Advent


Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent 2017

By Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11

Find Sunday’s reading here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121717.cfm

Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

Gaudete Sunday is the period in Advent in which we rejoice! We celebrate Christian joy in giving thanks and praise to all that God does for us. The reading from Isaiah this Sunday reminds us of our baptism. In our baptism we share in Christ’s redemptive action as priest, prophet, and king. The prophet proclaims, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Is 61:1). In this opening verse we hear the prophetic author being described as one who possesses God’s spirit, who has been anointed as God’s own, and who has been sent by God to proclaim God’s word. We too, by virtue of our baptism, share in this call to assist in God’s saving work.

As a part of my formation I had the opportunity to minister as a hospital chaplain. One morning I had the opportunity to serve in the pediatric unit, offering pre-surgery prayer to patients. A conversation I had with one of the patients in the pre-surgery unit was a young girl between eight and eleven years of age. She said that she was “really nervous” about her upcoming surgery; however, after we prayed together the first words out of her mouth after saying “Amen” were, “I feel a whole lot better.” What a powerful experience! This little girl has faith. She has been gifted with the grace of trust—trust in our God who cares for the oppressed. To trust in our God’s hesed, that loyal, selfless love which binds God’s self to us. Surely, I was not the cause of this great faith, but like the prophet Isaiah—through my baptism—I was filled with the Spirit, anointed as God’s own, and was sent to proclaim God’s good news (Is 61:1). This pre-surgery prayer was an experience of freedom, of God loosening the bonds of this young girl so that she could be freed from all anxiety, despair, and doubt, and elevated to a state of newness, hope, and trust in God.

Recalling the promises that we made, or were made for us in our baptism, let us invite God to strengthen our faith, to share in Christ’s ministry as priest, prophet, and king—to serve God in holiness, to preach justice, and to lead people to God.

—Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

This freedom is not ours to give, but is given by God. Isaiah states in his mission that he is to, “Announce a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God” (Is 61:2). But what does this mean?! In the Jewish tradition the “Year of Jubilee” occurred every fiftieth year and during this year emancipation and economic restructuring occurred. Slaves were freed from their bondage and debtors from their debt. The celebration of the “Year of Jubilee” served as a symbol of a new era, a new beginning for those who have been disadvantaged.[1] We should keep in mind, however, that while this release of debt and slavery was meant to be carried out by people, it was ultimately God who gave the people everything, including freedom from the slavery of their enemies (i.e. Egypt in the Book of Exodus).

HandsIsaiah proclaims, “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice” (Is 61:10). Similar to the Israelites, we praise our God who frees us from the bondages of sin and slavery. If we learn to acclaim “Amen” and trust in God’s hesed, we too begin rejoicing for the grace God has given us. To be free of all debt and slavery truly brings in a new era, and in the midst of the darkness, a new light shines forth like a “bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with jewels” (Is 61:10). When we accept this grace, God places a robe of salvation and justice on us, to be God’s messengers to others, sharing and expressing God’s hesed to our world. Like a wedding, new life is meant to shine forth.

“As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations” (Is 61:11). Isaiah offers us an image of a hopeful future. He offers us God’s intentions, a new world in which all will live in justice and praise. But are we willing to permit the seed to be planted, to allow new life to sprout and grow? Often, it is our own wills that get in the way of preventing new life. Are we willing to let go of our own wills to serve God’s will?

In the hospital environment I generally found that it was the children who did the best of “letting go” of those things which prevented them from trusting and allowing God into their hearts. On the other hand, overall, the most challenging individuals in the hospital were the grown men, who found it difficult to trust in God and God’s hesed—God’s loyal love. Perhaps the grown men found the hospital environment difficult because they have always been in control of their lives. Now, being ill and stuck in a hospital, they recognized that they no longer had control; all they could do was trust others to help.

Often we do not like to admit that we are not in control. We try to control our destiny and our lives, but when faced with such a thing as our own mortality, we begin to recognize that we have no control over our own lives. It is children. Children are the ones who know how to trust. They trust their parents and their guardians. They rely so much on the care of others that it is the children who truly understand what it means to trust in God’s hesed—to know that God is always with them, always loving them.

If we wish for faith, if we wish for trust in God’s hesed, let us be open to the possibility of being more like children; to be open to a world flipped upside down. As we rejoice this day, Gaudete Sunday, let us recall the freedom God has granted us from our sins, so that we may have newness of life. Recalling the promises that we made, or were made for us in our baptism, let us invite God to strengthen our faith, to share in Christ’s ministry as priest, prophet, and king—to serve God in holiness, to preach justice, and to lead people to God.


[1] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, Vol 25, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Inc., 1984), 303.

More opportunities to celebrate the season of Advent at St. Norbert Abbey »

Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent 2017

By Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

Find Sunday’s reading here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121017.cfm

Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

The winter breaks during my college years were often times I would go home not only to visit family and friends, but also to earn some extra money to pay for my education. My family owned and operated a small concrete company in northern Wisconsin, so there was never a shortage of work. During the winter months I would sometimes be painting trim inside my dad’s office building or splitting firewood outside, and I loved when it snowed! If it snowed during winter break, it meant I got to snowplow! I would wake up early in the morning, fill up my thermos with coffee, drive out to the shop, fire up the John Deere front-end loader, and then start snowplowing the local grocery store, school, hospital, factories, and private residences. I loved it! Everything was quiet, still, and peaceful. I, along with other highway workers, were busy working after the blizzards had gone through, cleaning up the snowy mess while everyone else would be sound asleep in their beds. We were making the highways and byways safe for people to travel and arrive safely at their desired destinations.

While many of us Wisconsinites cannot relate to the desert travel experience mentioned in Isaiah 40:3, I think many of us can relate to an experience of tough travel through the “frozen tundra” of a Wisconsin winter. It is no secret that we love our automobiles, and we have a fantastic roadway system for travel, but this can all come to a halt when a blizzard hits. A blizzard can turn our functional roadways into slick sheets of ice or an unnavigable blanket of snow, making our usual commutes risky. If it weren’t for the work of those individuals who go out with their snowplows, snowblowers, and shovels, we might never get out of our houses! While the Israelites have been forced into exile, now is the time to travel back home, to prepare a highway not only for the people to travel, but a highway prepared for God’s return to Jerusalem.

Advent is intended to be a transformative experience for us as Christians. With a new year beginning 31 days before our secular calendar, we make time to reflect upon what we have done and what we plan to do in becoming better witnesses of faith.

—Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

We can all imagine that desert travel is not easy. It is probably even harder than our travel through the snow, but God is at work in preparing a highway for the return of all to Jerusalem. This highway will be much like our interstate system. Isaiah proclaims, “Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Is 40:3-5). But is this highway about us or is it more about God? Perhaps it is both.

On the one hand, there is a desire for us to return to God. In Isaiah, God instructs, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins” (40:1-2). The punishment Israel endured, first by the hand of the Babylonians and then by Cyrus of Persia, was due to the fact that they did not remain faithful to the covenant. Now that debt, Israel’s penance, has been repaid, it is time to come home. God’s corrective action placed Israel in a weakened state in which they had no choice but to return to God. So it is, after receiving their penance, time for God to comfort the people in their lowly state. Now is the time for the refugees to return as the redeemed people of God,[1] to a restored Jerusalem.

On the other hand, from a perspective of an ancient Babylonian tradition, highways were seen as great triumphant processional paths for gods and kings to march into Babylonian cities.[2] In this case, one could assume that God left Jerusalem when the city was sacked by Israel’s enemies, and now is the moment of God’s triumphant return. The people have repented and done penance for their sins (40:2), therefore, now is the appropriate time for God to return and restore God’s great nation. And everyone needs to see this moment in history.

Winter TreeAfter being metaphorically shackled into exile and literally beaten down by war, now is the time for the Israelites to, “Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God” (40:9)! In the midst of destruction and feeling abandoned by God, the people are now prepared to shout for joy, for God has returned. They trust in the promise that God will restore the people and the nation to greatness. The prophet proclaims, “Here comes with power, the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care” (40:10-11). God reclaims the people and restores the covenant, offering the people protection and care because they are now open to receiving God.

Similarly, this is the hope and joy we await at the coming of the Incarnation. In the midst of a dark winter or a chaotic blizzard, can we trust and find joy in the promise God offers us in the covenant? Are we prepared to receive this gift and proclaim the good news? We must ask ourselves this Advent, is the highway to our own hearts ready for God to return to us? Has the highway been cleared of the snowfall from the chaotic blizzard that has hit our lives, or do we have some more work to do to clear the path in order for God to enter our hearts?

I recognize that this requires work and effort on our part, but we do not do it alone or in vain because we have faith. We have received God’s grace. We can count on God to fulfill God’s promise in providing us with God’s love and mercy. God offers us God’s hesed—the unselfish, loyal love God always brings to the covenant. The efforts we put into our lives in allowing God to enter our hearts, will build up a Zion in which all peoples will look towards us to radiate God’s love and kindness—God’s hesed. Advent is intended to be a transformative experience for us as Christians. With a new year beginning 31 days before our secular calendar, we make time to reflect upon what we have done and what we plan to do in becoming better witnesses of faith. As children redeemed by God, we have a special place and task of reflecting God’s hesed to the world. Before we rejoice in God’s Incarnation, let us first recall God’s redemption and welcome that grace into our hearts to prepare the highway which leads us to God and God to us.


[1] Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah, The Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 299.
[2] Christopher R. Seitz, The Book of Isaiah, Vo VI, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 335.

More opportunities to celebrate the season of Advent at St. Norbert Abbey »

Reflection for the First Sunday of Advent 2017

By Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7

Find Sunday’s reading here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120317.cfm

Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

In 1972 a study was published by psychologist Walter Mischel which has come today to be known as Stanford University’s Marshmallow Experiment. In this experiment children were placed in a room with a marshmallow in front of them. The children were told that they could eat the marshmallow, but if they waited for the tester to get back, the children could have two marshmallows. As you can imagine the video tapes of these children are quite funny. Children’s responses ranged across the spectrum: some children ate the marshmallow immediately; some children danced in their seat or licked the marshmallow until they would finally succumb to temptation and eat the whole thing; and some children waited the entire period until the tester returned and they received their second marshmallow. What this experiment has attempted to uncover is a link between delayed gratification and success—the longer children could delay gratification the more likely they would be successful in the future.

In watching the video of the Marshmallow Experiment, I couldn’t help but think how impatient we have become as a culture here in the United States. When I want something, I want it now! I’m sure many of us have heard that “patience is a virtue,” that good will come to those who wait. But is patience something we can develop? Is patience really required for a virtuous life? Yes, patience is a virtue, and we need it! Patience allows us to become like God, to share in God’s goodness. Patience gives us self-mastery of our will in our attempt to live the moral life, and thus patience is something we need to work on. God has been patient and continues to be patient with God’s people because God desires a relationship with humanity.

God will patiently wait for us to return to God because God is hungry for a relationship with us, yet we test God. Like the people of Israel we say, “You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage” (Is 63:16-17). The people in Isaiah suggest that either God hasn’t been a good parent in teaching them how to be patient and live in right conduct. Or they are just like children who cannot wait, and want God to come back and fix all of their mistakes. Since God is perfect, I would suggest that it is the later. God gives us the grace of patience, but often we choose not to strengthen the skill, and thus like the children who demonstrate a lack of patience in the marshmallow experiment, we too aren’t very successful later in life if we lack patience. Thankfully, we don’t have to go through life all on our own, relying on our own skill, because we have God, who helps us through the challenges.

MarshmallowsJust like Israel, who is in need of God’s help, we too need help. Israel has experienced the devastation of war and exile: there is no king; the nation is not of great significance commercially or politically; and everything is in ruin.[1] The Israelites have fallen under the control of the Mesopotamians and Cyrus of Persia is now their political ruler. From an ancient Israelite perspective, we can understand Cyrus as God’s instrument who carries out God’s will.[2] God’s plan for the people, which is carried out by Cyrus, is to first lead the Israelites into exile and then restore them back to the Promised Land. However, this restoration doesn’t happen immediately—the people need to be patient, they need self-mastery. Yet they lament, they plead with God, asking God to “rend the heavens and come down” (63:19) and “wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from old” (64:2).

The people have come to recognize the need for God in their lives. They even recognize the need for patience! In their plea with God to “come down,” to be with them, they praise God’s glory, “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him” (64:3). “Those who wait for him,” those who patiently wait for God, are the ones who see the wonders of God. They are seeking to find God and waiting patiently for God’s coming. But this is not a passive event in which they sit on their rumps waiting for God to show up! No, those who wait patiently are preparing for God’s coming, so God “might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways” (64:4)! Like the children in the marshmallow experiment, we have a marshmallow placed before us. The Church has placed before us the sacraments and the Word of God to stare down or “fidget” with. Will we take advantage of this opportunity? Or will we sit idly this Advent? Will we be caught “doing right,” as we prepare for the “second marshmallow,” God’s coming?

… Let us delay gratification, wait patiently, prepare ourselves to receive God’s grace, allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s hands in this season of Advent.

—Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.

During this anxious waiting for God’s coming, the Israelites recognize their own faults: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rages; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt” (64:4-6). The Israelites recognize they have lost control of their lives, and all they do means nothing without God among them. Human actions are weak, but with God’s grace, with God in our hearts and minds, all is made pure when God is with us.

Thus, there is a desire to open ourselves up, to be formed and shaped by God’s hands. As a good parent, we call upon God “our father” to be like a potter and we the clay, to be the work of God’s hands (64:7). And only when we open ourselves up to God’s grace can restoration occur, and we become a community, like Jerusalem, to be a beacon of God’s greatness to the entire world. We begin to offer God praise and give thanks for all God’s mighty works and deeds.

As we continue to anticipate the celebration of God’s coming through the Incarnation of Christ in the season of Christmas, let us not seek instant gratification by celebrating the joy of this revelation prematurely. But let us delay gratification, wait patiently, prepare ourselves to receive God’s grace, allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s hands in this season of Advent. Let us keep our eyes, ears, nostrils, mind, and heart—listening, watching, and waiting for the signs of God working in our lives these next four weeks by taking some extra time for prayer, reading God’s word, and celebrating the sacraments. May we not sit waiting, but as we wait, may we begin the transformation of aligning our lives more closely to God.


[1] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, Vol 25, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Inc., 1984), 79.
[2] Ibid, 68.

More opportunities to celebrate the season of Advent at St. Norbert Abbey »

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