By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Fourth Candle

Drivers in Edmonton have to navigate regularly what we call “traffic circles”, or what other jurisdictions may label “rotaries” or “roundabouts”. My personal name for them is purgatory. In the years I was growing up in Halifax, rules for navigating the “rotaries” required drivers already in the circle to alternate with those entering; they had to yield to one another. Not so in Edmonton. Drivers in the circle have the right of way, meaning that those wishing to enter must yield until they have an opportunity. This latter method seems to work better, I must say, but until I learned it old habits would kick in, and I thus caused many a driver to slam on the brakes and lean on the horn as I drove in front of them smiling and blessing.

As the fourth candle was lit on our Advent wreaths, the Sunday Gospel reading proclaimed at mass (Matthew 1:18-24) was about yielding to the one with the right of way. Rather, to the One. It recounts the resolution of St. Joseph to travel along a certain path. He has learned that his betrothed, Mary, is expecting a child and he knows he is not the father. Without understanding the circumstances of her pregnancy, he resolves to divorce her according to the Mosaic law and custom of the time.Yet his resolution comes up against another, that of God himself. From of old, God had resolved to save humanity by the gift of his Son, who was to be conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. When this plan was made known to Joseph by an angel speaking to him in a dream, Joseph knew that he had to yield his resolution to that of God. God always has the right of way. In faith and obedience, Joseph took Mary into his home in accordance with the resolution of God.

Our life with God is not one of alternating interests, whereby we sometimes follow his way and at other times our own. No. Our plans and resolutions must always yield the right of way to God. In this final week of preparation for Christmas, let us consider: the plan of God for the world is on full display in the birth, life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Having faith in him means giving Jesus the right of way in all things. It therefore also means letting go of any plans, determinations and resolutions that move in directions other than the one he establishes for our lives. 

May God’s grace of love and mercy, poured out anew as the Church celebrates the Nativity of the Lord, enable us to yield, with faith and joy, to the divine resolution to save us.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Third Candle

Joy. That is what is represented by the third candle, with its distinctive rose colour. The other purple candles recall the penitential aspect of the Advent season; as we wait for the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise to return, we ready ourselves by repentance of heart and conversion of life. The rose colour of the third candle is an invitation to rejoice as we call to mind that the Lord whom we await is with us now, very near, in the power of his love. Because the Lord is near, we rejoice!

So, where’s the joy? It doesn’t seem to come easily. Many hearts are burdened instead by fear and anxiety. What moves us from angst to joy? When we recall the Scripture passages from the Third Sunday of Advent, we see that it is a matter of how we deal with the answer to a question.

Consider the Gospel passage (Matthew 11:2-11). John the Baptist poses the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The question is prompted by what he has been hearing about Jesus. He knew that miracles of healing the blind, deaf and lame were the very signs foretold by the prophet Isaiah as indicating the presence of the long-awaited Messiah, or Christ. Since Jesus was doing these very things, John asks if the time of waiting is over, if the moment of the fulfilment of all God’s promises has arrived. Jesus answers in the affirmative. He is, indeed, the awaited One. But then Jesus goes on with the mysterious: “and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

Offence? How could we possibly take offence at Jesus? Quite easily, in fact. Witness the crucifixion. To accept Jesus as the long-awaited Saviour is to allow him to change our lives radically. To that, we might quickly say, “Not so fast,” and refuse to accept his answer to John’s question. Especially in our day with its exaltation, and near worship, of the autonomous Self, any idea that another be Lord over my life is cause for deep offence. Yet, do we really want to continue as we are? Life apart from Jesus and his love is no picnic.

Let’s think again about those signs pointing to the presence of the Lord: the desert blooms, the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear (Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10). This means that, apart from him, we have persistent desert, lameness, blindness and deafness. As with most biblical images, these point to the state of the soul. There is today a vast interior wilderness of spirit, evidenced by hopelessness and lack of meaning; many are crippled by fear or addiction, blinded by moral confusion or deaf to the cry of the poor. This is no way to live. The way we move from desolation to joy is to accept that answer Jesus gave to John and to allow it to take deep root in our heart and change our lives. Only then will any inner aridity blossom in hope; only then shall we walk in true freedom, see clearly the truth of things, and respond sensitively to the cries of any around us who are suffering. Only then, in other words, shall we know true and lasting joy.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Second Candle

How is the preparation going?

The progressive lighting of the Advent wreath candles signals the call to a progressively deep preparation for the celebration of Christmas. We are obviously not talking about the frenetic and superficial secular preparations that leave us exhausted on Christmas Day, almost glad that it’s over. Rather, of concern in Advent is the preparation necessary to welcome Christ more deeply into our hearts.

This preparation, fully embraced, issues in a celebration of Christmas marked by profound peace and real hope.

Key to the preparation is the experience highlighted by the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent: repentance (cf. Matthew 3:1-12). We heard John the Baptist cry out to all who would listen: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We prepare for God to rule in our lives by repenting. What does this mean?

The word is familiar to us. We hear it all the time, especially in the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent. Do we understand it? My guess is that we often think of it in terms of sorrow for sins committed and a determination not to repeat the offences. Well, yes, that  is certainly part of it, but the term “repentance” means much more. Far more. At its heart, the biblical call to repentance is the summons to radical conversion. I use the word “radical” deliberately. It comes from the Latin word “radix”, meaning “root”. So to repent is to allow oneself to be thoroughly “uprooted”, that is to say, entirely changed. It means a complete re-alignment of one’s life, a thoroughgoing re-direction away from anything and everything that is contrary to living in the love of God and keeping his commandments. We are obviously a great distance from preoccupation with Christmas lights!

Did you notice I said “allow oneself” to be changed? This is important. True repentance is not something we are able to pull off by ourselves. It comes about as a response to the love of Christ and with the help of his grace. Consider the rather frightening image used by St. John the Baptist. He speaks of the “axe lying at the root of the trees” so as to cut down and throw into fire any tree that does not produce fruit. He is speaking in very dramatic fashion of the action of God himself. God wants to get at “the roots” of our lives. He wants to sever us from the roots we so often put down into the soil of self-reliance, in order to re-root us in his own Son, Jesus. His “axe” is mercy. He offers “radical” forgiveness, a healing at our very roots, and thus enables us to start again, indeed, to live again.

The second candle has been lit. Time is passing. Let’s not waste it in the superficial but go to the very root of things. Let’s seriously prepare for Christmas by asking God to lead us by his Word and his mercy to a radical conversion of our minds, our hearts, and our actions.