I saw a cartoon a few years back, that in a few frames described the following: Outdoors, under a tree, sat a holy man, praying. He was thin from fasting, and appeared weak. He had legs crossed, palms of his hands up, and eyes closed as he prayed.
Along the road came a warrior; appearing strong and muscular, and carrying a large sword. The warrior looked at the holy man and despised him, saying; you are weak, I am strong, and with one swipe of my sword, I can cut down that large branch that is giving you shade. The holy man goes on praying, seeming to not even notice the warrior. So in anger the warrior takes his sword, and with one mighty blow, cuts down a large branch from the tree. It falls next to the holy man, who looks up and says to the warrior; “If you are so strong, can you put it back?”
True strength does not destroy and cut down, it restores and builds up. This is the message of Advent, and this is the image given to us in the first readings from the prophets during the Sundays of Advent; The prophets speak to the people who have been exiled to Babylon, encouraging them not to lose hope, not to despair, and to remember that God is strong, God will restore them, God will overcome the blow delivered to them and the destruction of their home, God will rebuild Jerusalem and bring them home. However, we know from history, that the exile in Babylon was over 400 years! God’s ways are strong, but sometimes God’s restoration takes much time. During the wait, it is easy to lose hope, to begin to despair and to think as the world thinks, that God’s ways are weak, so we are tempted to abandon them.
This is the message for advent; hope. God is restoring. God is building up. God is stronger than destruction, sin, death and evil, and only His ways will truly restore us and bring us back home to the peace we long for. That is a message we need to hear, especially in our world today, with a rise in terrorism, and the mass shootings in Paris, Nigeria, San Bernardino and other places. Additionally, as we look about our society at the many evils; crime, addiction, injustices, poverty, disease, pollution, etc. As we look at the broken relationships in our lives, in our families, in our communities, it is easy to begin to lose hope. It is easy to wonder if God really is weak, and if evil is indeed more powerful than good. The message of Advent is; God’s kingdom is coming, renew your Faith, Hope, and Love, these are the ways to bring about that kingdom. Like the cartoon of the holy man and the warrior, what appears to humans as weakness is strength, but God’s restoration takes time. Let us have Hope, for God’s kingdom is coming, and God’s kingdom, although not yet fully here, is already in our midst, and growing.
We are given a power image of this kingdom coming, and how God restores in the Easter Vigil. Into a dark Church, comes the Paschal Candle, the one light of the world, representing the Risen Christ. That light is processed forward, then a member of the congregation lights their small candle, or taper, and shares that light with another, and another, and each of us lights our light until the whole sanctuary is lit by the light of the Christian people shinning with the Light of Christ. That is how God is restoring the world through the Church. Christ, true God and True Man, came into the world 2,000 years ago. He was faithful to God’s ways; which appeared to the world as weakness. He came in the midst of darkness, or a sinful world, and lived without sin. He was insulted and returned no insult. He was met with violence, but returned no violence. He was shown hate and rejection, but only forgave. He loved us till the very end, and always remained faithful to God’s ways. Finally, at his death, when it appeared to the world that evil had triumphed and was therefore more powerful than Good, three days later He rose from the dead, establishing forever the Victory of Good over Evil, and of divine life over sin and death. As triumphant as the Resurrection is, that is not the end, but only the beginning of the story. The Risen Jesus then breathed his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, on his disciples, and they went out and preached and baptized and proclaimed the coming of the kingdom, and His light spread. The church grew, by their preaching and by their witness. The witness continued especially with the early martyrs who continued to live as Christ did, opposing sin and the ways of the world, being faithful to God, even to the point of death. The church continued to grow until in the year 312AD, the Roman Empire proclaimed Christianity as the official religion! At the time of Jesus, it was hoped that he would be the warrior messiah, and establish the kingdom by overthrowing the Roman Empire. He was considered a failure by many, because He did not do that. But we can see, that this is indeed what God accomplished! It was accomplished however, not through violence and the ways the world sees as strength, but by God’s true strength, being faithful to God’s ways no matter how it looks to human eyes. It was not accomplished quickly, like we so often want immediate solutions, but in God’s time, in 312 years!
Today in our world, in this time of Advent, we are encouraged to trust in God’s power. God’s ways can overcome the many social evils, we experience today. We must respond to terrorism and violence with Love, and non-violence. We must not despair and live in the bondage of fear, but we must trust in God and live in the freedom of Faith, Hope and Love. We must not let greed, the pursuit of our self-interest, and even desire for security, to prevent us from the higher good of trusting in God and being generous with others, sharing our material wealth, our time, and making room for the immigrant, refugee, poor and outcast in our midst. The Advent readings remind us that Good has already won the battle over evil, and that Good is growing in our dark world, like the light of the paschal candle at the Easter Vigil. That is why, after all, we celebrate Christmas at the winter solstice, the time of the longest night, when the world is the darkest. Because beginning from Christmas time, the coming of Christ the Light into our darkness, the world becomes brighter each day, little by little, until the light has fully overcome the darkness, and Christ comes in fullness of power at the end of time.
The early martyrs were lights that inspired others to trust in God. On December 5th, our Conventual Franciscan Family proudly celebrated the Beatification of Friars Michal Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzalkowski. These friars were sent as missionaries, from Poland, to Peru. They were sent to be signs of hope to a poor, and oppressed people in a small village in the mountains of Peru. In 1991, they were martyred by rebels who were trying to rouse the local people to take up arms and rebel against their government. They were martyred because they refused to take up the ways of violence, and what appears to the world to be strength, and they were faithful to God’s ways, which is true strength. They were martyred because they were bright lights, and an inspiration to the people among whom they lived. The rebels felt that their light must be extinguished before they could influence the people to take up arms, and follow the world’s ways. (Read more about these Friars and their work in Peru in a moving testimony written about them by one of their Franciscan Brothers who lived with them at http://www.pastoralcentre.pl/franciscan-martyrs-michal-tomaszek-zbigniew-strzalkowski/).
Today, all Franciscans, martyrs or not, strive to be signs of Hope among those we serve. We may not actually be martyred, but our vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are themselves like a martyrdom, as we give up all the ways the world considers strong and valuable, and lay down our lives to be signs of Hope for others. We live together the Gospel, in this difficult world. We go out and preach and teach and do works of Mercy. Than when we ourselves begin to lose hope and our light seems to be growing dim, we come back together as brothers, and pray and rest, and reflect. We encourage one another to continue to trust in the Gospel, in the power of God, and together we turn back to the Lord to be refreshed, and then again go out to be a sign of Hope for others. As you reflect on the life of our Lord Jesus, and his first disciples, you will find them doing just the same! St. Francis took his inspiration from the life of Jesus and the disciples that we find in the Gospel. You can even say that the rule for our Franciscan Life is the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ! In LK 9:1-10 we find a good summary of the Franciscan Life; the disciples are sent, taking nothing for the journey, bringing good news to the world. Then they come back and rest in the Lord, and in fraternity. Would you dare live as Jesus and the early disciples did? Would you consider joining us and becoming a Franciscan? Contact Fr. Paul at Californiavocation@gmail.com to talk more about following Christ, the light of the World, as a Franciscan Priest or Brother!