20 December 2008

A Little Child Shall Lead Us (Penance Service Reflection)

(Part of the following will be familiar to some readers. I reused a story from the beginning of Advent for my parish's Advent Penance Service. It seemed important to share it there as well as here!)

In Advent we rehearse all the promises of God. It is a time of hope for us, and therefore, also a time of repentance as we get in touch with the hope that lives within us, but which we have often betrayed as well. In particular because of tonight’s readings (Isaiah 11:1-10, Luke 10:21-24) it is a time to look at the ways we have bought into false notions of adulthood and rejected our very best and most childlike selves.

The language we hear from Isaiah, the language of promise and hope is ordinarily the language of power and mighty deeds, breaking the bonds of slavery and returning us from exile, coming to us in powerful and unexpected ways with a love which is stronger than all of the other powers which mark and mar our world. But as we prepare for Christmas we especially mark the paradoxical way in which this occurs: namely in the birth of an infant, the coming of a child who, precisely his weakness and powerlessness, his lack of worldly stature or wisdom, is the hope of the world. Now this is not the way things ordinarily work in the “real” world, some tell us. For this reason today’s readings stress the idea of becoming truly childlike.

It is a childlikeness which involves growth in grace and stature --- as we hear about Jesus’ own growth later in the season. This maturity is what Isaiah is referring to when he says the spirit of the Lord will rest upon this child, a Spirit of Wisdom and understanding, Counsel and Strength. It is what Luke refers to when he contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of the child. But we must be clear. In growing in grace and stature Jesus does not relinquish his childlikeness, he allows it to develop even further as he becomes the Son his Father needs him to be living here among us. He lives FOR others in the power of his Father's love. He is a person of character (STATURE), of deep and true humanity. In his dependence upon God he embodies a Sonship , a childlikeness which is a model and challenge to us.

After all, as Luke reminds us, we too are each to become as little children, persons who are wise in the ways of God and loving in the way of Christ so that we too may guide our church and world in the ways of true peace and holiness. But this is actually not an easy thing to achieve sometimes. Our culture often encourages us to let go of and betray our childlikeness which is at the heart of who we really are. It encourages us to grasp at something else --- a worldy wisdom that often passes for growing up, but which has nothing whatever to do with growth in grace and stature Christians expect of themselves. And quite often we buy into this --- literally!!

Let me give you a picture of what this BETRAYAL of the hope and call which lives in us might look like. On one TV series I saw earlier this year 15 year olds embodied the very worst characteristics of what sometime passes for adulthood in our society: unbridled greed, undisciplined affluence, unmitigated self-centeredness, arrogance, and unrestrained consumerism --- (among other things).

In the segment I saw, an adolescent girl was, as the name and subject of the show itself indicates, being given a Sweet sixteen party. The whole shebang cost literally hundreds of thousands of dollars as parents rented a huge venue, limousines, hundreds of guests, etc. In preparing for the party the girl had a designer come in with a selection of clothes to show her. And she RAGED at him: “How DARE you show such clothes to me! Who do you THINK you ARE? WHO DO YOU THINK I AM???? I wouldn’t be caught DEAD in such rags!! Later she went to look at cars. She chose the most expensive agency and car she could find and sat in it posturing for the photographer, looking in the various mirrors, etc: She then exclaims, “I LOOK GOOD in this; if I say I want it, my Mother will buy it for me!”

As far as I can tell, the whole series uses kids like this and models a set of values which distort young people into something hardly recognizable as either childhood OR true adulthood ---- and it is something which is actually repellent, for it is a betrayal of genuine childlikeness and maturity. (For that matter, it doesn’t do much to model genuine parenthood either, does it??)

In particular, the notion that these young people are to be gifts to our world has never even occurred to them. Instead everything is there to serve and gift THEM, and nothing is either sufficient or good enough. They are like adolescent infants sucking hungrily on a bottle marked "SELFISHNESS, GREED, AND INGRATITUDE" and then expecting everyone else to change the diapers they still wear for them and to love doing it.

I am pretty sure the young people on this show are not the kind of young people Isaiah had in mind when he said "a little child marked with the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding, Strength and Counsel will guide us" in the way of peace and freedom. They are certainly not the kind of young persons Luke was speaking of who give hope to our world. Just the opposite in fact. I found this portrait of affluent teenage really sad and discouraging. No growth in grace or stature here! No hope for the world here from a Child who will give herself for others in a life of love and genuine maturity!

But those who ARE the hope of the world do exist, and as we all know, they exist right here in our own parish. While at Mass and giving out Communion a couple of weeks ago, a little girl approached me with her Father. She was too young to receive Communion so I bent down to greet and bless her. As I did, she slipped a small folded square of paper into my hand. . .when I had time to look at it what I found was the name Jesus on the outside and a drawing of this little girl with a big smile on her face and her arms wide offering Jesus a hug. This young girl, without status in our world, and not even old enough to receive Communion yet brought herself to God’s altar as a gift. She has already grown in grace and the kind of stature Luke wants from each of us. On that day at least, she was the embodiment of Christmas and Advent for me. She was the hope of our parish, our church, and our world.

As I said in the beginning, Advent is a time of hope. But it rests on the tension between already and not yet. Christ has come to us already and we will celebrate this at Christmas, but to “come again”, he needs we who are part of his own BODY to truly embody him ourselves. That is, we are to become true daughters and sons of God and everything we are and do is to reflect (on) him.

Tonight we pause on the journey to repent not only of the times when we have failed to hope, but for all those times and ways we have failed to be the signs of hope our families, friends, church, and our world need so badly. We pause to attend to the places of darkness (greed, selfishness, ingratitude, etc) within us as we journey to the feast of Light --- i.e., the times we have truly betrayed and rejected the child within us, the adult child we are truly called to become. We pause to recommit ourselves to the unique growth in grace and stature that Jesus models for us and the world calls foolish and rejects.

To that end I encourage you to let THIS little child in the second story guide you in the ways of Christ. Let her be your model of true adulthood, of what one becomes when there is real maturity. She has certainly been my guide this Advent. Now, in doing this you and I will likely never get to star in a TV program, but we will be gifts to the world and stars in the Kingdom of God --- perhaps the very gifts and stars that are synonymous with hope and which lead others to the place where Jesus is to be found.