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First and Second Sundays of Advent, 2021
Luke 21:25-36 and 3:4-6; Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 and Philippians 1:4-11
This is the second Sunday of Advent, and this last Monday was the 24th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon—24 years!—and all week I’ve been thinking about my friend, Father Matt.
Father Matt was an elderly priest who retired to Corvallis and helped out in the parish now and then. He was a kind and gentle man, a man of real faith, and I very admired the way he handled his Parkinson’s disease as it got worse and worse.
Early on when I invited him to lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in town, his hands shook so hard it took him forever to eat. He’d pick up a forkful of noodles, and he’d aim them at his mouth, and then most of them would slide off the tines and he’d have to start over again.
But he kept at it, and he didn’t seem to mind, he didn’t seem embarrassed at all, and we had a nice, long lunch.
In the gospel for last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, Jesus warns us that big changes are coming, that there will be signs in the stars and the moon and the sun. and the foundations of the world will be shaken, and we’re going to be frightened and overwhelmed but should just “stand erect” in faith and hope. And, of course, we think of climate change and the devastation of the planet, and the pandemic and how it seems it will never end, and all the stresses and ugliness and fear all around us. But I also think of my own personal apocalypse, of all the people in my life who are sick and suffering and all who have died. Father Matt. Many of my old teachers and more and more of my friends. One of the deacons I was ordained with died last month. And I’m getting older, too, and creakier, and sometimes that just amazes me and sometimes it really scares me. I can’t believe it.
One thing an older deacon knows that a younger deacon doesn’t is that the joy and elation you feel at your ordination never go away, they’re still there deep down, but they change. They are sobered and tempered and complicated.
John the Baptist, the focus of the Gospel for the second Sunday of Advent, is the figure of the deacon, a model for what a deacon should be. He’s crying out in the desert and he wants us to be in the desert, to empty ourselves out. And we don’t want to. The desert is beautiful, and sometimes it rains and there is a flowering, but living there is often a hard and trying thing.
Often what I’m crying out in the desert is that I don’t want to be in the desert.
I’m so grateful for my ordination. It continues to give me this deeper joy. Next to my marriage and my children it’s the most important thing in my life. But what an older deacon knows that a younger deacon doesn’t is that sometimes you just don’t feel like being a deacon. You may have been ontologically changed at your ordination—that’s what happens, technically, when you’re ordained: you’re ontologically—fundamentally—changed. But you’re still the person you always were, too, with all the same faults and limitations, and sometimes you just don’t feel like you have the love you’re supposed to have and that the situation requires, you just don’t have it in you, you just can’t handle it. And you’re right. You can’t. The love you need comes from the Spirit, it comes from Christ, and every day you have to pray for that, you have to ask God for that, directly, as St. Paul does in that wonderful prayer he offers for the people of Philippi: that their “love may increase ever more.”
I’ll never forget one moment with Father Matt at one of his last masses. I was serving as his deacon, standing beside him at the altar, and he started to tip over backwards. He couldn’t keep his balance. And I reached out and pressed my hand against the small of his back as he said the Words of Consecration. That way we could both remain standing.
But really it was Matt who was holding me up, by his example, and God who was holding us both up, who was pressing his hand against us. Matt was a quiet, gentle John the Baptist, crying out from the wilderness of his old age and his Parkinson’s, and he inspired me by his humility and by his openness, but it wasn’t his doing any more than it was mine that the bread and the wine became the Body and Blood. Make holy, therefore, these gifts, he prayed, that they may become for us the Body and Blood. It’s the Spirit that makes the gifts holy, from the Father and through the Son. It’s the love and kindness and gentleness of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what truly feeds us. That’s what strengthens us to face the darkness and to live in the desert and to keep finding joy even when the world is once again coming to an end.