Advent: A Poem & Sondheim

Advent: a time of renewal, reconciliation, and moving forward.

Suddenly my Lord was speaking: “My name is I Am.” He paused. I waited. He continued, “When you live in the past, with its mistakes and regrets, t is hard. I was not there. My name is not I WAS. When you live in the future with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I WILL BE. When you live in this moment it is not hard. I am here. My name is I AM.”
(Helen Mallicoat)

Mine today is a musical reflection only without the music. Broadway composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim passed away last week. Here are excerpts from four of his songs for your Advent reflection.

Sometimes people leave you, Do not let it grieve you, No one leaves for good. You are not alone. No one is alone. Hold [tight] to the light now…see the glow. Things will be alright now. [Ask me how I know!]

No one here to guide you, now you’re on your own…still you’re not alone, no one is alone, truly no one is alone. Sometimes people leave you…others may deceive you, you decide what’s good…People make mistakes…holding to their own, thinking they’re alone. Honor their mistakes, everybody makes, one another’s terrible mistakes…just remember [our present society] someone is on your side, someone else is not. While you’re seeing your side maybe you forgot, they are not alone, truly no one is alone.

I chose, and my world was shaken, So what? The choice may have been mistaken but the choosing was not, You have to move on. You have to move on…

No more riddles, No more jests, No more curses, No more quests, No more feelings. Time to shut the door…just, no more. Stop worrying where you’re going, Move on, If you can know where you’re going, You’ve gone…Just keep moving on…

You are not alone. No one is alone. Hold [tight] to the light now…see the glow. Things will be alright now. [Ask me how I know!]

Running away, let’s do it, Free from the ties that bind, No more despair, or burdens to bear, Out there in the yonder, Running away, go to it, Where did you have in mind? Have to take care…unless there’s a ‘where’, You’ll only be wandering blind, Just more questions…different kind. Where are we to go? Where are we ever to go?, Running away, we’ll do it. Why sit around, resigned? Trouble is, son, the farther you run, The more you’ll feel undefined, For what you have left undone, and more what you’ve left behind.

Could be, who knows? There’s something due any day, I would know right away soon as it shows, It may come cannon balling down through the sky, Gleam in its eye, bright as a rose

Who knows? It’s only just out of reach, Down the block on a beach under a tree, I got a feeling there’s a miracle due, Gonna come true, coming to me

Could it be? Yes, it could, Something’s coming, something good if I can wait, Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is, But it is gonna be great

With a click, with a shock, Phone’ll jingle, door’ll knock, open the latch, Something’s coming, don’t know when but it’s soon, Catch the moon, one handed catch

Will it be? Yes it will, Maybe just by holding still, it’ll be there, Come on, something, come on in, don’t be shy

Wishes are children. Careful before you say, listen to me. [Others] will listen. Careful the wish you make, Wishes are children Careful the path you take, Wishes come true. Not free.
Careful the spell you cast, Sometimes the spell may last, Past what you can see, And turn against you. Careful the tale you tell, That is the spell…

You are not alone. No one is alone. Hold [tight] to the light now…see the glow. Things will be alright now. [Just ask me how I know!]

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Do You Believe in Angels?

“Do you believe in angels?” Simple question, often answered in a split second. Yes/No or that ever pervasive and safe “perhaps”? Intermediators from God is their commission. Perceived to be flying all over the place, especially during trying times in someone’s life; something like Batman or how many other wannabes.

Angels are called to call for a pause before a rash decision becomes a disastrous one. A calming presence is their intended purpose. Turning overcharged minds and hearts toward a quiet can enhance and enrich anyone’s life.

I don’t know if I believe in angels. I just like them. My apartment has 284 of them surrounding me. How do I know this? My precocious nephew at Thanksgiving was bothering my sister’s dinner preparations. “Go count Joe’s angels. I’ll give you .25 for each one,” was her charging challenge to the young one. Hence, the amount given to a nine-year old, under mom’s care.

They come in all shapes and sizes, just like us. The Catholic Church doesn’t fool around. Angels have a hierarchy just like, guess who? There’s Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, and of course, Arch. Then there are regular angels like Clarence who needed to earn his wings. (Name the movie!) I choose the “regulars,” it’s more like me.

It seems they are both policemen, counselors and protectors all rolled together with their mobile appendages.

I still don’t know if I believe in angels but I’m sure glad they’re around me all the time.

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Christ the King

Can you really believe that one ordinary looking man, born in a little unknown, dusty, sleepy, podunk town in Palestine, is the eternal blueprint of what God has been doing since the beginning of time “in Christ”? That is what we believe when we say we believe in both the “Jesus” from that dusty town and the “Christ” that we’ve discovered and celebrate.

From heaven you came helpless babe, Entered our world, your glory veiled, Not to be served but to serve And give Your life that we might live.

This is our God, the Servant King, He calls us now to follow Him, To bring our lives as a daily offering Of worship to the Servant King.

There in the garden of tears, My heavy load, He chose to bear His heart with sorrow when torn ‘Yet not My will but Yours, ‘ He said.

Come see His hands and His feet, The scars that speak of sacrifice, Hands that flung stars into space To cruel nails surrendered.

So let us learn how to serve, And in our lives enthrone Him, Each other’s needs to prefer For it is Christ we’re serving.

This is our God, the Servant King, He calls us now to follow Him, To bring our lives as a daily offering Or Worship to our Servant King.

We, the faithful will always face challenges. These challenges may cause doubt, suffering and anguish, testing our faith. But Jesus assures us that if we stay, no, not “if” but when we stay and remain faithful, we will share in his ultimate victory over sin and death, gaining eternal life in his kingdom. Placing our hope in his victory will help and empower us to persevere during those trial times. This hope is grounded in the sure and certain knowledge that Christ’s victory is assured and that, as members of His Body, we never ever face these challenges alone. We are anchored by the eternal Christ and buoyed by all the Jesus-faces who surround and support us every day. Jesus is Emmanuel—God with us. Sounds like Advent.

Soon, Advent will once again appear. And our collective waiting word is? I can’t seem to think of it right now. “Jesus” is the Alpha-beginning of new beginnings, renewed promises, a hope that this world cannot teach us but is patiently lived in this world. “Christ” is the Omega-ending ending in fulfillment. Offering to God ourselves with a confident satisfaction of a life worthily lived. All of these “new beginnings,” “promises,” “hopes,” and “patience” are sampled, tested and nippled upon during this earthly Godly kingdom. All of them are then ripened in God’s eternal Kingdom.

Gosh, I remember that word now. It’s joy.

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“Wisdom” Today?

In our action-pack “information” era, we need to not only understand what we are hearing and reading, but we also need to carefully process that “information.” I use quotes for information because how much of it is genuine and not that important word.

Where lies and lives the depth and width of wisdom? Hardly. You’ve read or heard the north/south stuff, but now it’s time to reflect, digest, and examine the east and the west of that “information.” King Solomon’s three books in the Bible help us. His youthful years brought us “Song of Songs,” full of love, promise, and prancing through the woods dancing with deer. He then provided us with “The Book of Wisdom,” full of life-lived advice challenging us to capture and reflect on the east/west information. His third is “Ecclesiastes,” which offers us life’s frivolous follies covered with salty sarcasm due to his long aging life.

His first and third is the easiest route to travel through life. Is our life’s responses the sure assurances of the first and those easy dismissals found in the third? How about his potent second? Now you’re a living believer. Now you’re a reflective thinker, whatever your age. Here’s a sampling of his wisdom list in attempting to define it.  

“Wisdom is a spirit, intelligent, holy, unique…subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain, not baneful, loving the good, keen, unhampered, beneficent, kindly, firm, secure, tranquil, all-powerful, all-seeing…” Does it kinda sound like we can’t achieve it?

Once again, hardly. We can. Solomon writes, “She is the aura of the might of God…for she is the refulgence (I had to look that one up) of eternal light.” I read it over and over and thought, “Absolutely and wow.”

Wisdom is the melding of our thoughts with God thoughts. Are our thoughts and words colored by God’s? Solomon writes that wisdom is “The spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of [God’s] goodness.” We absorb and understand through our minds; that’s only the beginning. Wisdom emanates from the heart and soul only to return and live there.

In every one of our beliefs, opinions, and actions is it our mere folly or sarcasm, or does it (or, can it) “mirror” the goodness of God?  

A bakery reference to conclude: “Pie in the sky?” Hardly. We can live a faith-filled life of “having our cake and eating it too!”

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Owen the Cat and Socks

My eighth-grade nun told us, kids, often, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Being thirteen years old, we thought that meant keeping underwear in one drawer and socks in another. Not bad advice.

Being older that sentence takes on new meaning but I continue to talk about socks. My male cat decided to play hide and seek with my socks. He must have seen me take one-off and the movement was all he needed to see. Never taken in pairs which I would prefer. Just one here and one there. Supposedly hidden, but I found most of his hiding places. If it didn’t entertain him so much, I’d be frustrated. If it didn’t help us, then it’d be futile.

Missteps. Mistakes. Wrongdoings. Wrong words said out loud. Once done, none can be undone. It needs a safe place to reside to continue and hopefully improve our lives. So keeping the “sock,” so to speak, lingering and haunting us, doesn’t help anyone, especially ourselves. The damage or discord happened. We learn and become better persons from those two “M’s” and two “W’s”.

Here’s the cat part. We need to put those errors in judgment somewhere. Closet? Too obvious. Under the bed? More sleepless nights. In the trash? Too literal. Our favorite psalm provides the answer both for our mental and spiritual wellbeing. We eat with them. “You set a table before me in the sight of my foes,” says number 23. By knowing they are staring right at us while eating meatloaf, a baked potato with cream corn (my favorite meal, by the way), we take away their power to preoccupy or hurt us. What better place to learn more about ourselves and our behavior than having it all in front of us.

We all know we are sinful people, hence the “M’s” and “W’s”. We also forget that we are grace-filled people relying on our faith to see us work on our ever-growing lives through these “socks”. Sister was right about keeping our clothes clean and accessible. As adults, Psalm 23 does the same thing for Christian grownups.

P.S. Please don’t say anything if you see me with two unmatching socks. Owen, the cat, knows where the missing match is hidden.

Books by Fr. Joe Jagodensky, SDS. are available at Amazon.com

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“The Gambler”

“On a warm summer’s evening, On a train bound for nowhere,” the unknown of eternal life, “I met up with a gambler,” the Son of God, “We were both too tired to sleep, So we took turns a-starin’, Out the window at the darkness,” darkness before the dawn of faith, “The boredom overtook us, And he began to speak, He said, ‘Son, I’ve made a life Out of readin’ people’s faces, And knowin’ what the cards were, By the way they held their eyes. So if you don’t mind my sayin’, I can see you’re out of aces, at life’s wits end, I’ll give you some advice.’” The two greatest commandments are revealed along with some colorful parables.

“And the night got deathly quiet, And his face lost all expression, Said, ‘If you’re gonna play the game, boy, You gotta learn to play it right.’” Those stumbling and falling days are behind you if you decide to follow me, says the Christ.

“You got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, And know when to run.” Multiple life choices throughout our lives but very often only two – the easy path of our self-centered culture or the difficult, but fulfilling, one of faithfulness to Jesus Christ. “You never count your money, When you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ When the dealing’s done.” Every day becomes a new opportunity to serve God through each other to the best of our abilities. Like the old days of gathering and counting indulgences, grace is never accumulated. Grace lives countlessly within us, thanks to the fluidity of the Holy Spirit.

“Every gambler knows, That the secret to survivin’, Is knowin’ what to throw away, And knowin’ what to keep. ‘Cause every hand’s a winner, And every hand’s a loser, And the best that you can hope for…” What better summary is there of our life’s Catholic/Christian/Muslim/Jewish journies?

Thank you Kenny Rogers for this musical religion lesson. And, thank you Jesus Christ for being our “gambler” – gambling your life to regain ours.

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“Emptying Yourself”

“Empty yourself.” How often I say that during Mass, and how often you’ve heard it. “One ear and out the other?” Or, just another churchy phrase whose meaning just plainly escapes us?

We were boldly told that we are special, unique with a whale’s potential throughout our entire education. Posters clutter the hallways conveying the same message. That short space above the chalkboard, again, proclaims your extraordinary presence in the world. You then go home to dutifully clean the bathroom toilet and wash the basement steps. (By nature, shouldn’t basement steps be dirty!?) By nature, how special is our specialness? I guess it’s encouraging to encourage youngsters. We all need a positive push during those developmental years.

Your parents then take you to church to hear me say those two words. If you are that special, you would wonder what the paradox is between the school’s push and the church’s pull.

The church would say, “Empty yourself of all that keeps you from being that special, once-in-the-universe child.” I wonder when a young person discovers a community not exclusively centered around one person. I hope it begins in the family and is then amplified through the church. I know people who read those posters and now live them to the disregard of others. That’s not the “pull” of the church. I can name and remember numerous others who read those “pushes” and, in faith, acknowledge and act upon those churchy “pulls.”

One of my favorite examples is a simple conversation between two people – in a coffee shop, mall, church entrance. Someone shares with you a personal story. Your interest and focus are seen in your eyes. Nothing will distract you from listening. No. It’s hearing the story from beginning to end. No interruptions. Smiles, frowns, and nods are acceptable with no audible sounds from you unless a giggle or sigh is called for. The person finishes speaking. Your presence and response are the emptyings of yourself by filling yourself with another person. A wrong exchange: “I was in Chicago last week and…” “Wow, I was in Chicago last week too and you wouldn’t believe…” That would be a sin against what ought to be the eighth sacrament of the Catholic Church.

Perhaps those always clean basement steps and those positive posters slowly taught me to be like the Jesus who then became the Christ.

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Widow’s Mite

Arrogance…self-conceit…superiority…haughty…pretentiousness…

What happened that cold, icy night? April 14, 1912. (This is where you talk!)

Titanic. Greatest ship ever built. It’s where I heard the word “steerage” for the first time describing those passengers in the lower, lower bottom of the vessel. And, I experienced steerage traveling on Southwest Airlines with their weird standing in line.

Total passengers are around 2,229…surviving? Around 700.

I love our First World culture, where I get to indulge and enjoy the lavishes unseen or unfelt by the millions of others. Our Catholic/Christian church beliefs and practices are easy to follow. You take our First World benefits and then opposite them to following the teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s that easy to diagnose but all the more difficult to live while still living in our First World opulence. 

Poverty… vulnerability…inferiority…simplicity…humility…

The happiest people I’ve ever met live in Third World countries. Three visits to three of them, and I arrive home to count my suits and sport coats. Dress shirts counting continued the next day. What am I to do?

This sermon is not about guilt. I’m sure we’re all heard enough of those.

You will also be surprised that this is not about money. However, cash appears to define our arrogance and vanity. This sermon is about a widow’s mite. The essential giving from her personhood is due to her most minor giving—one-fifth of a cent.

You all thought this was all about money? It’s about living and practicing the authentic life gifted to us by God. Life is full of ups and downs, setbacks and successes. Through my “downs” and “setbacks,” I believe I’m a better person, a better priest, a better preacher. That’s taking our First World givens and those Third World’s assumptions and transforming them into the way Jesus Christ taught us to live. 

It’s about being vulnerable, powerless, helpless in life’s next moments or encounters. That’s the mite of the widow. And, that’s one-fifth of our commitment to the sacrifice of Christ.

Just recount your own troubling life of its “downs” and “setbacks.” Did they make you richer in bitterness or bless you with more compassion, love, and mercy in your encounters with others? Our arrogance will always continue to fight for first place (sin), yet our “widow’s mite” (sacrifice) is our loving return of life’s gift to God and to each other. 

On Titanic, Rose and Jack were made-up characters. The only true Titanic survivor story I know of is Molly Brown. Even in her newly-acquired earthly wealth, she never lost her humanly authentic self, the poverty of her earlier life. That’s all Jesus Christ asks of us. “Unsinkable” was the added adjective to her name. Can we be unsinkable? Can we be unstoppable in our Catholic behaviors and practices?

Poverty? Superiority? In faith and because of faith, you decide for yourselves. Jesus expects the whole of our lives, in his name, but he’ll happily settle for one-fifth.

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“All Saints Day”

What do Ashley, Brittany, and Heather all have in common? None have a patron saint! How sad to be stuck with made-up names instead of the potential modeling of those who witnessed the love and mercy of God. (How they got baptized is beyond me.)

And then, there is our lives. Lived often in ambivalence (choosing between “this and that” and choosing “that” when it should have been “this.” In faith how often are we unsure of our relationship with the Trinity. How often are we hesitant to take that faithful plunge into surrender rather than holding tightly on our pride and control. There is also in our lives glorious occasions with endearing and enduring friendships, satisfying work (“labors of love,” we call them), moments of pure peace even if the next day brings confusion and discord. The miracle of this life is that it is full of those contrasting Beatitudes. Monday we’re thirsty for knowledge and Tuesday we find an inspiring book to read.

Speaking of holding things in common, what do all the saints hold in common? Indeed, the saints hold the same ups and downs that we waver between. What makes them saints, as you all know, is the balance they found in their lives – living with sin but practicing and perfecting charity, selfless love with a solid eye staring upwards.

In other words, they did it. What makes any saint story interesting is their “ups and downs.” If there were no “downs” then their saintly life would never be saintly. They would only be perfect people doing perfect things. That’s not the human adventure. And, certainly not ours. It is through their overcoming obstacles, making mistakes and correcting them, and a whole litany of the Beatitudes opposites.

Just as we have, every saint has a story to tell. Unfortunately, some of them are fictional (but still with an important tale to be told), others exaggerated for the sake of impact, still others horrifying and still others humbling. Just like ours.

However, a caveat. It gets monotonous after a while but almost every saint came from a wealthy family. (So much for our reaching.) I guess it shows a giving up or giving in to the call from God. Renounce the big bucks, beg (never borrow) and slowly God will beckon you to do great things in the name of God.

But the true wealth of any saint is the powerful, potent message found in his/her story. The Catholic Church has a saint in charge of covering every profession, illness, condition, situation and more. I guess the Church thought God has enough on His mind.

So continue to live your story against the background of those ancient and contemporary saintly stories. They have the ability to influence and guide your spiritual life. They have the witness to show us the Godly path to walk.

To Ashley, Brittany, and Heather? Good luck being on your own.

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Sheep Smelling

“Smell Like Sheep”

The Holy Father writes, that a faith community is one “who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. (please note the St. Catherine word this year, “joy.”) “…the Lord has taken the initiative, he has love us first and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.”

A faith community “gets involved by words and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distance…it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”

A faith community “is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way.” There is no stranger in a faith community, there is only a fellow traveler with a different story to tell than your own.

Here’s my new Pope’s phrase that I now love. A faith community “take on ‘the smell of sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.”

Sheep smelling is not one of my strengths No seminary class was offered to me. (I would have tested out!) It may not be their smell but it’s the look in their eyes. I guess it traditionally means to help bear one another burdens. That doesn’t mean to solve or take away another’s woes and concerns. Many times it’s a listening ear, a caring eye, a silent tongue, an open heart attempting to “smell” what another presently “smells” like.

It may not be a comfortable image for us folks but the imagery “smells” right to me. “This just doesn’t smell right” or “Your dinner smells delicious.” Both statements are full of potency. One of need the other of gratitude.

We are a faith community. How hurridely we return to our cars. How uncomfortable we are introducing ourselves to the person seated next to us during the Masses’ duration. A handshake only does it? Could you “smell” the other’s concerns, both in the person’s joys and doubts?

Let’s try to “smell” one another on a deeper level. It’s not found in the armpits, it is living in the heart and soul.

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