12/3/2017 First Sunday of Advent - year B
Once upon a time there was a parish, and in the parish there was a couple, Joseph and Mary Moh.
They had three adult children: Eunice, Manuel and Hermione.
They were Filipino-Chinese from the Philippines so, of course, they had nicknames: Eunice was called Eenie from childhood ‘cause that’s how she pronounced it.
Manuel, became Manny, and everyone knew Hermione simply as Miney.
Everyone in the parish thought they were great Catholics, because all three of them came to the church to pray each morning.
They knelt shoulder to shoulder, but the content of their prayer was different.
Eunice was the most successful of the three, even though she was the youngest.
She had graduated from the University of Santo Tomas medical school, had passed her boards in the U.S. and worked at USC Keck.
She had a beautiful house, drove a Beemer, and wore mostly Armani and Chanel when she wasn’t in scrubs – though she looked fabulous in those, too.
Her prayer went something like this, “Oh God, oh God, oh God you must help me. If that woman files a malpractice suit – completely frivolous and unwarranted, of course – I could lose my house, my car – and my reputation.”
Manny left the seminary years ago. Actually, he was asked to leave.
Not because he was bad. No, he was deeply pious and tried to live a virtuous life.
His prayer – like his frequent confessions - was marked by scrupulosity.
“When I confessed judging Eenie for her materialism yesterday, did I have perfect contrition? Oh, God, help me be truly sorry for noticing her petty, shallow focus on the things of this world. Oh, God, I judged her again. I detest my sins because I dread the pains of hell, the pains of hell, the pains of hell. Please don’t let me die before I confess again. I hope I get the holy priest this time, and not the pastor.”
Hermione was not aware of the tortured prayers of her siblings.
Her focus was neither on them or herself, but God.
“Father, I thank you for the great love you’ve shown me and the whole world. It’s like a great ocean, and I am a tiny fish swimming in it. May I do nothing to displease you today. Jesus, you suffered and died on the cross to reconcile the world to the Father. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Holy Spirit, make me aware of your presence throughout today, so that I may rely completely upon You. Apart from you I cannot do anything good.”
Three siblings praying three very different prayers.
In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah himself prays, “why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”
He speaks of fear of God as if it’s a good thing!
Well, fear is born of love: we fear the loss of what we love.
We can detect three kinds of fear in the Moe siblings.
Eunice has a worldly fear of losing her luxury goods and privileges as a doctor.
You may not be as materialistic as Eenie, but if we’re obsessed about work, about success, about receiving respect we will fall under the spell of worldly fear.
I obsess about “getting things done,” – even trivial things - and I obsess about making our parish a center of evangelization.
That leads to a lot of anger, which springs from my pride and fear that I won’t succeed.
Manuel is stricken with servile fear.
He’s like the servant who received one talent in the parable we heard a few weeks ago.
When his master returned, he said, “I knew you were a demanding master, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.”
Manny doesn’t avoid sin because he loves God, but because he fears punishment.
The object of Manny’s love is Manny, but it gives him neither peace nor generosity.
Like Manny, I can act as though God is a unpredictable, demanding master who expects results without helping.
When that happens, I don’t pray, but work as though success depends on me.
It’s a kind of prideful scrupulosity.
Hermione has true, holy fear.
It includes an awareness of sin, like Isaiah who says, “we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.”
But while she is aware of her sin, Miney turns from it not because she fears God’s punishment like Manny, and not because she seeks some reward for doing good like Eenie might.
No, Hermione genuinely loves God, and thus wants to please him, the way she used to want to please her mom and dad when she was little.
Her fear is called filial fear, and this is the fear of the Lord Scripture calls “the beginning of wisdom.”
Fear of the Lord reveals the weakness of our spiritual condition.
It increases our humility, which is the ability to see everything we have and are comes from God.
Like the prophet Isaiah, we can say, “Father, I am the clay and you are the potter.”
If I know myself to be the work of God, I will not want to spoil that work, and I will humbly go to confession when I do.
The gift of fear is linked to the virtue of hope, because as St. Thomas says, through fear, “we dread letting go of the helping hand of God.”
St. Paul gives us reason for hope, too.
He says, “God is faithful, and He will keep us firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So we begin Advent hoping that filial fear – a dread of disappointing the God we love - will help us stay awake as we await the second coming of His Son.
And I hope we’ve all learned a lesson from Eenie, Manny and Miney Moe.
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