Rev. Glen Mullan
Look to the East
December 9, 2018
2nd Sunday of Advent (C) (Bar 5:1-9; Lk 3:1-6)
“Arise, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights and look to the east” (Bar 5:5). As in the days when the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert, so today the task of Advent is to “look east.” John went throughout the region of the Jordan, which is east of Jerusalem, to prepare the people for the Messiah. It was from baptism at his hands that the Messiah came to his people. As mankind looks to the east each day in hope of the rising sun, so mankind must keep its focus on this coming of the Lord.
The idea of “looking to the east” has found its way into the English language via the word “orient.” Orient is a noun meaning “east,” and a verb meaning “to face the right direction.” To look to the east means to the correctly orient yourself, to the Lord. When our lives begin to face a direction that does not lead to God, we become “disoriented,” without spiritual bearings, lost. Catholics must never be disoriented, we must always face east, disposing our lives for the coming of God.
Throughout her history the Church has symbolically kept this tradition of facing east by building her churches along an east-west axis. Simply by entering a Catholic Church and facing the altar one is made to “face east.” The glory of the rising sun is particularly dramatic in these churches around the time of the spring equinox – around Easter – when the eastern sun floods the church intensely. With the upheaval of the 1960s, most churches are no longer built with Advent symbolism of facing east, and priests no longer celebrate Mass “ad orientem,” that is, facing east together with the people. Instead of looking to God and his coming, we now look to ourselves. It has been a very disorienting time for the Church, and we need to recover the traditional practices with their scriptural symbolism.
Thank God our parish church was built before this time, and is correctly oriented! How beautiful it is when we approach the altar at Holy Communion to receive the Lord in the Eucharist, that he literally comes to us “from the east.”
There is one other time we also “face east” as Catholics, and that is when we are buried. Tombs in the cemetery are aligned on the east-west axis, with the headstone on the western side. Thus, if the corpse were to rise up, it would be facing the east. This is what it means to die and be buried “in the hope of resurrection.” For indeed the corpse will rise up from that place on the last day, and it will be “from the east” that the Son of Man will come in his glory.
At Mass and in the tomb, we look to the east. In life and in death, we orient our lives toward God. This is the task of Advent: to make sure our lives are correctly ordered, that we are not disoriented; that we are firmly grounded in faith, firmly active in love, and firmly facing in hope the only road that leads to heaven.
With regard to this road, the prophets give us the second important spiritual task of Advent: “prepare the way of the Lord.” We often speak of “the road that leads to heaven,” and Jesus himself speaks in this way when he describes the difficult path that few find. But it is more accurate to understand this road that leads to heaven as “the path by which God comes to us.” Our task, with God’s help, is to remove the obstacles to His coming.
If you go to Jerusalem and look east, toward the region of the Jordan where John was baptizing, you will see that it is a desert wilderness, and it is very rough, mountainous terrain. The difficult road coming up to Jerusalem from Jericho and the Jordan, travelled so often by pilgrims, is made famous in the Bible by Psalm 23, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the great prophets of Advent. Filled with mountains, valleys and canyons, and rough winding paths, it symbolizes the tortuous path to the human heart that God must follow in order to enter our lives.
If we long for God’s coming, we must: “Prepare in the desert a highway for our God” (Is 40:3). “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth” (Lk 5:3, Is 40:4, cf. Bar 5:7).
During Advent we must examine that obstacles that prevent us from enjoying God’s peace. Though they may seem to be immovable mountains, with faith even mountains can be moved.
We must examine the valleys that cause us to experience darkness and sadness, the situations that take away joy. We must evaluate the crooked sinful paths, the spiritual detours we so easily take, and whatever situations take away the zeal by which we should move directly and persistently in the one direction of heaven. And we must evaluate the rough paths, whatever situations cause us not be gentle and kind in our dealing with others.
John preached a baptism of repentance. In no uncertain terms, he challenged people to repent and undertake the great work of reforming their lives for the Messiah. 2000 years later the challenge remains the same.
God on His part spares no effort in order to come to us. The problem exists with the terrain of our hearts. Therefore, during this Advent, let us “look to the east,” and “prepare the way of the Lord!”
Rev. Glen Mullan
The Day that Assaults
December 2, 2018
1st Sunday of Advent (C) (Lk 21:25-36)
On the first Sunday of Advent the Gospel continues the eschatological theme of the past weeks: the coming of the Lord in the end times. Jesus speaks of the great upheaval and turmoil that will characterize these times, and urges his followers to “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
In the end times, which begin with his Resurrection, God undertakes a remaking of the world in order to bring forth a new heavens and earth. The old passes away. It is a time of tremendous upheaval, affecting the cosmos itself (“there will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars… the sea and the waves”), and involving the history of nations (“on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed…”), to the point that “people will die of fright.” Through this imagery, Jesus alludes to the great battle which takes place in the end times between the Son of Man and his heavenly Hosts led by St. Michael, and the Powers, Principalities, and legions of the celestial hierarchy in league with the devil (cf. Rv 12). God governs both the natural cosmos and the world of human history providentially, through the ministry of all these angels. Thus the renewal of the world and expulsion of the evil forces will be manifested by profound turmoil on both these levels.
A study of the Church’s history, with the great persecutions and wars over the centuries, gives quick evidence of supernatural forces at work. How else explain, for instance, the hatred of Nero for Christians, the hatred of the French Revolution for Christianity, the hatred of Hitler for Judeo-Christianity, or that of Communism for religion?
In addition, and perhaps even more importantly, this upheaval will occur on the personal level of each Christian’s life. It is an amazing truth that the greatest part of the of the visible universe is not the grand cosmos, or even the vast scope of history, but man himself, the individual human soul. Man is the high point of creation, the “Sixth Day” culmination of all God’s work. The divine work of restoring man in the new creation will entail for each Christian a personal battle and struggle that will be perplexing, dismaying, and difficult. “That day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth.”
But understanding what is taking place through the upheavals, the Christian is prepared for that day, and when the trial comes upon him, he does not “die of fright,” but is able to stand erect, raising his head on high in joy and peace, confident in the strength of the Resurrection. Jesus urges his followers to prepare constantly for the spiritual battle through vigilant prayer, seeking him who “comes in a cloud with power and great glory.” In other words, through prayer keeping our hearts and lives focused on the mystery of his Resurrection and Ascension, where the Old has already been renovated in the New. Jesus urges us to “pray that you have strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent,” something we do for instance every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “lead us not into temptation”; i.e., “subject us not to the trial.”
Calamity can come upon people on the personal level via the cosmos (a natural disaster for instance); via history (a war or persecution); via personal circumstances (a failed marriage or other falling out); via illness or sudden loss of a loved one; or in many other ways. All of a sudden, one’s life is turned upside down, there is great loss and profound disorientation. The saints show us how faith in Christ becomes a sure anchor during such times.
Some examples of this include the great martyrs of the early Church, such as Perpetua and Felicity, who entered the arena in such calm and strength people were amazed. They had been fortified in prison with visions of Christ in power and great heavenly glory. Other examples include the great martyrs of the modern Church, such as Maximilian Kolbe, who likewise stood erect and lifted his head in the horror of Auschwitz death camp, an unbelievable hell on earth. Other examples likely include people we know, whose lives were marked by great sufferings and trials, yet whose spirits were pure and filled with the peace of God.
Advent is a time when we remember “a woman, about to give birth” (Rv 12:1,5) and prepare for Christmas in Bethlehem. During Advent, in a few days, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the great feast in honor of that Woman about to give birth, “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rv 12:1). Revelation describes the great cosmic battle unleashed by Christmas (Rv 12:7-17).
During Advent, let us lift up our heads and stand erect with the saints, who encourage and show us the way. Let us not dissipate our time through useless “carousing and drunkenness,” – escapism – but rather be sober and disciplined in prayer, seriously spiritual, for the trials and upheavals in life. These are not occasions for dismay, but portend the coming of the Lord.