of us, the symbolism is often overlooked. The only experience have all year with a manger is on Christmas; outside of the nativity scene, we may never actually encounter one. This would not have been the case for those present. The shepherds, people hearing the Gospel proclaimed in the ancient world—they would have seen the connection immediately: this child is our source of life, this God is giving himself up as food for our nourishment. Jesus is not a God who stands on high and gives orders; he is not a God who waits from afar. No, he is a God who gives of his very life, gives his very body and blood as a meal for our sake, so that we can eat and have life. The manger makes known from the very start, even as a baby, that Jesus will be food for a tired people.

As a people who gather to celebrate the Eucharist, to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, it is not difficult to see the intimate connection between the manger and the altar: on both we find a miracle. Beyond any human comprehension the God of all the universe takes on flesh, the infinite, unknowable, powerful God is made present in finite, tangible, and weak substances. We can see God. We can touch God. We can receive God into our very lives. Just as Jesus was shown to be food in the manger, we know him to be food for us on the altar, giving us strength and direction and inspiration in a dark world. Upon these tables is the source of our life.

But they are something more. These two tables, the one on which he was born, the one on which he comes to life for us, are the place of invitation. The baby in the manger was not some spectacle, a wonder like we would find at the circus and then go back to our normal lives. It changed the shepherds. When they saw it, they knew that they needed to proclaim it to others; they knew that their lives would be forever different. So it is with the Eucharist. The body and blood of Jesus on this altar are not just miracles to look at, little miracles to say “wow” and then go back to who we were, unchanged. No, Jesus came to be like us—he lived as a baby in a manger, gave his body on this altar—so that we could become like him.

In receiving the Eucharist from this altar, coming to worship the baby on this manger, we do not simply come to witness a miracle, we come to be transformed by what we receive, and to take up the mission that he started. And so, just as the manger says a lot about who Jesus was, the altar that we gather around says a lot about us.

It says that we, too, are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain, that our life is not about material things or what makes us most comfortable, but about doing what’s right.

It says that we, too, are willing to go among the outcasts, that everyone is welcome at our table, even our enemies, even the dirty and lazy, even the one that everyone else makes fun of.

It says that we, too, are willing to give of our lives so that others may live, that we are willing to live as a sacrifice for the ones we love.

That is what the altar says about us, because that is what the manger says about Jesus. To many, it may seem like nothing. Just ordinary wood, a pile of hay… and yet, it says everything we need to know about who Jesus is. When you see the connection it has to the altar, it also says everything we need to know about us as well.

This Christmas, don’t just look for see a spectacle or a miracle. Receive the Lord into your lives, let him transform everything you do, and go out into the world as Christ for others.

The following is my homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, Year A. The readings can be found here.

Have you ever been out in the desert? I mean, like, really out there. I drove cross country once from San Diego to Washington DC and there’s about four days of nothing. Just hundreds of miles of absolutely nothing. On one of the days we were driving through New Mexico we just stopped the car and stood on the side of the road for a minute. It was breathtaking… and a bit terrifying. The desert, by definition, is a place of desolation. It is not comfortable—extreme vulnerability to sun, no food, no water. While some plants and animals miraculously survive, we humans are not at home in it.

I believe that this is exactly what God wants us to feel sometimes. Have you ever wondered why almost every powerful story of conversion, every important moment of calling from God in the Bible happens in the desert? Moses had his first encounter when he left the palace and fled to the desert. Elijah heard God’s voice on the mountain in the light silent sound. Even Jesus himself went to the desert in preparation for ministry. There’s a reason why the first forms of religious life in our Church were the desert Fathers and Mothers, that those who offered spiritual direction and wisdom required their students to enter the desert with them: this is where we are able to hear God.

It’s a place where we are not at home. A place where we depend on God. A place away from distractions, utterly focused on survival, with no time for anything else. It is in the desert—in our discomfort, in our dependence, in our focus—that God can actually speak to us, because we are actually willing to listen.

It’s no wonder, then, that the person who announces the coming of Christ, who can see clearly as God does, comes from the desert. John the Baptist is not a priest or scribe, he did not grow up going to the temple or making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. This is not a popular prophet or mainstream figure. No, he comes from the silence of the desert, away from the world. And he doesn’t just live in the desert and come to the city to preach. No, he preaches from the desert.

What I find so interesting is that he didn’t just live in the desert, he preached from there as well. What does Matthew say? “John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert near Judea.” He did not take what he had learned from the desert and bring it to where people were; he didn’t go into the city squares and fight for their attention. No, if you wanted to hear him preach, if you wanted to hear his message, you had to go to the desert yourself. Those who couldn’t be bothered, those who were afraid, those who stayed in the comfort of their homes—they didn’t hear anything. It was only those who were committed enough to the message of God, willing enough to leave something behind, willing enough to strip themselves of all their distractions and enter the desert, who heard the announcement.

If you want to hear God speak, you have to go to the desert yourself. Now, before we all go out and buy tickets to Phoenix, what do I mean by this. Well, two things:

The first is about a a place of focused, silent prayer; a place of complete and utter desolation, dependence on God.

Our lives are very stimulating. Even for those of us who have extremely boring lives, we are constantly being bombarded with stuff. For many of us, there is no quiet in our lives. I mean real quiet. The moment we find ourselves moving towards it, when we have nothing to do, we pull out our phones, turn on the TV, look for something to do or someone to talk to.
We are a people with a serious case of FOMO, and so we remain connected, always watching and waiting, always checking our phones to see what’s up. We need the silence of the desert. We need the quiet that is so desolate, so barren, so empty that it’s like you’re in a different world… a world where there is just us and God.

I remember experiencing this for the first time when I went on a retreat during my first year with the friars. For an entire week, we were told that we had to turn off our phones, we couldn’t bring our laptops. There were no televisions, and the only talking we were allowed to do was during mass and prayers. The silence… was deafening. There may not have been sand or cacti, but I was in a desert, a place with nothing but myself… and God. I tell you, it was one of the most difficult, awful, excruciating weeks of my life… but it was also one of the most important experiences as well. I realized that God had been speaking to me all along, calling out to me… but it was only when I entered the desert that I was able to hear him; only when I stripped myself of all my distractions and comforts that I was able to focus on him. In the silence of that retreat, I had one of my most profound encounters with God.

The desert is where God speaks… and so we must go to listen. Maybe it’s a retreat, but maybe it’s simply the silence our room when we turn off our phones, a block of time we set aside at the same time each day for God and God alone. If we want to hear, we must go to the desert.

But of course, the desert is more than just a place of solitude, more than just a place of prayer—it is the act of leaving behind what is comfortable in order to experience the periphery. John the Baptist was not a prime candidate for life advice. Take one look at the way he dressed, what he ate, and you might think… “Um… thanks, but no thanks. Not sure if you should be the one telling others what to do…” But what a shame it would be to do that: you’d miss out on one of the most important announcements in the history of the world.

God does not always choose who we would choose—in fact, he never does. God chooses the weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame to learned, the poor to shame the rich; he chooses a crazy guy from the desert to shame the religious and cultural elite, to remind them that they know nothing of God. I wonder, sometimes, how often we miss seeing God in our world because we refuse to hear certain people, because we stay here in the comfort of our own little bubbles of people who are like us and like us, refusing to step out of our comfort zones.

A few years ago I went to the periphery of peripheries. For two months, I lived at a refugee camp in a small town of Mexico, a place where the friars offer food and housing to migrants. While I was there, I met a guy who was traveling north to cross the American border. In many ways he was someone who was easy to dismiss: he was dirty, had tattoos, wasn’t particularly educated. He was, in our government’s eyes, a criminal, this being not the first time he was trying to cross the border but the third. And so I asked him why he kept doing it. Why put yourself through the travel, the muggings, the deportations. He said, “What choice do I have? My family is in El Paso. I have two daughters, 8 and 10. My wife is there, my life is there. I know that it won’t be easy, I know that I may die on the way, but what choice do I have?” Here was a man who knew the importance of family, who was willing to do anything for them, a man who had something to teach me about family and sacrifice and commitment. How easy it would have been for me to write him off, to ignore him as someone who couldn’t teach me anything.

For the past 6 years, Pope Francis has been calling us to go to the peripheries of society, and this is precisely why. He has called us to the peripheries, to the outcasts, to those rejected by society because that is who God chooses to speak through. This does not mean that every homeless person, every migrant, every person from an outcast group has some profound wisdom to share, but it does mean that if we ignore them, we’ll never meet the ones who do.

God calls us to the desert. The desert of prayer, and the desert of the periphery. And so I ask you the same question one more time: have you ever been to the desert? I mean, really. Those who refused to go to the desert 2000 years ago missed out on the opportunity to meet John the Baptist. Who knows what God is speaking right now, in our very world, for those willing to enter the desert.

The following is my homily for the 1st Sunday in Advent, Year A. The readings can be found here.

This week, the students at UGA enter an intense period of preparation: it’s final exam time. Ready or not, here they come! It doesn’t matter if they’ve been studying all semester or they haven’t attended a single class. On a certain date at a certain time, judgment will take place. This, is serious business. It is time to hunker down; time to focus; time to load up on coffee.

I remember finals week when I was in college, knowing that there was only so much I could do, that the minutes were just slipping away. I’d take out my syllabus, look over the study guide and ask myself, “What are the most important things I need to know? Professor mentioned this multiple times—review. This is the last thing the professor said at the end of class—very important. Optional readings for enrichment—psh, no time, throw it in the garbage.” As much as finals week was stressful and just the absolute worst, there was something about the urgency of it all that I actually liked. There was a focus, a clear direction. It forced me to work hard, and as much as I hate to admit it, I learned a lot more in classes that had final exams than in ones that didn’t. The seriousness of it all, the gravity of the situation, even a little sense of fear—it all made me a better student.

And it makes me wonder, sometimes. That sense of urgency, that seriousness, that ability to hunker down and intensely focus on a task—do we devote that sort of energy to our lives as Christians? We may not be in school, but as “disciples” of Christ, we are by our very nature “learners” of his way, and as much as we would like to downplay it, there most certainly is a final exam. Jesus tells us over and over again that there will come a day of judgment; there will come a day of separating the sheep and the goats; there will come a day when the Son of Man will return and some will be taken up to heaven. More than some biology test that we’re going to forget about the minute we finish it, this should give us a bit of urgency. This—our salvation, our life in heaven—has got to be the most important thing that we will ever prepare for. Right? 

And yet, there are times when I look at my life and see almost no effort. Quite recently, in fact, I’ve looked at the way I pray, the way that I live my life, the way that I spend my money and eat and have fun, and have been sorely disappointed. Just this week, really, I had a bit of a panic. You know that feeling when you didn’t do the homework and you realize that there might be a pop-quiz? I realized that if Jesus were to come back today, if that final exam turned out to be right now… I wouldn’t be ready. I realized that I am lacking any sense of urgency in my discipleship, that I am just coasting along—not horribly bad, but also not particularly committed either. I’m not sure if you ever feel like this… but it should be a wakeup call for us

Advent is a time to instill that sense of urgency back in us. Just as the students are preparing for exams, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of our Lord. But not as a child in a manger, not wrapped in swaddling clothes. No, these things already happened. We do not prepare for the past, but remember the past in order to prepare for the future: the birth of Christ two thousand years ago, the act of God coming to be like us so that we could come to be like God—all of this marked the assurance of the promise that there will come a day when a new heaven and a new earth will be established, a day when all nations will go climbing the mountain of the Lord, a day when Jesus will return in his glory and judge the nations. Jesus doesn’t say when this will happen, but St. Paul absolutely nails it when he says that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” It’s coming, and we’re running out of time. Advent reminds us that we have no more time to waste—our preparation, begins today.

So, what do we do? How do we prepare for the ultimate test of our lives? Well, luckily for us, just like those taking final exams, we have been given a syllabus. Even more than that, in fact, Jesus has given us the very questions. We know exactly what he wants from us; we know exactly what we must do. Seriously. There is no trick to this exam, no surprises. Jesus made it very clear in everything he said and did what he wants of us. We know intimately of his will because we’ve heard it over and over again: love your enemies, show mercy, give to the poor, become poor yourself, take up your cross daily, love your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself. For years and years and years we have heard this, and I doubt anyone in this church would say that they don’t know what is expected of them. 

And so the real question is not what this test will be like, but rather, have we taken the time to open the book? Have we taken the time to practice the equations, to memorize the definitions. We may know what Jesus wants of us, but there is a big difference between knowing the questions and being confident in the answer; a life in the way of Jesus does not happen overnight—there is no cramming of virtues, no drinking a gallon of coffee and staying up all night to develop a prayer life. These things take time. They take practice. They take struggling and falling and getting back up again.

If you, like me, feel that you are sorely unprepared for this test, if you look at your life and think, “I’ve got a lot of work to do,” then this is your wakeup call. Advent is your inspiration, your warning. It’s time to take seriously your prayer life. It’s time to start showing a bit more forgiveness to your friends and family. It’s time to start practicing the corporal works of mercy, to begin living with peace and justice. It’s time to start preparing your heart to receive your Lord. He’s coming. I can only hope we’ll be ready.