HOMILY – OCTAVE OF CHRISTMAS – DECEMBER 30th
Following the Wisdom of the Elders
(1 Jn 2:12-17; Ps 96; Lk 2:36-40)
What role do elders play in your life? Years of Indigenous ministry has taught me to appreciate the role of elders.
The readings today present us two elders, St. John and Anna, who offer us great wisdom to guide us in our life of faith.
A few years ago, along with the usual Christmas ministry, I conducted a workshop on my new book Still Green and Growing in Deliné, a small Slavey community on the western shore of Great Bear Lake, Northwest Territories. I was very impressed and marvelled at the role elders play in this community, and played during the workshop. Almost half of the 50 participants were elders, and every one of them spoke during the closing sharing circle, sharing their wisdom and their stories.
Everyone present hung onto their words and showed no impatience even when supper was delayed by the sharing in the closing circle which went over three hours. I was touched that some of the elders were relating the content of the workshop to the teachings of four holy men from that community they consider to be prophets. In fact, the home of one of them has been transformed into a shrine and a pilgrimage site.
In the first reading today, St. John pours out his heart and soul as an elder in what he writes to parents, youth, children – to all believers, about the mystery of God’s love, forgiveness, Word and will. For her part, Anna speaks about Jesus out of her many years of prayer and fasting. We would do well to be like the people of Deliné, listen carefully to these two elders, and learn from their wisdom.
The last thing John mentions in the first reading stands out for me: “Those who do the will of God live forever.” It seems to me both John and Anna are not only stressing we do the will of God, but are modelling how to do precisely that.
Anna is a model of living the season of Advent. Her years of “prayerful waiting” had sharpened her awareness so that she recognized Jesus as her long-awaited Messiah. With the boldness that comes from prayer, she wasn’t shy about pointing him out to people. And because they knew her well and respected her, they listened. We can imitate her faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and her courage to witness to him. In fact, that is what I am trying to do through this homily!
The first thing John mentions is “our sins are forgiven on account of the name of Jesus.” The Messiah came to redeem and to sanctify, to forgive and to heal. To do the will of God for John, is to repent, to come to Jesus for forgiveness of all our sins, and healing of all our sinfulness, our painful emotions and negative attitudes.
After her husband died, Anna spent her days in the temple, praying and fasting. We can follow her example and make prayer, meditation and even fasting a greater part of our lives. I do this especially through my monthly poustinia, which is a 24-hour time of praying, fasting, resting and writing. I find this special time each month allows me to slow down and get more grounded in my faith, and in my own body, with all that rest. I would encourage you to try this monthly “going into the desert” (the meaning of the Russian word poustinia) as a way of doing God’s will like Anna.
John goes on to mention “the word of God abides in you.” That is a strong suggestion that we, like him, pray more with the word of God, ponder its meaning, and allow the word of God to transform us from within. According to Hebrews 4:12, the “word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” John wants us to experience the healing power of God’s word.
John also wisely warns us against becoming overly-attached to the things of this world – “the desire of the flesh, eyes and pride in riches” – which I like to describe as the four P’s – possessions, prestige, power and pleasure. All good in themselves, when we replace faith in our invisible God with these transitory and secondary things, we run the risk of worshipping them instead of their creator, and becoming addicted to them.
In his comments about this passage, Bishop Robert Barron becomes for us another elder, reminding us that the sins of the nation had, according to the prophet Ezekiel, caused the glory of the Lord to depart from the temple. And when Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus into the temple, we are meant to understand that the prophecy of Ezekiel about the glory or shekinah of God returning to the temple is being fulfilled.
At the climax of his life, this baby, now come of age, would enter the temple again. This time, he would pass judgment on it and declare his own body as the new Temple. A few days later, on the cross, he would perform the final Temple sacrifice, offering himself to the Father, even as he bore the sins of the human race. In this great act of Temple worship, he would bring all of his human brothers and sisters, down through the ages, back on-line with him.
That special time of Christmas ministry and the workshop in Deliné began and ended with a joyful celebration of the Eucharist in the Church. The Christmas Eve Eucharist began with drum songs and prayer by a group of elders. Elder Charlie Neyelle translated the gospel into Slavey, and the final Eucharist after the workshop included a blessing with a first-class relic of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Certainly, we were offering joyful praise and worship to the Lord as expressed in the psalm.
The presentation of Jesus in the temple, perfected on the cross, is re-presented every time the Mass is celebrated. The Mass involves the offering of Jesus’ Body and Blood to the Father. The presentation of the Lord goes on now in our churches, in our temples.
So, let us remember the important role of elders in our lives, especially that of St. John and Ann, and strive to do the will of God in our lives in all the ways they point out.