I preached today at St.Margaret’s, Madison, Ct. and told the people they could follow me at Victor’s Place. From the stats it looks like a lot did. Here’s a summary of my sermon today.
I just got back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land earlier this week. I led 42 people from St. Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, NJ, to visit the holy places. After they returned, I spent over a week at Bethany, where my community, the Passionists, have a house and church, appropriately called St. Martha, built over 1st century Bethany, where Jesus stopped to visit Martha, Mary and her brother Lazarus.
The Holy Land was crowded with pilgrims when we were there. Strange as it may seem, in spite of the political troubles, they’re having a record breaking year for visitors. The majority were from eastern Europe– Russia, Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine– as far as I could tell.
That part of the world is often called by historians “ The Bloodlands, ” because over 14 million people were killed there in the 2nd World War, either by Stalin or by Hitler. More people died there than anywhere else in that terrible war. Certainly, most of these people I saw lost family members then. So they came here, I believe, not just as tourists, but as believers who had come to the holy places that gave them a faith for hard times.
Many of the Americans who were there were Protestants, and a good number were Fundamentalist Protestants who strongly support the State of Israel.
I think you see things a little differently when you go to the Holy Land. You read the scriptures a little differently. I’m looking at the scriptures today and two things strike me.
On this 1st Sunday of Advent, listen to those beautiful words of Isaiah: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may instruct us in his ways,
and we may walk in his paths.”
When you go to the Holy Land you’re doing that all the time: climbing mountains. It’s a land of hills and mountains, and even if you get around by bus, you still have to get out and climb. The Mount of Olives, the temple mount, Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Beatitudes, Mount Carmel. Even when you want to go up to Mount of Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, you have to climb a steep staircase.
The people of Jesus’ day climbed these mountains to see where they were going, first of all. In those days people didn’t have Google Maps, so they went up high places to see where they were going. On the mountains they got a sense of direction and perspective.
The people of Jesus’ day also climbed mountains so that they could experience God. God was in the high places, they believed. God refreshed you when you went up to the high places.
Could I suggest that our Advent mission we begin today might be a good way to climb the mountain of the Lord and get the direction and perspective we need. We easily lose our way.
In the gospel, Jesus uses an interesting phrase, “the Days of Noah.” He uses it to describe an experience to beware of. You remember how he describes the days of Noah. In those days, he says, “people are eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.” Nothing wrong with that, you say.
But even good things can become routine, causing life to become dead. The days of Noah are “same old, same old” days, nothing’s happening, nothing’s going on, as far as we can see. Might as well “Turn on the Television,” “Have a beer,” The days of Noah are days of blinding routine. We end up sleep-walking, missing out on what life brings.
So what’s my life and your life like? Are we living in the days of Noah? In the days of Noah we need to be lifted up: “When you’re down and out, lift up your head and shout, there’s gonna be a great day!”
Today the season of Advent begins. It’s a time that brings hope. It saves us from being trapped by routine. Stay awake. Advent is a time that proclaims a Great Day?
Our church today needs an awakening. Archbishop Dolan from New York was interviewed the other day in The New York Times about the church and he offered a sobering appraisal of what it’s experiencing today. Almost half of our young Catholics getting married are not getting married in the church. Participation at Mass is down to 35%. There’s a big slippage going on in our church. We need an awakening.
What should we do? Certainly church leaders have to do something? But what about ordinary Catholics? The church has always depended on them. Like the small Advent candle we light today, the church shines one by one.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget one memorable event from my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. That was my visit to Lazarus’ tomb. As I finally got there, after traveling around the Israeli Security Wall, a large group of Russian pilgrims were entering the tomb. These were people from the “Bloodlands.” They crowded into that tight space of death and began to sing their powerful Russian songs of faith. The tomb was transformed by their singing.
Faith does that. It defies death. It transforms life. It gives hope.