Sunday, December 19, 2010

Inception, St. Joseph and the Dream of God

The Dream of St. Joseph
by Philippe de Champaigne, is dispalyed at the National Gallery in London.

(Fourth Sunday of Advent; This homily was given on 19 December, 2010 at the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Leuven, Belgium; See Matthew 1:18-24)

One of the big blockbuster films of this past summer, and a movie that is right now at the top of the charts for DVD sales, is the movie Inception. It is a very well written and compelling film filled with great special effects and intense drama. The characters in that film have the ability to go deep into the dream world of the people around them, extracting secrets from their subconscious and sometimes even inserting ideas—hence the name inception—that have the power to change lives.

Of course, as intriguing as the movie is, at its very foundation it is fiction. Certainly we cannot delve into the subconscious minds of those around us and enter into their dreams against their will. But nonetheless, in the Gospel this weekend we are shown not a fiction but the fact of the inner life of St. Joseph, husband of Mary. We are given an insight and a glimpse into his dream world, and in that place nothing less than our eternal salvation is at stake. We sit on the razor’s edge of St. Joseph’s dream, waiting breathlessly for his reaction to the angel’s voice…but we will come back to that in a moment…

For starters, St. Joseph is not the first dreamer we encounter in the Scriptures. In fact, he is named for one of the great Old Testament dreamers, Joseph the Patriarch. We encounter that Joseph towards the end of the Book of Genesis. He is only a teenager the first time we meet him, and he is dreaming about his brothers, arrayed before him and bowing before their younger brother. That dream is followed by another in which the sun and the moon and eleven stars of the sky are arranged before him; his father and mother, as well as his brothers, bowing in fealty to Joseph (see Genesis 37:5-20).

All too eagerly, and perhaps even imprudently, Joseph shares these dreams with his brothers, who immediately take offense at him. They decide at first that this “master dreamer” (Genesis 37:19) needs a dose of reality, and conclude that he should die; later they change their minds and sell him off into slavery instead. “After all,” they reason, “he is our brother” (Genesis 37:27). Thank heavens for small favors!

We are all familiar with the rest of the story. Joseph gets taken into Egypt where he suffers many hardships and is even thrown unjustly into prison. But soon Pharaoh himself has a vision that perplexes him and so he sends for Joseph, who is renown even in the land of Egypt as an interpreter of dreams. Joseph, with the help of God, unlocks the mystery of Pharaoh’s dream and saves not only Egypt, but the surrounding countries, as well, from famine and destruction. His brothers, true to his prophesy, indeed come and bow before him, even before they realize that he has graciously become their savior.

It is a compelling and beautiful story which reveals God’s power and ability to save us even in spite of our own human frailties and sins. But truth be told, when Joseph’s brothers mock him as “master dreamer,” they could not have been further from the truth. In fact, in all the Scriptures there is only one Master Dreamer, and that is God. His master dream comes to be revealed to us not at the end of the Book of Genesis, but at its inception.

In the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis we are given God’s dream for the human family. It is a dream in which the man and the woman live together in a mutual relationship of love and freedom. There is harmony and peace between them, and that same harmonic relationship exists between them and the rest of the created world. There is a just and peaceful accord between all of creation and God, who wills to walk with the man and the woman in the cool of the evening, content simply to spend time with them (see Genesis 3:8).

Of course, very quickly that dream is shattered; God’s dream for the human family is broken into a thousand pieces after what we come to understand as Original Sin enters the picture. Although we understand the truths of that mythic tale in a way different from our historical reality, nonetheless we see that broken dream played out over and over again in our everyday lives. Perhaps we ourselves, or those we know and love, are in the midst of that very brokenness:

Broken dreams…broken lives…broken promises…broken relationships…and the list goes on and on.

One of the great tragedies today is that so many people experience this brokenness and simply give up on the dream all together. They conclude that peace and harmony in this world is simply not possible and they cease to even try. That is a very sad thing. But even worse is the reality that many in this post-modern world have given up on even the hope for happiness and peace beyond this life. They have given up on even the possibility of an eternal life in which God will set things right and give us “far more than all we ask or imagine” (see Ephesians 3:20).

It is such a paradox because deep within our hearts we long for nothing else than this eternal dream of God; we desire nothing greater than the restoration of this harmony and peace deep within us, and spreading out to all of the relationships of our lives. We cannot help but to dream!

And so thanks be to God that He has revealed to us in the Scriptures this weekend and in the midst of our Catholic faith that He has no intention of ever giving up on that dream! No matter what happens, and no matter how many times we break away from His plan for our lives, God is relentless in making this dream a reality for us.

He so longs for its fulfillment that He is willing, even desirous, to come right into our brokenness, to become broken Himself on the wood of the cross, so that we can be healed and have the hope of an eternal life with Him. He desires to become one like us so that we can become more and more completely like Him. That is the hope we eagerly wait for in this Advent season and it is the plan of God revealed to us in the Scriptures. But that plan this weekend is almost derailed at its inception by none other than St. Joseph!

It is not because St. Joseph is selfish and wants to do his own thing, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. No, it is because St. Joseph was a good and righteous man of God and because he had a dream for his life. St. Joseph, like almost all righteous Jews of his time, would have had a dream for marriage and a family, to raise up faithful children of Israel. Suddenly that dream is shattered as Joseph comes to learn that this woman, who by all appearances is so holy, so pure, so perfect…is suddenly so pregnant! And he knows that he is not the father. His dream was broken and we are told in the Gospel this weekend that he had decided to divorce her quietly; he was going to separate himself from Mary and her Child. Immediately the angel of God intervenes and makes it clear, No, Joseph! That is not the right move!

His plan and dream for life was a good one, a holy one even, but it was simply not sufficient. The angel is essentially telling him, You have to dream a whole lot bigger, Joseph, because God is going to do something in your life beyond your wildest imagination. He has a dream greater than you could possibly foresee, and you are an intimate part of that dream.

St. Joseph, for his part, does not miss a beat. We are told that as soon as he awoke he did what the angel had instructed him. In a moment he was able to place his own dreams aside and to broaden his vision to the eternal dream of God. This Fourth Sunday of Advent, are you and I able to do the same?

We all have dreams and hopes for the future; we all have plans and desires that we hope will come to pass. But so many times we hold onto those dreams with both hands and fail to see that God often desires something more, something greater “than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Are we willing to broaden our vision to the master dream of God, to His great desire for our eternal happiness, and let everything else in our lives conform to that dream? We must be willing and even eager not only to conform ourselves to that dream, not only to surrender ourselves to it, but to love it! Only there will we have the true freedom to let go of our own plans and to find the greatest desires of our hearts fulfilled in Him.

This Advent, may we find the courage to dream bigger than ever before and seek the inspiration that comes from God Himself and His Son, Jesus Christ, because this is the season, above every other season of the year, when dreams come true.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Vision and the Fire of Advent

St. Francis Xavier 1506-1552

(Friday of the First Week of Advent, Feast of St. Francis Xavier; This homily was given on 3 December, 2010 at the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Leuven, Belgium; See Isaiah 29:17-24, Psalm 27 and Matthew 9:27-31)

We have already come now almost one quarter of the way through the Advent Season, and our readings today encapsulate the message of what it means to be a people waiting for the revelation of God in Christ. We wait in hope for the vision of God who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, God incarnate.

In our first reading the Prophet Isaiah anticipates this vision when he announces boldly that “out of gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see” (Isaiah 29:18). When the Messiah comes He will open the eyes of all to see the beauty and the power of God.

The Psalmist speaks of that same longing and yearning when he sings of his great desire to “gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and contemplate his temple” (Psalm 27:4). It is not enough for us to hear about God or simply to know a great deal about Him. No, we long to see Him and to look upon His loveliness even here, “in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13).

One of the most beautiful prayers in the liturgy is found in the Christmas Season, which we will enter in a few short weeks. One of the Prefaces for the Eucharist Prayer in the Christmas Season offers this wonderful prayer to God:

In the wonder of the incarnation
your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith
a new and radiant vision of your glory.
In him we see our God made visible
and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.

The eternal Word who is Christ has brought to our eyes of faith that new and radiant vision of God. When Christ comes to dwell among us as a man we finally catch a glimpse of the God who we know loves us and whom we could never see had He not revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel today shows us this reality in a striking and vibrant way. Those two men beg Christ to heal them and restore their sight. The very first thing—or better, Person—they see when their request is granted and their eyes are opened is the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. What longing, what yearning we have to see Him as we await the coming of Christ this Advent!

Truth be told, this is the very mission and vocation of the Christian: to see God and be swept up in this “new and radiant vision,” to have our eyes opened to His glory and His unsurpassable mercy. Then we cannot help but go out into the world and proclaim His wonders so that the eyes of all may be opened to that same vision of God. We want all the word to see what we have seen and to taste what we have tasted in the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.

But to do that we have to be able to see what God sees when He looks at us and at the world we live in. We have to see the sin that is inevitably a part of our daily struggle, but even more we need to see ourselves and those around us not only as sinners but as men and women loved infinitely by God. We need to see the men and women whom God is willing to suffer and die for. You have heard the expression before: hate the sin but love the sinner. We separate the sin from the sinner and try to see as God sees.

One of the great temptations and dangers of the disciple of Christ is to take both of those realities together—the sin and the sinner—and to despise them both. Our worst days as disciples are often the times when we fail in this regard. When we do that, seeing only sinful people doing sinful things, then we also risk losing the vision of God Himself. We can no longer see Him clearly and all that He desires for us to behold as we follow and serve Him.

Such was the temptation which St. Francis Xavier faced, whose feast we celebrate today. Francis Xavier was sent by St. Ignatius of Loyola to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of the East Indies. By no means was he the first person to do that. In our tradition it is St. Thomas the Apostle who is sent by Christ Himself to bring the Gospel to the people of India. St. Francis Xavier would follow in the footsteps of countless men and women who tirelessly and faithfully brought the Gospel to those who longed to hear it.

But what he encountered when he arrived there was not only the fruit of the fidelity of the missionaries that had gone before him. He also encountered the infidelity of the followers of Christ who had long forgotten the Gospel they were sent to proclaim. He encountered, along with many zealous and praiseworthy disciples, also clergy who had given cause for scandal and the brutality not only of the pagans in that land but especially of the many Christians who should have known better. One account tells how “when slaves were atrociously beaten, their masters counted out the blows on the beads of their rosaries” (Butler’s Lives of the Saints, IV).

How would you and I have responded to such brutality? What would have been our attitude as missionaries in that strange and mysterious place? The response of St. Francis Xavier was one of tears almost to the point of blindness, but not the kind we would first think. He writes to his spiritual father, St. Ignatius of Loyola:

“The dangers to which I am exposed and the tasks I undertake for God are springs of spiritual joy, so much so that these islands are the places in all the world for a man to lose his sight by excess of weeping: but they are tears of joy.”

St. Francis Xavier saw the sin that was rampant in that place and he saw the atrocities and the squalor that comes with the loss of the vision of God, but he also saw the countless souls whom God loved so dearly, and that made all the difference. His heart was on fire with that same love that sent Christ to the cross, willing to die for our salvation, and Francis Xavier was overwhelmed with love to the point of tears; he was nearly blinded by the tears of joy that flowed from a heart on fire with the love of Jesus Christ.

That is precisely why St. Ignatius sent him to the East Indies to begin with. After serving faithfully by Ignatius’ side following his ordination to the priesthood, Francis Xavier was not immediately sent out into the missions. He waited and longed to preach the Gospel but year after year that assignment never came. Finally, one day, Ignatius released him with the now famous exhortation, “Go and set the world on fire!” St. Francis Xavier went and did exactly that.

It is the fire of the Holy Spirit, and only that fire, that has the power to renew the Church in the time of St. Francis Xavier and in our own time today. It is only the fire of divine love that can so inflame us to hate the sin and love the sinner as we proclaim Christ unreservedly to the world we live in.

May we come to know that love here in this place as we prepare to receive Him in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. May we see here in the Eucharist that “new and radiant vision” of the glory of God and come to know Him in whom “we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.” May our eyes be opened to that vision and may God send us out from this place to set the world on fire.