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NOVEMBER 27, 2011: FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Readings: 

Isaiah 63:16b-17,19b; 64:2-7a
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

It's easy for us to overlook one of the most important lines in today's three readings. Paul reminds his Corinthian community, "... You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The Apostle presumes his readers understand what he means by "spiritual gifts." But for those of us who aren't accustomed to his terminology, we might have to turn to chapter 12 to see some of them listed: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. A little later in the same chapter, he personifies those gifts in specific individuals and ministries: ". . . First, apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then gifts of healing, assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues." Paul, here, as always, presumes each Christian community has been blessed with sufficient spiritual gifts to make it viable. Once its members commit themselves to imitate Jesus' dying and rising, the gifts come.

The problem Paul encounters isn't that his communities don't have sufficient gifts to carry on the risen Jesus' ministry, but that certain individuals either don't recognize those gifts or know how to integrate them into the life of the community. He spends lots of time addressing those two topics.

Our sacred authors frequently warn their readers always to do what God wants them to do. As Third-Isaiah says in today's first reading, it's easy to do "religious things" but still not to carry out God's will. Praying for Yahweh to come quickly and help the Chosen People, the prophet utters one basic fear. "Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags ... !" No matter what we do in the name of our religion, if it isn't God's will, it's totally wasted.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons Mark's Jesus warns his community, "Be watchful! Be alert!" Though the evangelist is specifically addressing the problem of Jesus' delayed Parousia, the alertness he encourages in Jesus' followers goes across the board. "What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!" Other Christs are known for their knack of constantly watching for the risen Jesus entering their lives. Though he/she is always present, only those who are alert to that presence will be able to surface it. In the same way, God's will usually isn't something which hits us over the head; it comes gently into our daily lives. Those who aren't anticipating that will never seem to notice it.

Paul has a parallel insight about the Spirit's gifts. Unless we're expecting them, we'll never notice them.

Years ago, while taking special courses in screening candidates for diaconal ministry, I asked my teacher about the gifts necessary for priestly ministry. She smiled and answered, "The number one gift a pastor is expected to have is the gift of surfacing and integrating the gifts of everyone else in the community." In other words, a pastor must be one of the most alert persons in the church. Someone exercising that ministry has an obligation to cut through all the prejudices and limitations which our culture and traditions impose on God's actions in our lives and point out how God is constantly blessing us with the gifts of the Spirit.

Knowing Paul's theology about spiritual gifts, I wonder what he would say about our practice of "praying for vocations." Perhaps the same thing my late friend and teacher Fr. Frank Cleary once said, "Sometimes we find ourselves praying for rain, standing in a downpour with an umbrella over our heads. Maybe we should simply pray for enough courage to fold up the umbrella."