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:

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:

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 »

Episode 004: Intentional Advent

Winter Panorama

“As a first-year novice spending Advent at the abbey, I simply felt calmer than I ever had. I realized that this is what Advent can look like if I’m more intentional.” —Frater Johnathan Turba, O. Praem.

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. This time of year, everything in our culture screams Christmas. But what about Advent—a time of prayer and preparation?

After all, the season of Christmas actually begins on Christmas day, but these wonderful weeks beforehand are meant for us to prepare, intentionally, for the celebration of the Mystery of God Incarnate.

As we look at our lives, how are we preparing for the coming of our Lord? What does prayer and contemplation look like for us during these extraordinarily busy days? Take a few minutes to reflect on the importance of intentional prayer and silence during this sacred season.

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