Embracing the Superabundance of Love
The readings for the first Sunday of Advent are Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2, and Luke 21:25-28, 34-36. You can view the readings here.
As Advent begins, Catholics worldwide prepare themselves for Christ’s entrance into creation. In the already/not yet nature of Christianity, these weeks both anticipate Christ’s coming anew and celebrate the Incarnation that brought us a historical Jesus. Each week we hear encouraging messages of hope, joy, and peace.
For LGBT advocates within the Church, we begin this Advent on a particularly positive note with recent victories for marriage equality and as we witness a growing trend of acceptance, affirmation, and welcome amongst Catholics at large.
In this hope-filled Advent context, this Sunday’s readings seem jarring in their use of harsh apocalyptic images to refer to the coming of God’s kingdom, which is elsewhere shown as peaceful and just. Catholic LGBT advocates also know of the harshness of a hierarchy doubling down in its oppressive anti-equality work as we struggle to ensure each person and every family are legally protected, at a bare minimum.
Luke’s gospel (Lk 21:25-28) has Jesus identifying nations in dismay, roaring seas, death from fright, and the powers of the heavens as signs of this new era when God’s justice will reign. Jesus’ further exhortation to be ready for what will surprise us and to remain strong during the trials seems a tall order. Jesus’ words can seem terrifying for the Christian — exactly the opposite of what we desire to aid us at Advent’s hopeful beginning.
Thankfully, the second reading from First Thessalonians contextualizes how preparedness, vigilance, and prayer demanded by Jesus may be lived out. Paul writes to the emerging community in Thessalonica in this pastoral letter, the earliest book of the New Testament and thus in close proximity to earliest Christian belief.
Couched amid apocalyptic passages, the reading today comes from Paul’s blessing for the community. We hear two parts proclaimed. The first desires an increase in love and the second calls for a strong Christian witness by the early Christians (1 Thes 3:12-4:2):
“Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen.
“Finally, brothers and sisters,
we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God
and as you are conducting yourselves
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.”
We in the 21st century Church find ourselves desperately requiring this same blessing that the Thessalonians received. Paul does not merely pray that they may love, but directly addresses Christ in his prayer. To quote the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Paul “asks for a superabundance of love directed within and beyond the community” where the apostles lead by their humble witness.
In this, Paul demands the Church’s ministers lead by examples of love, and we can hope that the bishops and other church leaders will do the same. Given present affairs, we cannot wait on them to be loving witnesses to Christ — this superabundance of love must come from the laity and supportive religious and clergy. In this preparatory period of Advent, when we begin life with Christ again, it is this superabundance that might be a powerful focal point.
Superabundance isn’t a sufficient amount; it isn’t even more than necessary. Superabundance is gratuitous. It is overflowing. It is uncompromised, unrestrained, and perhaps unwieldy.
A superabundance means all, without exception, find their places in community and all, without exception, find more love than would suffice for even the most suffering people. It means that LGBT persons with their loved ones, their children and their families, their friends and their allies are not merely accepted, but eagerly invited to participate in a life with Christ anew.
I challenge myself this Advent to extend beyond just working out of love for structural changes and legal victories. These are essential, but only loving an ordinary amount comes from a love that two millennia of Christianity has tamed far too greatly.
This Advent, while we ready the way for Christ, let us re-embrace the superabundance of love found amid the earliest Christians, unconcerned with doctrinaire thinking and always concerned with how the community enacted its faith-filled witness.
Then we can be Christians that will stand before Jesus when God’s kingdom nears, confident that in loving superabundantly each person we lived well.
-Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry
Thank you for this thoughtful and uplifting reflection. Indeed the Season of Advent is particularly infused with the sense of hope and joyful expectation that all God’s People can, will, and already do (if we allow ourselves) experience the reign of God. The one line with with I would take slight exception is, “In this, Paul’s [sic] demands the Church’s ministers lead by examples of love, and we can hope that the bishops and clergy will do the same. Given present affairs, we cannot wait on them to be loving witnesses to Christ — this superabundance of love must come from the laity and supportive religious. .”
There is no doubt that most bishops, especially when seen in their collective, public actions through the USCCB as well as some of their individual actions in many dioceses, seem to be lacking in the type of pastoral leadership that God’s people are yearning for. Sadly, some individual priests also fall into this category, but these are the ones who get high-profile public attention through actions that even non-Catholics find offensive. However, to include “clergy” in with most bishops does a great disservice to what I believe are the majority of parish clergy — priests and deacons — who have a different perspective. Most clergy in daily pastoral ministry know the lives of families with gay children, they see same-sex couples in church pews, and they understand that the harsh rhetoric coming from the episcopacy is neither consistent with the lived reality of people’s lives, nor does it reflect the Gospel they preach daily.
That said, I think the more we succumb to an “us vs them” mentality (even, and perhaps especially, when “they” are bishops), the more we fall into the trap against which Paul preaches. “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” — and “all” does mean ALL — including bishops and clergy. I pray that we have the eyes to see the examples of love and pastoral leadership, wherever that love and leadership come from.
Tim, Your point is well taken. Indeed I have updated the sentence to more accurately reflect the reality of the church.
I agree that we need to avoid “us vs. them” thinking. At the same time, I think lay people need to take responsibility for the church, and not simply wait for bishops and other leaders to show the way. Comparing lay people on the one side and bishops on the other is not done to create an enemy situation but to remind laity that they can act according to their consciences to help build up the church.
Thanks for both the “reply” and Patrick’s follow up … both well-put and on target. All of us who claim to be members of the Body of Christ must fully embrace what our Baptism calls us to be and to do. The sorts of change we are talking about begin, like so much institutional and societal change, at the local level with one-on-one interaction.
In her homily to the Dignity/Washington community gathered for Liturgy last evening, St. Jeannine recalled that Georgetown University president Fr. Timothy Healy, SJ, the man immediately responsible for expelling D/W from Georgetown twenty-five years ago, later regretted that decision, doing so publicly in an article in America. I don’t know the history, but I suspect this change of heart did not come about over night. Human experience shows us that “conversion” and “changes of heart” happen more often incrementally than instantaneously. It’s easier for hardened hearts to be softened when whey haven’t been solidified by the resentment and defensiveness that comes from being vilified.
Personally, I think that the way things will actually change is when priests — who have a canonical status and authority that the bishops cannot ignore — begin to rely on their collective power, supported and strengthened by laypeople, simply tell the bishops “No.” Because bishops wield such great and direct power over priests — even more than over lay people — we must do all that we can to support them.
Thanks for your reply, Tim, and for the additional insightful comments. BTW, did you intend to “canonize” Jeannine in your comments or was that a typo?
What a marvelous, challenging, encouraging, hopeful reflection. Thanks, Bob.
I agree with your “reply” that we must encourage lay people to take leadership responsibility in the institution. That is fully inline with Vatican II.. But the hierarchy are certainly not going to relinquish it easily. I believe is is the call and empowerment of our baptism to assume it.