LGBT Christmas in Ireland: “We Are All the Same in God”

At Dublin, Ireland’s 18th Annual LGBT Christmas Carol Service , the guest speaker was Ursula Halligan, Political Editor with TV3. Ms. Halligan, a Catholic,  came out publicly as a lesbian a few days before Ireland’s successful marriage equality referendum last year.  In the op-ed essay where she came out, she made the following observation about voting for marriage equality:

“As a person of faith and a Catholic, I believe a Yes vote is the most Christian thing to do. I believe the glory of God is the human being fully alive and that this includes people who are gay.”

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Ursula Halligan and Brian Glennon before the Advent Service

Halligan further spoke about her life, faith and sexuality on Ireland’s Anton Savage radio program.

The LGBT Christmas Carol Service is sponsored by a coalition of  Irish LGBT equality and church reform groups: BeLonGChanging Attitude Ireland; Dublin Gay Men’s Chorus; LGBT Helpline; LOOKGay & Lesbian Equality Network;  All Are Welcome Catholic MassOWLSUnitarian Church, DublinWe Are Church Ireland.  

The service was held at Unitarian Church, Stephen’s Green, Dublin, on December 10, 2016.  The prayers were led by Brian Glennon, who originated the Carol service for the LGBT community 18 years ago.

The following is the text of Ms. Hallgian’s reflection at the prayer service:

Thank you Brian. My goodness you are in fine voice tonight!  Now, I know it’s Christmas. And what do we do at Christmas?
We go home.
And that’s why I’m here with you tonight. I wanted to be at home with my family at Christmas time. I wanted to say a big thank you to the LGBT community for the love and support you’ve showered on me since I wrote my piece in the Irish Times.

Up until May 2015 I never knew I had such a wonderful family. (I certainly never knew they had such beautiful singing voices!) And for you and me, it’s all been about voice; hasn’t it?
You and me; we’ve shared a common journey.
We had to find our voice.
We had to find our inner truth.
We had to find the courage to speak it.
To throw away the masks.
To be real.
To be true to our selves.

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Ursula Halligan

It took me a long time to find my voice but I am so glad I did.
Because as Martin Luther King said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”  We shrivel up as human beings if we don’t speak our truth; if we don’t
speak from our conscience. And for me, as a person of faith, conscience is the voice of God that echoes in the depths of each one of us.  Our truth comes from the God within us; not from any institution. 

And if God doesn’t have a problem with us, why should anyone else?

Last year the people of Ireland threw their arms around us and set us free to be equal citizens with everyone else.  It was a magnificent act of love. 
And it is all about love.
We come from love. We are love. We go back to love.
God is love.

It was love that first prompted me to speak up because I believed our love is as good as anyone else’s love. Love is love.  There is no inequality in love. And that’s why it saddens me that the church I belong to and love has yet to accept us the way the Irish people have.

It is important for our flourishing as human beings that we have a vibrant faith community that welcomes and loves us; a place where we can be ourselves without fear or constraint. A place where we are affirmed; where we’re told we’re ok. We need to hear the good news of the Gospel in a place that totally respects us for who we are, exactly as we are. We need to look after one another.

Over the years, thanks to the Unitarian Church here on Stephens Green; to you Reverend Spain and to wonderful Catholics such as Brian Glennon and others, the LGBT community has been trying to grow its own faith community to meet that need. You have kept the candle burning in the darkness.

But I have a dream that one day all the churches will fling open their doors to their LGBT brothers and sisters. That a blaze of warmth and love will welcome us home. That we will be granted equality in marriage and treated the same in every respect with others in the church. That we will be accepted and loved in our wholeness as human beings. That anything that divides the people of God, even labels like “Gay” and “Straight” will be replaced by brother and sister.

Because we are all one.
Just like our love.
We are all the same in God.

 

A Woman of Courage Brings Emmanuel, “God With Us”

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 is featuring lectionary Scriptural reflections by LGBTQ theologians and pastoral ministers studying at Boston College.  The liturgical readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 7:1-014; Psalm 24:1-6; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-24.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

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Elizabeth Sextro

Today’s reflection is from Elizabeth Sextro, a master’s student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

“We are told of meek obedience. No one mentions / courage.”                -Denise Levertov, Annunciation

Deuteronomy states that if a woman in ancient Israel were to become pregnant out of wedlock, “the men of her town [should] stone her to death” (22:21). In the reading from Matthew’s gospel today, Mary’s community would likely assume that she had sex and became pregnant by another man, after already being betrothed to Joseph. Joseph is portrayed by Matthew as being a righteous man since he decided he would “divorce [Mary] quietly,” instead of exposing her as an adulterer.

We hear, however, very little about the woman in the story: no one speaks to Mary directly, no one asks her what happened, and certainly no one in her community would offer their support to her. Perhaps our reflection today could be to uplift the voice of the scared, confused, and ostracized thirteen-year-old girl who is told that she is to bear a son.

Approaching conversations about Mary tends to make me nervous. Historically, as Elizabeth Johnson reveals in her book Truly Our Sister, theologians and scholars have tended to strip Mary of her very humanity by turning her into a symbol. She is idealized as the “handmaid,” the virgin, the quintessential mother, and the ultimate model of femininity.[1] Johnson’s project is to retrieve the person of Mary: the human being, just like you and me!

Our Gospel reading, however, does not reveal much about her. We know, of course, that Mary was Jesus’ mother. But before she was ever a mother, she was just a girl: a Jewish girl from Galilee, living in the village of Nazareth. Although Johnson gives us a much more complete picture of her historical life, I am fascinated by Mary’s incredible courage. To borrow from Denise Levertov, nobody ever talks about the fact that getting pregnant could have had her killed. We talk about a virgin, so meek and mild, but what of her courage?

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Ernest Kotkov, “Virgin Mary with the Infant”

So the story goes: an angel appeared to this young girl and asked her to be the one to bear the “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us,” a very fitting wordplay since God would quite literally be within Mary. But we would be remiss to think of God becoming human without a price. Mary’s fiat, Mary’s “yes,” most likely turned her into a social pariah. Why would she agree to that?

I don’t want to idealize Mary for saying “yes”: I am with Johnson in that it is more theologically helpful to view her as our “sister.” Rather, I hope to say that Mary as an embodied woman experienced fear like the rest of us and responded to that fear with courage. God sometimes asks us to do things that are unpopular, that make us outcasts, that could figuratively stone us to death. Standing in solidarity with marginalized communities of people is a one-way ticket to being outcast, but isn’t this exactly what Jesus was all about? Jesus deeply loved and connected with the poor, the women, the lepers, the blind, the common people who had no power in society.

Mary sacrificed her social capital in order to bring God to us. God is “with us” as a human only because of Mary’s incredible courage. We need not idealize this courage or see it as unattainable. Rather, we have the opportunity to emulate it.

At a time in the United States when people of color, Muslims, women, people with disabilities, the poor, undocumented immigrants, and people of the LGBTQIA community are being specifically targeted, it is essential that we find the courage to speak out against injustice. Just as Mary’s courage brought God into the world, so too can our courage bring about change in unjust social systems. It is not so outlandish to suggest that we, too, are called to bring God into our social structures, which are often violent. Like Mary, we too are called to bring God into the world.

–Elizabeth Sextro, December 18, 2016

[1] Johnson, Elizabeth, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003), 22-36

Might This Be Joy: LGBTQ People’s Witness to Audacious Love

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 is featuring lectionary Scriptural reflections by LGBTQ theologians and pastoral ministers studying at Boston College.  The liturgical readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 35:1-6A, 10; Psalm 146:6-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

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Alfred Pang

Today’s reflection is from Alfred Pang, a doctoral student in theology and education at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. To read Alfred’s previous posts on Bondings 2.0, click here.

I struggled to write this reflection. The central focus of Gaudete Sunday, this Third Sunday of Advent, is the joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth, but how to write convincingly about joy when it eludes me as I wrestle as a single, gay Catholic away from home with the pain of loneliness?

The long stretches of night and blistering winter cold now encroaching have only deepened my sense of isolation. Doctoral study is terribly long, and all that mental digging has left me craving for companionship. In these days of political anxiety that have left so many bruised, I am muted by and aghast at the bleakness of violence and division consuming our world. In such wearying circumstances when stupefied hearts do not feel free to rejoice, how do I–and how do we as people of faith– properly celebrate Gaudete Sunday?

At least, by God’s grace, there is something in today’s Gospel that could still speak to me. It is a small textual detail: John the Baptist is in prison. Despite being in prison, he hears of the works of Christ and sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Even imprisonment does not deter John from being prayerfully alive to the signs of life he senses in Jesus Christ.

It strikes me that part of being prayerfully alive means engaging our capacity for amazement. If this is so, John exemplifies a posture that challenges us this Gaudete Sunday: in the prisons that we find ourselves – of discouragement, despair, and depression – how might we remain attentive to and discerning of the signs of the times that herald God’s liberating love? How are we invited this Advent to pause and make room for radical amazement at God’s divine life, which is always at work in spite of and through the fragility of human love that can disappoint and has failed?

As the Gospel reminds us, Jesus must be the source of amazement that is reflected in Christian witness. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” What is proclaimed here is that in and through the Incarnation, God will and has come as audacious love that transgresses, subverts and heals.

thevisitationYet, Jesus who reveals God’s sovereignty does something else in this passage: he lifts up the witness of John the Baptist as “more than a prophet,” as the “messenger” that Isaiah prophesied. This mutual confirmation and affirmation between John and Jesus echoes the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1:39-45. John, as a baby in Elizabeth’s womb, leaps for joy upon the greeting of Mary who bears the good news, Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. Echoing this encounter, joy is the subtext in today’s Gospel.

In these dramas of mutual recognition, I find consolation: that in the midst of my darkness that renders me invisible to myself, God sees and understands. There is also profound strength felt in knowing that God sees our giftedness as LGBTQ persons and calls us out to be fruitful witnesses of an audacious love as siblings, friends, lovers and neighbors. Might this be joy? Is joy the fruit of being fully alive in God who takes delights in us as beloved children, standing with and living within us?

I suspect the joy that we anticipate in Christmas is not based on our own striving to make room for Jesus at all. Rather, it is the joy that comes when we make room for amazement to see that God has chosen to meet us down below in the shoddiness and messiness of the manger. As theologian Karl Barth preached in a Christmas homily to prisoners:

“Down there Jesus Christ sets up his quarters. Even better, he has already done so! Yes, praise be to God for this dark place, for this manger, for this stable in our lives! There we need him, and there he can use each one of us … There he only waits that we see him, recognize him, believe in him, and love him.”[1]

God is nearer to us than we imagine, and for this we can rejoice. Should not we then rejoice?

Still, I find joy ungraspable. Maybe this absence allows me to clear a space in my heart to be attentive and amazed once again so that joy can then grasp me. I stare at the trees shedding their leaves. They stand barren in the blasting cold of winter. Yet, in the crisp sharp air, I stand amazed at the sturdiness of these trees. They do not shiver, but speak back to me the words of Isaiah – “Be strong, fear not!” They remain firm, deepening their roots. I wonder at life on the underside, beneath the ground and in the soil.

This, I suggest, is the call of Advent: to be astonished at and delight in the small signs of life found at the most unexpected places in the bleakness of time. Where there is life, there is God – with the possibility and reality of indefatigable joy, still elusive, but ever graced.

[1] Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, trans. Marguerite Wieser (New York: Harper and Row, 1961), 142.

Alfred Pang, December 11, 2016

To read the Advent reflection for the First Sunday, click here, and for the Second Sunday, click here. For all of Bondings 2.0‘s Advent reflections from past years, click here.

In Advent Lessons, Bishops Reflect on Waiting, Flesh, and Facts

Advent is frequently a time for bishops to release pastoral letters and other documents to offer their reflections. This year, two such documents reflect the style and substance of Pope Francis in his efforts for a more merciful and inclusive church.

wpid-listening-is-an-act-of-love_20130529115704168Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, released a pastoral letter entitled The Flesh and the Facts. In its first words, the letter cites both the Year of Mercy and Pope Francis, saying “we don’t now set mercy aside” simply because the Jubilee year has concluded. Coleridge wrote:

“In Genesis we’re told that God saw what he had made and found it very good (1:31). Christmas says that God saw what he had made and, seeing its goodness disfigured, decided to become part of his own creation to restore it to the glory he intended from the beginning. The God who takes flesh deals not in abstractions but in facts. Likewise the Church that worships the mystery of the Word-made-flesh needs to deal with facts. That’s where mercy starts.

“At times what we believe and teach can seem too abstract. That’s the sense I had listening to certain voices at last year’s Synod on marriage and the family in Rome. What I heard at times was logical, perhaps even beautiful in a way, but it didn’t put down roots in the soil of human experience, and it would have been incomprehensible to most people outside the Synod Hall.”

Coleridge, a participant in the Synod on the Family from where he made several LGBT-positive remarks, noted in his letter the challenges of communicating faith in today’s culture. He called Advent a “special time for listening” in which new ways of engagement could be found. Describing the church as a teacher, the archbishop said church leaders must “find new words or images, a new language” to help people understand their teachings. He continued:

“Part of this new engagement will be a reconsideration of Church structures and strategies, which can be based upon the facts of other times. They may have been brilliantly successful once upon a time when things were different. But they are not what’s required now in a situation where the facts have changed.”

Addressing marriage and family specifically, Coleridge said there was a divide between the hierarchy’s and society’s understandings of these concepts. But this is not grounds for the church to write off the world, an approach which is “not the Catholic way” because:

“We are a Church who, because we take the Incarnation seriously, take culture seriously and seek to engage it as creatively as we can. This means we have to be in touch with reality rather than inhabiting some abstract world which can produce what the Holy Father has called ‘dry and lifeless doctrine’ (Amoris Laetitia, 59) and ‘a cold, bureaucratic morality'(Amoris Laetitia, 312).

Being pastoral means getting “in touch with the facts of human experience,” Coleridge explained. According to the archbishop, this does not mean changing church teaching, but it also should not be a one-way mode of engagement by church leaders. Instead, he advocated a more holistic approach:

“It means that we, like God, abandon the world of abstraction to engage the real lives of real people . . .This will mean a new kind of listening to the truth of people’s experience. From a new listening will come a new language that people can understand because it’s in touch with their lives. That’s what it means to be a truly pastoral Church.”

On the other side of the world, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, whose call two years for the church to bless same-gender relationships was positively received by many Catholics, released a brief Advent letter,  reflecting on the words, “I have been waiting for you!” In one section, he wrote:

“We do not say [“I have been waiting for you!”] to each other when there is no friendship or love involved. It makes us recognise friends and loved ones: they wait for each other, they consider the other’s  presence, they become impatient or distrustful when the other does not show up, the absence of the other at an appointment hurts. When friendship or love cools, waiting for each other disappears. Appointments become more business-like. Waiting becomes less personal and less emotional. Do you want to know who your friends are or who loves you? This question is the test. Who would say to me now, ‘I have been waiting for you!’?”

What do I read in these letters which make them worthwhile for LGBT Catholics, their families, and advocates?

First, Archbishop Coleridge’s call for Advent as a “special time of listening” which can lead to shifts in Catholic leader’s language and church structures, is the favored mode of Pope Francis. This method is the dialogue for which Vatican II yearned, and it is the primary way forward on LGBT equality in the church. Listening in authentic encounters opens people to one another’s realities, and it can overcome the hardness of church leaders who speak abstractly, and therefore harshly at times, about sexual and gender diverse people. While Archbishop Coleridge has, for instance, condemned marriage equality in the past, what is more important is his firm understanding that the church must exhibit mercy and practice reconciliation.

Second, Bishop Bonny’s reflection on waiting–both how we wait for one another as human beings and how God waits for us–is applicable to issues of gender and sexuality in the church. Waiting signifies love and concern, the love that LGBT Catholics and their families have exhibited by waiting for church leaders to catch up on contemporary knowledge and be more faithful to the Gospel by being more inclusive. But waiting is not forever, and impatience and distrust can develop when someone does not show up or when their failure to be present causes hurt. How long can Catholic leaders expect their siblings in Christ to wait around for dialogue and for inclusion, especially when harm is actively done?

I close with words from Claretian Fr. John Molyneux, the editor-in-chief of U.S. Catholic, who in his own Advent reflection:

“What a way to begin Advent: announcing the truth that Jesus has come for all people.  James Joyce famously described the church as ‘Here Comes Everybody.’  And yet recent events have brought to light divisions within our country, our church, our families, and across the world.  Words like ‘nationalism’ and ‘tribalism’ are being bandied about.

“Perhaps this Advent we can reflect on what each of us is called to as a member of this catholic (small c) church.  Am I a Catholic who longs to be more catholic?  When I sing, ‘All Are Welcome!’ do I mean it?”

If you would like to read more spiritual reflections, I would point out Bondings 2.0’s reflection series on the Sunday Mass readings each week, which this year comes from LGBT theologians and pastoral workers studying at Boston College. You can find the reflections here.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 3, 2016

Let No One Be Left in the Field

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by LGBTQ theologians and pastoral ministers studying at Boston College.  The liturgical readings for the First Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122:1-9; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

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Craig Ford

Today’s reflection is  by Craig A. Ford, Jr., a doctoral candidate in Theological Ethics at Boston College.

At first glance, Advent might seem to be a season designed to mess with our notion of time. Advent, we hear frequently, is about waiting, about expecting. These words, at least for me, don’t strike up images that imply a lot of activity: waiting and expecting, for me, conjure up scenes in which activity is temporarily suspended–like sitting in a doctor’s office, or waiting on a crucial email you need from a colleague in order to complete a project.

On the other hand, everything about our daily lives during this time of year seems to be in a state of consumer frenzy, amplified by the compulsion to shop and buy presents, to prepare dinners, to host parties, to send out Christmas cards. This madness is the furthest possible thing from waiting; it seems, instead, like racing.

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Jean-Francois Millet, “The Angelus”

But, if we let the readings for this first week of Advent grab our attention for a few moments, I think we’ll see that the impression of Advent as a sort of liturgical waiting room is inaccurate. And they certainly don’t advocate for Advent to be a time consumed in buying the latest and the greatest new gadgets. Instead, today’s scriptures point out that we need to be engaged in different sorts of activities.

This alternative impression comes into view most clearly when we go through the readings backwards. Jesus’ words to us in the Gospel invite listeners not into a story where people are sitting on their hands, but instead into a story where people are going about the daily rhythms of their lives completely oblivious to the Gospel’s demands. From here, the arrival of the reign of God is dramatized as the sudden disappearance of some of those closest to us. “Two men will be out in the field,” Jesus says, “One will be taken, and one will be left” (Matt. 24:40).

But no one should be left in the field. Our job as Christians is to include everyone, and this is the activity in which Advent demands that we engage.

What does this sort of work entail? It entails our going about the business of opening ourselves to each other. It entails the courage not to retreat into ourselves beyond the demands of self-care. (We should never discount self-care, including everything that’s required in order for us to feel healthy and be willing to extend ourselves in service to others once again, such as cups of coffee with friends, long walks, and disconnections from social media.) Our work entails trying to live a non-exclusive Gospel, where we become ambassadors of welcome to each other. Paul summarizes this in the second reading as the act of putting on Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14), which we know from elsewhere in Scripture is identical to taking in, providing for–in a word, loving–our neighbor (1 Jn. 4:20).

This work is not easy. And for those who us who identify as LGBT, as queer, or as gender non-conforming Catholics, this type of activity will seem downright unfair. After all, why should we expect to open ourselves up to others such as our own bishops who continue to use the hurtful language of the truth about man and woman, and the unique bond of marriage they form”? (What such a statement obscures is the actual truth that no relationship hallowed by the presence of love can afford to be excluded from the Church, the very community animated by love, the bond of the Holy Spirit.)

Moreover, the prospect of President-elect Donald Trump in the United States exacerbates these negative messages, as Trump’s presence in the public forum has validated the homophobic and transphobic sentiments of some of his supporters. These supporters, in turn, are making these sentiments public in a way that causes many of us to fear for our safety, especially if we live in states marked by that do not have policies protecting LGBT, queer, and gender non-conforming persons.

But this work of opening ourselves to all is nevertheless the call of the Gospel. This is the work of Advent, of waiting for the arrival of Christ. We must pray for God to strengthen us in this work. For lying on the other side of this work is the presence of justice and the presence of peace. The illustration of Isaiah has captured many hearts: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares; and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is. 2:4). Will it capture ours?

We queer Christians know that we cannot afford to perpetuate exclusion. This Advent, may we dedicate ourselves to no longer leaving anyone–friend or foe, beloved or bigot–in the field.

When Advent Hopes Collide with Christmas Surprises

We are on the brink of Christmas. Advent is coming to a close.  How has this season of expectation, preparation, and hope been for you? For me, it has been a bit of a roller-coaster.

After an autumn of lots of traveling for New Ways Ministry, I was preparing for a rare—nay, unprecedented—month-long vacation, visiting India and Bangladesh with a Franciscan friend of mine. He used to minister there educating Franciscan novices and leaders, and we were going to visit his friends.  Christmas would be spent in a contemplative Poor Clare convent in the hills of Bangladesh.  Just what I needed at the end of an extremely hectic year. Pure bliss.

So, my Advent was filled with travel preparations and expectations:  visa applications, immunizations, finding the right electrical adapters, worrying about wi-fi connections and cell phone service.

And then it ended.  A serious, unexpected health problem in the family of my traveling companion arose just two weeks before our scheduled departure.  We would have to postpone, perhaps until the spring, perhaps indefinitely.  Sadness and disappointment were mixed, I must admit, with a bit of selfish relief that I could stop the worried and frenzied travel preparations, and that I now had some unexpected “found time.”

Well, the “found time” evaporated very quickly.  I soon realized I now had to “shift gears” and start Christmas preparations.  Gifts that I had planned on buying in Asia, now had to be bought at the local mall. Christmas cards needed to be filled out and mailed.  Decorations had to come down from the attic. And what about baking the Christmas cookies?   What I usually rush to do in four weeks now was going to have to be done in two.

Needless to say, not everything got done.

But enough about my tale of woe.   The point is that I learned an Advent lesson from this experience which I think might be pertinent for those Catholics who work for LGBT equality and justice.

Advent is a time of expectation, preparation, and hope.  But what we expect, prepare, and hope for may not arrive as we have planned it.  And it may not arrive on our schedule. God works in mysterious ways, and, often, in more mysterious time frames.  I’ve learned that it is important to expect, prepare, and hope, but that we also need to be open to surprise.

That was my greatest lesson from all of 2014.  Many of us had great hopes for the October synod on marriage and family.  We spent months in anticipation, buoyed by Pope Francis’ positive messages signaling openness to change, by the Vatican’s call for greater discussion by the entire church, and by greater openness from bishops around the world to recognizing the positive gifts of lesbian and gay couples.

We prayed and prepared and hoped.  And as the synod opened, we started hearing positive messages from participants and observers.  And then came the mid-term report, with its strongly worded affirmations of lesbian and gay people.  Our hopes, it seemed, were being realized. I even toyed with the idea that the work of Catholic LGBT advocacy would soon be waning, that our hopes and dreams were now being realized at last.

Then the final report came out, and we found ourselves in the same position that we had always been in.  No positive message.  Was all the expectation, preparation, and hope for naught?

One of my favorite spiritual writers, José Antonio Pagola, in a homily on the fourth Sunday of Advent in his book, Following in the Footsteps of Jesus: Meditations on the Gospel, Year B, notes that the coming of Jesus was also seen as a disappointment for many.  Born in the backwater of Bethlehem, in a stable, in the midst of Roman occupation, to unknown, powerless parents, Jesus certainly did not have any of the earmarks of a Messiah that Israel expected.

But God works in mysterious ways.  And on a mysterious time schedule.  Our expectations, preparations, and hopes are never in vain.  They just may not receive their fruition in the way we expect them and in the time that we expect them.  We have another synod, a more definitive one coming up in November 2015.  And we need to work and pray with the hope that that one will be better than this past year’s.

More importantly, we must learn to be surprised by God.  Isn’t surprise what our secular tradition of Christmas gift-giving and even decorations are all about? Advent is about expectation, preparation, and hope, but Christmas is about surprise, about finding God, love, and joy in the most unexpected of places. Who knows what surprises God has in store for the 2015 synod?  I know that no one I know was prepared for the surprises that came at this past year’s meeting.

I won’t be in India and Bangladesh this Christmas season, and I don’t have all my decorations up, presents bought, or cookies baked.  But, nevertheless, I plan on being surprised, once again, as I always am, by the love of my family and friends, in ways that I never expect. I can’t wait to see what God has in store!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

 

 

Without An Experience of Extravagant Love, We Have No Hope to Become Better

For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections on the day’s Scripture readings by two New Ways Ministry staff members:  Matthew Myers, Associate Director, and Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.  The liturgical readings for the First Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64:2-7; Psalm 80: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13: 33-37.  You can read the texts by clicking here.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Advent originally was a 40 day fast that helped Christians to prepare for Christmas.  While most Catholics have dropped the penitential fasting, we have retained a mood of sober reflection.  In the excitement of shopping and planning holiday parties, the readings for the first Sunday of Advent – in particular, the first reading by Isaiah — give us a space to reflect briefly on our need for God’s extravagant love.

Isaiah mourns the sinfulness of his people.  He claims they have strayed so far from God that they are like “withered leaves” without life and that their “good deeds are like polluted rags.”  But “no ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen” such greatness as God.  Isaiah praises God’s true greatness by starting and ending his lament with the bold proclamation that God remains the people’s loving parent despite their hardened hearts.  Though the people stray from righteousness, God waits with outstretched arms to embrace them like a father or mother would embrace a beloved child.

In a similar vein, Pseudo-Dionysius, a 6th century Christian author, creates a humbling picture of God’s extravagant love and desire for relationship with us as revealed through Jesus:

“Jesus clings lovingly to those who even depart from him… [He] makes excuses for them, and further promises to serve them, and runs towards and meets even those who hold themselves aloof… when his entire self has embraced their entire selves, he kisses them, and does not reproach them for former things, but rejoices over the present, and holds a feast, and calls together friends…”

I cannot help but to think of God’s extravagant love made manifest between human beings in the scene from Les Miserables where Valjean is given a meal and place to sleep by an elderly bishop.  In the middle of the night, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver, strikes the old man when confronted, and flees into the darkness.  When Valjean is apprehended the next morning and returned to the bishop’s residence, the bishop dismisses the police and helps Valjean to pack up the rest of the silver.  The bishop realizes that, without an experience of extravagant mercy and love, Valjean has no hope to transform into someone better.

I think it is the same for us – without an experience of extravagant love, we have no hope to become better than we are.  In the midst of making Christmas present lists and writing cards, perhaps each of us might reflect on how we have experienced God’s extravagant love in our own lives, give thanks for that experience, and, like the elderly bishop from Les Miserables, find ways to share that same love with others.

–Matthew Myers, New Ways Ministry