Stories Seldom Heard
First Week of Advent
by Sister Patricia Bruno, Dec. 2, 2018
At advent and with Dominican Brother Meister Eckhart's help we are challenged to answer the question. How will we give birth to the Son of God in our time and our culture? How do we bring Christ’s presence into our local communities, schools, workplaces and family gatherings?
Matthew 5: 1 Beatitudes
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the reign of heaven.
Welcome to the first week of Advent and to Stories Seldom Heard. I would especially like to welcome the parishioners of St. Joseph of the Holy Family, Harlem, New York.
Since this is the first week of Advent, I thought I would begin with a quote from our dear Dominican brother Meister Eckhart. His words might help us focus on the reason for this season:
“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us” (Meister Eckhart, the Dominican friar of 14th century Germany).
Eckhart’s questions invite us to see humanity, and not Bethlehem, as the continued birthplace of God. How amazing is that? God has chosen humanity to give birth and life to the world so that God will become a real presence in our world. That says a lot about what God thinks of us. So often we look at ourselves and say, “I’m only human! What do you expect?” But God looks at us and says, “Humanity, created in my image and likeness! You shall be the ones through whom, by whom, and in whom my Son will be born.”
Eckhart challenges us to answer his question. How will we give birth to the Son of God in our time and our culture? How do we bring Christ’s presence into our local communities, schools, workplaces and family gatherings?
In the gospels those who are poor are not just those who lack money. Poverty has a broader definition. Poor women and men are people who have no voice or influence in society or in their religious tradition. In a way they are non-persons: nobodies. Involuntary poverty is not a good thing. It destroys a person’s dignity and works against building healthy communities. In scripture as well as in everyday life, poverty is a sign that God’s law is not being fulfilled. That is why Jesus does everything in his power to alleviate poverty.
In Jesus’ time, as well as now, the majority of the poor were women and children. They were the ones who needed the most protection and care. They were the dispensable ones, the ones who didn’t count. We have a not-so-subtle reminder of this prejudice especially in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew has two references to the multiplication of food: the feeding of 4,000 and that of the 5,000 men. Both stories in the Gospel end with the same phrase, “not counting the women and children” (Mt. 14:21 and Mt. 15:38). Yet, we know that women and children counted greatly in Jesus’ life and ministry. He reached out to them and responded to their concerns. He healed them. Along with the men, women were his companions and intimate friends. He called them to full discipleship and sent them to preach the Good News. In fact, Mary Magdalene was the first of the disciples to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. She was also the one Jesus sent to tell his apostles that he had risen.
However, when we talk about poverty of spirit we are not talking about living a life of involuntary poverty. Rather we are talking about a spirit or a way of living that frees us from making material goods the focus of our lives. There are many people in the past, great saints, whom we admire because they chose, among other virtues, voluntary poverty. St Dominic sold his books and gave the money to feed the hungry. He was an itinerant preacher who trusted that God would provide for him as he traveled and preached the gospel. St. Francis of Assisi chose to leave his affluent life style to give himself totally to God through prayer and service to his brothers and sisters. Dorothy Day, as well as Mother Elizabeth Seton, chose to “live simply so that others might simply live.”
In today’s society there are many people who have made similar choices. Those who minister in the Catholic Worker houses that Dorothy Day inspired continue her care for the poor and work to change structures that keep people in poverty. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Bread for the World, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco and Catholic Relief Services (1), all remind us that as disciples of Jesus we are called to use our talents not just for ourselves, but also for the common good of the whole earth community. There are many people who contribute to the health and well-being of others even though it means receiving lower salary and at times risking their own lives. I am always amazed at how many people make selfless choices.
In California, in the midst of horrific fires and personal loss, many families opened their home to strangers, not just for a day or week. Many people are still receiving gracious hospitality as they continue to search for more permanent housing. The crisis at the border of Mexico and the United States has not only touched the conscience of professional caregivers, nurses, doctors and crisis counsellors, but also has called forth ordinary people like us to volunteer in a variety of ways. Catholic dioceses, religious congregations and peace organizations have helped these volunteers use their gifts to serve those whose lives are at danger. Even though many of these volunteers don’t speak Spanish, they have taken leave of their paid jobs to support, comfort and help in the resettlement of those fleeing from violence.
In April fifteen volunteers from the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, joined “All Hands and Hearts” in their work in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. They spent their days on tops of roofs, stripping off the old tar and inside homes chiseling away mold from the walls and ceilings. “All the residents wanted to do was cook for us,” one volunteer said, “Food is love in their culture. And we were grateful.”
This is one aspect of poverty of spirit. We use our power to enable the powerless. We use our influence, education, competence, connections and personal power to bring about changes in society that bring dignity into the lives of others. We can do this as individuals and as members of organizations. The voices of the poor surround us. Perhaps that is what makes it so hard to know what to do and how to respond. The need is so great and our time and energy are limited. So where do we begin? The poor in spirit know where and to whom to turn. We pray not only to recognize our gifts, expertise and talents and to know where and how to use them, but also we petition God to deepen our trust and confidence in God’s power working in us and in the world. Father Kenneth Untener put it this way.
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us…. (Yet) We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do
the rest… We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own” (2 ).
The work we do is God’s work. The task is too great for any one of us. If we think we can do the work that is needed because we are strong, young, well connected and talented we might very soon become disillusioned. The poor in spirit know that. So they/we turn to God in prayer. Prayer reminds us that we are not on our own and that ultimately everything depends on God.
The scriptures are rich with images of God. As we face difficulties and desire to develop a stronger, deeper relationship with God, it is often helpful to use one or more scriptural images of God for prayer. When we feel we need someone to strengthen us, someone on whom to depend we could call upon God “the rock” who is strong and dependable. God is also imaged as a tower or pillar of justice who stands with us against violence, a mother hen who comforts us when we are fearful and Lady Wisdom who calls to us at the crossroads of life and points us in the right direction. And of course, Meister Eckhart offers us yet another powerful Advent reminder. “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself?
- If you are not familiar with these organizations you can find their information on the web.
- This prayer has often been attributed to Archbishop Romero because it was prayed at his funeral and it captures his spirit of ministry.
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article. “Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection.