I assume you all know that the “Immaculate Conception” (which we celebrate on Thursday) refers not to Jesus but to his holy mother. But why do we celebrate the beginning of Mary’s life in her mother’s womb just before we celebrate the birth of her son at Christmas? Because her conception announces his conception, just as John the Baptist’s mission today announces Christ’s messianic mission. Mary is the “white dawn” announcing the rising of the Son of God, the first streaks of light after a very dark night. In Isaiah Chapter 11, our first reading, the prophet brings us the glad tidings of the imminent sunrise in the Eastern sky: “from Jesse’s roots (which were thought to be dead) a bud shall blossom.” From the East will come this Messiah, this anointed one, this king who will delight in God’s ways.
Advent is our annual preparation for this king. He enters San Francisco in every Mass in every Catholic church. Star of the Sea is his dwelling, and this sanctuary his throne. Christ wants every Catholic parish to communicate His sacred light and warmth to a dark and cold city. St. Paul calls us “stewards of the mysteries of God.” Especially in penitential seasons like Advent and Lent, we have to ask ourselves how faithful we are to that task. Are we even aware of our mission? Do people see light and joy emanating from our parish? We aspire to be a “stewardship parish,” meaning a community that consciously and intentionally gives what they have received in the Mass.
The First Two Pillars of Stewardship
A stewardship parish is built on four pillars: Hospitality, Prayer, Education, and Service. Hospitality: we first make our parish a welcoming home for all who come. Prayer: Once we are at home in the Church we feel the desire to pray. Education: When we pray more deeply we want to learn more about the One we are coming to love. Service: Knowledge of God leads us to see Him in those around us, especially in the neediest, and we naturally want to serve them.
The readings today illustrate the first two pillars of stewardship. First, Hospitality. “Welcome one another,” writes St. Paul to the Romans, “as Christ welcomed you.” We want to be a Catholic family where people feel welcomed and loved just for coming. That’s hard to do in a city. But we’ve made good progress, and we must keep going. “May the God of endurance and encouragement,” Paul continues, “grant you to think in harmony with one another … that with one accord you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To glorify God together we need to know each other—a welcoming parish requires more than sitting alone at Mass once a week. This is as simple as coming to a bible study, a barbecue, a film night, RCIA, feeding the poor together, etc.
Second, Prayer. John the Baptist spent 30 years in prayer (in the desert) before he presumed to announce the good news of Christ’s arrival. No one can talk about Jesus to others unless he has first talked to Jesus himself in a deep interior life. A stewardship parish is a prayerful community where folks plan their time with the Lord every week. What is your plan of prayer? Your plan for Mass, frequent confession, family rosary, Eucharistic adoration, bible time? Again, our parish has made good progress—we are now ready to add another 24-hours of adoration—but we have a further to go before we can consider ourselves an intentionally prayerful community.
Finally, consider this when it comes to prayer: The Messiah came from the East, and he will come again from the East. For the first 15 centuries, Catholic churches were “oriented,” that is, built facing the orient, facing east, not only geographically but architecturally designed so that everyone faced the altar, crucifix, and tabernacle. The entire community scans the horizon at Mass, expecting to see Christ’s advent, like a sailor in the topmast vigilant for the first glimpse of land. Everyone in this church today prays facing altar and tabernacle—everyone, that is, but me. Only the priest turns his back on the crucifix and the tabernacle when he prays to God, and this is a little odd. Many consider that when the priest turned to face the people in the early 70s (an innovation that you will not find in any Vatican II document), our prayer became somewhat “disoriented.” Is your priest praying to God or praying to the congregation? Do you want your priest to face God when he intercedes for your needs, or to face you? Would you want a bus driver to face the passengers while he drives or face the road ahead? All of us—and I mean all of us including the priest—must keep our eyes on the road that leads to heaven when we pray the Mass. Some Church leaders have recommended priests begin facing with the first Masses of Advent, but we will begin this on Ash Wednesday. Your priests will begin facing “east” (towards the altar and tabernacle) only during the parts of the Mass when he addressed God (the Eucharist Prayer for example) during Lent and Eastertide; he will face the people when he addresses the people. By Pentecost we will talk about it as a community and decide whether to make this a permanent practice.
But even if we decide not to have the priests face the altar when praying to God, we should all try to purify our prayer. Let’s try to face “east” with our hearts, when we pray. With Our Lady, we want to fix our hearts on Jesus, not praying thoughtlessly or quickly or distractedly, but with eyes, hearts, and minds attentive for the Coming of Jesus Christ.