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repentance“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’” (Matthew 3:1-8; 10b-11).
 
A lucrative position that has emerged in our modern economy is that of consultant. We try to drastically improve our prospects by soliciting advice from someone who seems to see more deeply, more clearly than we do. Consultants always appear superb in manner, dress, and expression. They radiate power and trust. When we dread the unknown, we pay consultants well to forge ahead of us, paving the way.
 
The wild man we meet in the gospel reading today is deliberately pictured by Matthew in a way that his listeners would recognize: clothed in rags and eating bugs—code for “this is a prophet.”
 
Deliberately abrasive, difficult, and unnerving, John is someone whose very abrasiveness might threaten the message he wishes to convey. He does not “consult” his followers on how to understand their lives. He exhorts, extols, and reminds his followers of service. An ancient voice cries in the wilderness, stirring our pity, igniting our sense of duty. But to hear the voice is not enough; we need to hear with a heart untainted by selfishness, motivated by truth, and purified by repentance.
 
Each of us must struggle to see beyond the medium to the message and ask, Is this truly the Spirit of God speaking to me?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International

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In the last two years of her life, my mother received notes from various people telling her of their gratitude for her friendship and the impact she had on their lives. I shared snippets of them during the eulogy at her funeral. One is a letter from Rosemarie to my mom in honor of her 87th birthday. Rosemarie had known my mom for more than 55 years. They first met when my parents with my two older brothers moved to the house next to Rosemarie’s family. Rosemarie was sixteen and often visited my mother and
helped her with my brothers.
 
In her letter, Rosemarie recalled the birth of her first child. Her husband was working when her labor pains began. She immediately called my mom who quickly dropped my brothers off at my grandmother’s and drove Rosemarie to the hospital. Rosemarie wrote that my mother’s strong and caring presence diminished her fear and gave her a steady confidence. My mom stayed with her until the baby was born and Rosemarie’s husband arrived. Rosemarie wrote, “The memory of your contagious illuminating smile will always be with me.” The story of these two women of different generations, supporting each other in a time of both great need and deep joy, is the story of God’s presence among us.
 
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we hear the gospel story of the Visitation. Elizabeth is aware of and welcomes into her home the presence of God in Mary. Mary is aware of the goodness of Elizabeth and knows of the messenger of God, whom Elizabeth bears in her womb. The women rejoice with one another in the impossible becoming possible in their lives and express gratitude for that great gift.
 
During their visit Elizabeth, having resigned herself to living with the disappointment of not having a child, now has to deal with an unexpected blessing. Mary in turn has to resolve living with a blessing that causes more problems than it solves. How would she explain this to Joseph? Elizabeth and Mary’s mutual encouragement enables them to go forward with more confidence and joy despite the struggles they face.
 
When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, there is a leaping for joy in the darkness of her own womb. In that moment, Elizabeth experienced a bodily knowing that God was present and active in her and Mary’s lives. Through these pregnant prophets God was working out the divine will in the world.
 
During the Advent season we celebrate the various comings or visits of God into our human community—into the past, the present, and the future. Jesus is the God of Advent. How has God visited you in the very ordinariness of your life? Pay attention to the presence of God in the gathering of friends and family during this holiday season. These may be visitation moments. Don’t miss them.
 
Sr. Terry is the Executive Director of RENEW International and a Dominican Sister from Blauvelt, NY.

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1st Sunday of Advent Be Prepared“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come’” (Matthew 24:37-42).
 
Be prepared. Nearly every young male can give you the source for that citation: the motto of the Boy Scouts, invoked by leaders at the start of every meeting. It wasn’t unusual for the boys to glance around, worrying a little and asking themselves, Prepared for what?
 
Robert Baden-Powell, the British founder of the Boy Scouts, once explained what he meant by that motto. “Prepared for what?” he said. “Why, for any old thing.” Being stranded in the woods with no matches. Noticing someone drowning in the deep end of a pool. The explicit lesson was that if we took time to prepare for most eventualities, then the future wouldn’t be nearly so haphazard, nor be a cause for dread.
 
“Advent” means coming, appearance, arrival. In these early days of Advent the focus is on the second coming of Christ, so we begin with eyes on the future, straining to focus on what might be headed this way. This reading is not about the coming of a poor little child; rather, it is about the coming of the end of the world. The imagery is stark, even startling. Two men working in a field. Two women preparing food. Suddenly, in each place, only one is left. Such abruptness is meant to startle us. Our daily actions, those simple pleasures of living—eating, drinking, marrying, as in “the days of Noah”—that make up our everyday lives should never be thought of as comfortably complete.
 
The liturgical year has changed, but the lesson has not. Jesus tells us over and over to be prepared for the end of this age.
 
Today’s stark stories tell us that the Church should be a community of preparation, which means we who are members of the Church should be cultivating a different vision of human goals and of the hope for our lives.
 
- What do you think preparation and watchfulness consist of, and what are we being asked to focus on?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International

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Presentation of the BVMIn Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the narrator, describing events in a mental hospital, comments that “it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.’’
 
It’s an idea that we accept all the time, and it applies to an observance in the Catholic Church during this month.
 
We accept this paradoxical statement, for example, when we hear the parables of Jesus.
 
It doesn’t matter to us whether a father actually forgave his prodigal son or whether a Samaritan traveler actually helped a Jewish man who had been mugged.
 
We hear those stories, and we get the message, whether the stories are true or whether Jesus made them up.
 
So it is with the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which the eastern and western Catholic churches and the Orthodox Church celebrate on November 21.
 
This observance commemorates the occasion when the parents of Mary brought her to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate her to God.
 
There is one complication: None of the Gospels that are recognized by the Church and therefore included in the New Testament describe this incident.
 
This story comes instead from “apocryphal’’ literature—that is, a body of gospels and letters that purport to be the work of authoritative writers, including some of the apostles, but which Catholic scholars regard as either pious fiction, possibly laced with some facts, or outright fraud.
 
Some of these writings, including the Protoevangelium of James, embellish what we know about the betrothal and marriage of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus.
 
People in the early Christian era apparently were a lot like people today in their curiosity about the lives of famous people, and these apocryphal writings, whatever else they achieved, satisfied some of that curiosity.
 
The Protoevangelium of James, which scholars think was written in the second century, includes an elaborate account of the birth and childhood of Mary.
 
According to the author, Joachim and Anna were distraught because they did not have a child, but while Joachim fasted in the desert, God responded through an angel to Anna’s intense prayer.
 
The angel announced that Anna was pregnant and that “your child will be spoken of everywhere people live.”
 
When Mary was three years old, her parents—because of their gratitude—took her to the Temple and consecrated her to God.
 
Mary remained in the Temple until she was 12 years old, and then the priests selected Joseph—a widower and a father—to take custody of her.
 
At least in part, it is from this account that we derive the tradition that Joseph was much older than Mary and the idea accepted by some Christians that Jesus had siblings—ostensibly including the James, who wrote this gospel and claimed to be Joseph’s son.
 
A feast day to commemorate Mary’s appearance in the temple originated in connection with the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary the New which was built in the sixth century near the former site of the Temple and destroyed by the Persians during the siege of Jerusalem in 614 AD.
 
So this feast has a somewhat complicated history, but there is nothing complicated about its implications.
 
Whether or not the story is true, this feast reminds us that Mary was devoted to God throughout her life and that she was not only the mother of Jesus but his first disciple.
 
As St. Augustine expressed it, Mary herself was a temple, bearing Jesus in her own body and keeping the word of God in her mind and heart—as always, an example for all of us.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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“The rulers sneered at Jesus and said, ‘He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.’ Even the soldiers jeered at him. As they approached to offer him wine they called out, ‘If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.’ Above him there was an inscription that read, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.’ The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, ‘Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:25-43).
 
In Old Testament times, the Jewish people sought a leader, a king, someone to shepherd the people and command the army. In Jesus’ time, they were looking for another king, a messiah, and some thought Jesus, a powerful speaker and worker of miracles, might be that king. But people tend to follow a leader only when they like where he’s going. When Jesus was multiplying loaves and healing the sick, huge crowds followed him. But as he came closer to Jerusalem and told more hard truths about discipleship and the reign of God and his own future, some turned away.
 
When he was arrested and brought before the court, many decided that Jesus wasn’t going where they wanted to go. It is an act of trust to follow someone. Not all leaders bring their people to success. The hecklers at the foot of the cross probably thought Jesus, as a leader, was a failure. The only way to save the situation was to somehow change direction and escape the cross. That was what one of the criminals suggested: Get off that cross, Jesus, and get us off these crosses too! Save yourself, and us!
 
Jesus said nothing, because it was not a mistake in direction that landed him at Golgotha. His whole life was leading to that cross and beyond it to the resurrection. He knew where he was going, and throughout Luke’s Gospel, we have accompanied Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Luke invites us to learn from Jesus, to make his experience our experience.
 
Isn’t that exactly what happens in the conversation between the other criminal and Jesus? “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” “Jesus, you’re leading…don’t leave me behind.” If we make that our prayer, we too can take comfort in Jesus’ reply, “Truly I tell you, this day you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
 
Remember that the criminal did not have the benefit of hindsight as we do—we know how the story ends. What faith is in his simply expressed pleas. We know that through our baptism we join with Jesus on the cross so we can also share in the glory of his resurrection.
 
- How do I trust that Jesus is leading me?
 
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International

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