Tag Archives: Advent

A Tree, a Tax Collector, and a View of God

27 Nov

zacchaeus-1

“How high does the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down then you’ll never know.”
~
Stephen Schwartz, “Colors of the Wind

Back before Rotten Tomatoes was a wireless ubiquity, my family depended on paperback movie guides, and our go-to was the one edited by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter. Like similar resources, Martin and Porter used an easily decipherable rating system, but since their tastes so often matched our own, they became our cinematic oracles when we made our own selections at Blockbuster or the library.

However, there’s another reason we liked their guide so much – one that has lasted into the internet age: the turkey reviews. Instead of assigning a single star (out of a possible five) to the worst of the worst, Martin and Porter substituted a tiny turkey graphic. It was easy to spot as you flipped through the pages, and the associated reviews often made for highly entertaining reading.

That was especially the case when a turkey review was brief – in fact, the shorter the better. “They don’t make them any worse than this,” reads the Martin and Porter review of The Eye of the Snake (1990), and, for The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1981), they wrote that the “only good thing about this film is the title.” Sometimes you’d luck out and come across a turkey review amounting to a single word – “Incoherent” captured up their thoughts on Streetwalkin’ (1985).

Then there’s my all-time favorite turkey, Mr. Sycamore (1975). “A mailman decides to turn into a tree,” Martin and Porter explained. “Peculiar and pointless.” So succinct and evocative, it’s all you need to know. Indeed, it almost makes you want to track down Mr. Sycamore to watch, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not (and I never have), but it does make you wonder what the filmmakers had in mind – what were they thinking? If you look up the Tomatoes synopsis, it tells of a protagonist postman who chooses arboreal transformation over a dismal future with his domineering wife. Weird, I know, but somebody must’ve thought it was a good idea, and that somebody decided that a sycamore tree was a decent symbol for psychic withdrawal and insulation.

Biblically speaking, that filmmaking somebody couldn’t have been more wrong – that is, if St. Luke has anything to say about it.

Luke’s story of Zacchaeus made an appearance in the liturgy earlier this month, and it got me thinking about Mr. Sycamore. As you’ll recall, Zacchaeus was somewhat diminutive, and so he had to resort to humiliating measures in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus strolling through Jericho. Leaping up and down behind the crowd apparently wasn’t enough, and if he attempted to push through to the front, he probably met with elbows in the face from those who reviled his traitorous tax-collecting occupation.

Nevertheless, Zacchaeus refused to give up, and he scaled a nearby sycamore tree in the nick of time. His eyes and the Savior’s met, and an extraordinary encounter ensued. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly,” Jesus insisted, “for today I must stay at your house.” Joy and conversion followed, and the tax collector’s life was changed forever. “Today salvation has come to this house,” the Lord declared. What’s more, as if to rebuke the crowd who “grumbled” at his choice of pals, Jesus explained that “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

So, why a sycamore? Was Luke making a symbolic point? Not necessarily. It’s likely one of those lovely details in the Gospels that indicate that a recorded event was an actual occurrence – not just a figurative fiction or a clever analogy invented by the evangelist. That is, it wasn’t just “a tree” that the tax collector climbed, but a specific tree – a particular sycamore in fact, or rather a “sycamore fig” to distinguish it from the non-fruit bearing tree that our postman friend probably turned into. Not surprisingly, the actual tree of Zacchaeus became famous, and there’s an old sycamore in Jericho that locals associate with the Gospel story.

All that falls under what the Catechism calls the literal sense of Scripture, but we’re further invited to consider the story’s spiritual sense. “Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs” (CCC 117).

In this regard, I’ve always appreciated the Ignatian approach to Biblical meditation (especially the Gospels) in which we put ourselves into the scene we’re reading about – and not just the character we might naturally gravitate to, but perhaps all of them in turn. In the case of Luke’s narrative, it’s desirable to take up the mantle of Zacchaeus, to picture ourselves surrendering to Christ and radically reforming our lives, but we should also consider ourselves in the guise of the rabble, who block the publican’s line of sight and who dis Jesus when he elects to dine with the despised.

Then there’s that sycamore, almost a character unto itself. I picture it in the backdrop of the narrative, off to the side and part of the scenery – nothing special, just another tree. Up in front, the incarnate deity is passing by, and everyone’s attention is riveted on him. Meanwhile, stage left, there’s the little tax collector, jumping for the tree’s lower branches, and then ascending high above the mob. Far from being a metaphorical hideout as in Mr. Sycamore, the tree of Zacchaeus was a launch pad, lifting the outcast to new heights of levity and love.

That tree is us, I think – it’s the Church – and the sycamore’s humble part in the Zacchaeus story parallels the hidden role we often play in helping others to see Jesus. We’re always on stage when people know we’re Catholic, even when we’re not consciously being “religious.” Since our relationship with Jesus has ups and downs like any relationship, folks may not always see Christ clearly in our behaviors and speech – but that’s OK. We needn’t be spiritual superstars all the time to witness to the Lord. Sometimes (often?) the very human you-cant-take-it-with-you-groupordinariness and frailty of our faith life is just enough for others to clamber up for a vision of God.

Which brings me to one final sycamore reference – in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 stage play You Can’t Take It With You. Our kids’ high school put it on in October, and seeing it reminded me of how much I love Frank Capra’s ebullient film version (which garnered five stars from Martin and Porter). It’s a delightful comedy featuring the oddball Vanderhof/Sycamore family and a reassuring portrayal of how grace can operate in even the most turbulent, goofy circumstances.

There’s nothing chichi about the Sycamore household (like the tree they’re named for), and they’ve got internal troubles galore. Nonetheless, they’re a beacon in their community, a ladder of optimistic vision. Theirs is a domestic church that spills over with joie de vivre, and their example of mutual love and loyalty are a healing balm for those around them. It’s as if the Sycamore’s shortcomings are themselves transformed into a source of hope – a persistent hope, as reflected in the concluding dinner prayer uttered by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore):

Well, sir, here we are again. We’ve had quite a time of it lately, but it seems that the worst of it is over. Course, the fireworks all blew up, but we can’t very well blame that on you. Anyway, everything’s turned out fine, as it usually does…. We’ve all got our health; as far as anything else is concerned, we still leave that up to you. Thank you.

Deference. Trust. Gratitude. Peace. These must be among the lofty “ways” and “paths” Isaiah was talking about in yesterday’s Advent kickoff reading (albeit the prophet admittedly draws on a geological image rather than a tree):

The mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills…. Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain…that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”

As we begin walking the Advent path of discovery, let’s remember that we ourselves are the Lord’s house – that we are that mountain raised above the hills, regardless of our inadequacies. Like Grandpa Vanderhof, we needn’t worry, for it’s the Lord who does the establishing and saving. All we need to do is make way for those who’ll scramble over us for a better view.
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The Christmas Dilemma: An Elegant Solution

21 Dec

The best way to shorten winter is to prolong Christmas.
~ G.K. Chesterton

1950 Merry Christmas grandma... PlymouthIt’s December 21, and we just today procured our Christmas tree – finally!

Considering that most families have had their trees up and decorated since late November, you’d think we were just über-cheapskates who stall until merchants start giving them away free. Or, worse, maybe we’re somehow anti-Christmas – a household of Scrooges muttering “Bah” and “Humbug” at every turn.

Nope, innocent on both counts – we’re actually Christmas spendthrifts and fanatics! Untold number of decorations, special linens, and other seasonal paraphernalia are starting to reappear after their yearlong absence, and I know we’ll be buying more – we always do! And not only do we relish the celebrations, we like to let them linger as long as possible into the new year. In fact, if it were up to me, we’d leave a Nativity scene set up on the mantle year round to foster a perpetual yuletide groove – why be extravagantly cheerful and generous once a year?

Nevertheless, in terms of Christmas trees, we’re almost always the last ones on the block to get one, and it’ll stay bare until Christmas Eve. We’ll decorate it that night before departing for Midnight Mass, and we’ll spread out the gifts underneath when we return. Then – and here’s the real kicker – we’ll leave the decorated tree up until well into January!

This is the heart of what I call the “Christmas dilemma” – a phenomenon Catholic parents know all too well, and it’s only tangentially related to Santa Claus.

Instead, the Christmas dilemma is rooted in the utter collapse of Advent outside of the liturgy. I mean, you know and I know that Christmas is preceded by four weeks of preparation, and that the eight-day feast itself begins on the evening of December 24th. Likewise, you know and I know that the Christmas season continues on until the Baptism of the Lord – this year falling on Sunday, January 11th. The dilemma, the problem we parents face, is that nobody else knows those things, least of all our children, and the culture at large is determined to keep it that way.

bizholidays-analysis3daConsider the obvious: Wal-Mart and Walgreens start hawking Xmas merchandise as early as Halloween, so our kids are already salivating over holiday treats and gift possibilities long before Advent is even on the liturgical radar. Up next, Thanksgiving – the faux Christmas Eve, with St. Nick himself, sitting atop his Macy’s sleigh/float, ushering in the “real” Christmas season (read: “shopping orgy”).

Then, the High Holy Day itself arrives: Black Friday! With sales and Santa blasting us from dawn until dusk, and omnipresent Christmas music 24/7 on radio and overhead Muzak wherever we go – there’s no escape! Even if conscientious parents want to preserve the Advent illusion throughout the month of December, the schools hammer the Christmas theme from Thanksgiving on, right alongside Target and Kohls and the Chamber of Commerce.

Advent-wise our kids don’t stand a chance, and then December 25th arrives almost as a disappointment – an idea that Dave Barry captures so well:

I really like Christmas Eve. I think I like it even more than Christmas Day. On Christmas Day, you get to open your presents and see what you got, but you also know that Christmas is starting to be over for a year, and by nighttime some of the stuff you got is already broken. On Christmas Eve, all the tree lights are on and carols are playing and people are saying “Merry Christmas,” and everything is about to happen, but it didn’t happen yet. That’s the best time of the year.

christmastreerecycling400And, just in case we didn’t get the point, there’s the holiday coup de grâce: The universal Christmas tree dump on December 26th – the very day that the feasting should just be getting underway. My kids are already pretty sensitive about being Catholic weirdos – Mass obligations on the weekend, confession from time to time, meatless Fridays, movie restrictions (what, no R-rated flicks?!) – so they’re always on the lookout for opportunities to, say, blend in a little more. Putting up the tree in mid-December and then leaving it up until mid-January is like asking for trouble from their vantage point: “Can’t we just be like everyone else for a change?”

What to do? I’ve given it lots of thought, and it occurred to me that the solution has been staring us in the face all along – it’s so obvious, so simple! Yes, it’ll also seem radical – off the wall even – but I’d like to propose it all the same, although I imagine it’ll take some time to implement, and we’ll have to run it past the Roman Curia, if not Pope Francis himself.

Here’s my idea in a nutshell: Let’s admit defeat with regards to Advent, cut our losses, and move the celebration of Christmas to the day after Thanksgiving – genius, right?! Consider the advantages:

  1. On account of the long Thanksgiving weekend, most Americans already have Black Friday off – check! Plus, sane people would welcome an excuse to stay home and away from the malls that day anyway – check, check! And football? Yes, of course. But that comes later in the day, leaving plenty of time for Mass and unwrapping gifts and sharing a cup of cocoa around the fire before the afternoon games begin – check, check, check!
  2. Then, there’s the shopping advantage – I’m no expert, but I’ll bet those October early-bird sales crush the tepid deals you’ll find after turkey day. Moreover, if Advent runs from All Saints until Thanksgiving, you’d be able to actually focus on preparing for Christmas instead of merely enduring what has become a preemptive holiday onslaught.
  3. Finally – and the clincher as far as I’m concerned – a Black Friday Christmas can usher in a true octave of feasting and festivity that accords with what everybody else is already doing! Christmas cookies, secret Santa gift exchanges, holiday parties, and hearty “Merry Christmas!” greetings could be embraced with gusto. We could go caroling – real caroling – any time in December free of liturgical guilt. And, the best part? The tree! We could put up our Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving, and then toss them out on the curbs first thing on St. Stephen’s day, just like the neighbors. No more furtive curtains drawn on our January tinsel and lights, skulking around in the new year with our dried-out Douglas firs. It’ll be “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and all that.

The objections, I know, are legion, but at least we’ve all developed a tolerance for this kind of liturgical shapeshifting – Ascension “Thursdays” celebrated on Sundays is my favorite example.

Anyhow, maybe my proposal could be the basis for further discussion. The key, I think, is to make it easier for American Catholics to practice their faith, don’t you think? Sure, the Holy Father wants us to reject a culture of comfort, but let’s be reasonable. Nobody wants to stick out; better to blend right in – where’s the harm in that?

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It Ends, It Begins: The First Sunday of Advent

30 Nov

 Behold, I am coming soon (Rev. 22.7).

Do you like movie trailers? I do, although my family would tell you otherwise.

I admit that when we sit down together to watch a DVD, I’m usually the one who is anxious to skip through the commercials so that we can get right to the “feature presentation” (as they say). And when we have a chance to go to an actual theater to catch a new release? It’s true that I like to arrive late 1834361in order to miss the interminable trailers that precede the main event – tacking on ten minutes to the posted showtime used to be enough, but fifteen is more realistic these days.

All that being said, it’s nonetheless true that I do enjoy watching movie trailers. I only wish they actually trailed – which is the origin of the word, did you know that? The earliest sneak previews were appended after a feature film was over, not before it began. That way, the folks in the theater – the people who forked over for tickets and seats – weren’t forced to sit through a bunch of ads before they got to see what they’d paid to see. “First things, first,” was the original (short-lived) idea: The main attraction appropriately took precedence, and then those who elected to stick around could look ahead to what was coming up.

The First Sunday of Advent is like that I think. I mean, today was almost like an old-fashioned trailer that essentially gave us a peek of what lies ahead, but it came on the heels of a main event: The liturgical year just concluded.

And what a main event it was!

There was the opening credits and anticipation leading up to Christmas and the Incarnation last December, followed by a period of Ordinary Time that gave us a chance to catch our breath and take in what had just occurred: God himself becoming a baby!

Then, pretty quickly it was on to Lent and an intense time of interior preparation – sprucing up our souls and looking forward to the literal crux of our salvation. After several weeks of that, Holy Week arrived and we witnessed the horrible drama of that divine baby from Bethlehem, now the grown-up Jesus, enduring a trial and execution that was directly tied to our own sin – my own sin.liturgseason

Another time of waiting followed – this one much briefer, only about a day – and thereupon…an explosion! A shock and a shove, as Jesus rose from the grave – can you believe it? Yes, it’s really true! That stone dead God-man was alive again, bulldozing his way back into our story and giving us hope of heaven.

An event like that deserves a party, and it got one – fifty days of celebration until the feast of Pentecost. After that, it was more Ordinary Time and lots of green – the color of plants and the ordinary growth they undergo. That kind of growth takes time and patience, just as any farmer or gardener will tell you: Water and fertilizer, tending and protecting occupy their time, although there is little sign of the flourishing going on beneath the soil. It’s happening all the same though – just like it does in us throughout the quieter times of the church year.

Finally, November, and the liturgy grinds down to the end. There was lots of imagery of the end of the world this past month, things coming to a finish – which they did, quite literally and spectacularly, on the Feast of Christ the King, a day honoring Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth, and one directing our attention forward to the Second Coming.

But, even then, we weren’t done quite yet. There’s was a week of closing credits, as it were – the days between Christ the King and the start of Advent – which led up to the very last expression of the liturgical year, the Saturday before the First Advent Sunday.

Now, that last Saturday morning of the church year – the very last image on the liturgical screen before all went dark – do you know what’s amazing? As Fr. Martelli pointed out ADVENT CANDLEat Mass yesterday, the Gospel reading that day, the last of the year, basically parallels the one from today, the first. In fact, there’s more than a parallel – there’s actually a repetition. Here, listen: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy,” St. Luke had Jesus saying on Saturday, and “be vigilant at all times.” And then, today, St. Mark presented Jesus saying pretty much the same thing: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come…. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”

What’s going on here? It’s like the very last scene of the church year yesterday led into today’s liturgical trailer that previewed…more of the same!

Why?

You know the answer, I’m sure. It’s because the new liturgical year is more of the same, and that “same” is Jesus himself who’s always showing up at unexpected times. For Christians, there’s only one show, and it’s perpetually new. As St. Patrick put it, it’s “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me; Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ on my right, Christ on my left,” basically Christ all over the place. He’s the director, cast, and crew; he’s the dialogue, the plot, and the script; he’s the special effects, the soundtrack, and the cinematography.

The whole shooting match, the whole shebang! And we always have to be ready to receive him, not just at Christmas!

So, yes, take a deep breath – one screening has past; the next is just about to start. Sit back and stay awake: The adventure is about to begin all over again.

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