Bottom line: Silence, sin, Spirit. By silence, we recognize sin and open ourselves to the Spirit.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, God invites us to go to a specific place: the desert. In the Gospel we hear about the people going out to the desert to listen to John the Baptist. God wants us also to go the desert. Not the desert of Judea, but one much closer: the desert of the human heart. The desert is a place free from distractions, a place where a person can be alone with God. Another word for the desert is silence. In silence we meet God and, by meeting him, we find our true selves.
Silence, time alone without distractions - that's easier said than done. We are surrounded by noise - by media and advertisements that constantly try to grab our attention. The holiday season is particularly noisy. Pope Benedict observed: "We are no longer able to hear God – There are too many frequencies filling our ears."*
Unfortunately, noise not only surrounded us - we seek it. We make the choice to turn on the TV, to fire up the computer or to plug in the Ipod. The great scientist and philosopher, Blase Pascal said, "Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study." Because of that, says Pascal, we constantly seek "diversions."**
Pascal experienced that himself. He loved to play dice. When he went to gaming rooms, time stood still. Hours passed quickly and the next day he would feel miserable and exhausted. But he knew what would make him feel better - another session with dice and cards. Time does not matter when a person engages in his favorite "diversion."***
There is an irony in this: People can spend hours in diversion or entertainment. On the other hand, when we try to pray, five minutes can seem like eternity. We begin thinking about something left undone. It didn't enter our mind when we were playing the video game, but now it seems like it just won't wait. It is hard to go to the desert. I know that myself. It's hard to be alone with no distracions. We run from silence.****
One reason we resist silence is because we do not like to face our actual condition. Not just our insufficiency and our mortality, but something else. There is something amiss inside us. We have taken a wrong turn, gone down a false path. For that reason, when people went out to the desert, the first thing John said was, "Repent." The word means, "change your mind, get a new way of thinking."
Few people want to change their way of thinking. It can be scary to see myself and my life as it really is. I am now going to mention a word we don't like to talk about. It's a three letter word that starts with "S." That's right, sin! We make light of sin, but that is because we do not realize what sin really is. Someone who saw the reality of sin was the man Pope beatified when he visited England last September - Blessed John Henry Newman. Newman said this:
"The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul . . . should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse."
Perhaps that seems exaggerated. How can that lie I told be worse than the AIDS epidemic and all the forms of cancer? Well, a lie separates me from God and from other people. An illness, however, can bring a person to God. For that reason, John the Baptist says, "Repent, turn away from sin."
Jesus wants to get at the root of our sin. Why are we filled with so much anger, envy, lust? what is at the root of all this unhappiness? We can only find the answer in silence. Jesus wants to get at the root of our unhappiness, our repeated sins? In today's Gospel we hear these words: "Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees." Jesus doesn't want some surface change. He wants us to become new men, new women, new people. That won't happen by our own power. It requires the Holy Spirit and fire.
Since I mentioned the "S" word, sin, I would like to sum up with two other words that begin with that same letter. The first, of course, is "silence." During Advent we need to find a time of silence - no TV, no computer, no Ipod, not even a cell phone. Silence is not always comfortable. It may make us aware of sin - and how sin separates us from God and others. But silence will open us to a more powerful reality. It also begins with "S" - the Spirit. On our own we cannot get to the roots of the problem. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. Silence, sin, Spirit. By silence, we recognize sin and open ourselves to the Spirit. Amen.
*Quoted by Teresa Tomeo in her essential book: Noise, How Our Media-Saturated Culture Dominates Lives and Dismantles Families. Highly recommended Advent reading.
**In commenting on Pascal, Peter Kreeft wrote:
"We want to complexify our lives. We don’t have to, we want to. We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very thing that we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it
"Henry David Thoreau put this concept bluntly: 'Our life is frittered away by detail … Simplify, simplify.'
"What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us … That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible."
***Pascal made these penetrating observations about why we constantly seek diversions:
"The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.****Bishop Sheen reflected on our "fondness for noise." By noise he meant much more than loud music: "love of amusements, constant goings and comings, excitements and thrills, and movement for the sake of movement." He asks, "What is the reason for this fondness for noise?" He answers:
"We do not rest satisfied with the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if in order to hasten its course; or we recall the past, to stop its too rapid flight. So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists. For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and, if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away. We try to sustain it by the future and think of arranging matters which are not in our power, for a time which we have no certainty of reaching.
"Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so."
"The reason is to be found in the great desire on the part of human beings to do the impossible, namely - to escape from themselves. They do not like to be alone with themselves because they are not pleased with themselves; they do not like to be alone with their conscience, because their conscience reproves and carries on an unbearable repartee. They do not like to be quiet, because the footsteps of the Hound of Heaven which can be heard in silence, cannot be heard in the din of excitement; they do not like to be silent, because God's voice is like a whisper and it cannot be heard in the tumult of the city streets..." (quoted by Michael Dubruiel in Praying in the Presence of Our Lord with Fulton J. Sheen)
From Archives (Second Sunday of Advent, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
Parish Picture Album
Music for a journey - Trio to perform benefit concert for World Youth Day trip (Everett Herald article on December 12 event sponsored by St. Mary of the Valley Parish
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Article on Mary Bloom Center (in Spanish)
video about work of Mary Bloom Center (48 seconds)
Centro Mary Bloom