Archbishop George J. Lucas presides at a Prayer and Witness for Unity service Oct. 6 at St. Peter Church in Omaha. At the event, four Omahans shared their stories about immigrating to a new country, being victims of prejudice as minorities or trying to bring about societal change. SAMANTHA WORTHING

Shepherd's Voice

ARCHBISHOP LUCAS: The Lord wants to come where we need him most

Archbishop encourages us to make Christmas deeply personal

In this week’s discussion, Archbishop George J. Lucas and communications manager David Hazen discuss 2020, a very unusual and difficult year due to the pandemic. The archbishop invites us to prayerfully consider if we have risen to the challenge of these difficult times, or instead have adopted a selfish and defensive posture. He encourages us in our prayer to discern how God is asking us to move forward based on our experiences of the past year. In view of the approach of Christmas, he urges us to reflect on our brokenness – those areas in our lives that are darkest – and experience the need for a Savior.

Q: You have mentioned before what an unusual year 2020 has been, how unusually challenging in many respects. Many have described it as “apocalyptic”; this season of Advent is also “apocalyptic,” as the Church’s liturgy leads us to prepare for Jesus’ second coming as we contemplate his coming in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. The word apocalypse means revelation. As you have looked at the challenges of this year and how strange the pandemic has made a lot of things, what has been revealed to you?

Not surprisingly, a mixture of both good and bad has been revealed. I think our own weakness and sinfulness, collectively and individually, has been revealed a little more sharply; but so too has the goodness of God, the presence of Jesus, the value of our life in him, the value of the sacraments. As we have experienced both deprivation and the opportunity to participate in our faith in a more active and public way this year, I think we have seen some of all those things.

I have been a little disappointed, frankly, in the reluctance of a number of us – and I hold myself responsible, too – to shift quickly and generously from concern about what is happening to us, individually, to thinking about the common good. I think we have really struggled with that as a country, and within the Church, too: We have struggled to think about what extraordinary thing is being asked of each of us in order to care for our neighbors, especially for those who are vulnerable. We have struggled to listen thoughtfully to the advice that’s being given to us by health experts and people who have responsibility for good order in society, and to ask, “How can I cooperate? How can I contribute to this?” I think we have witnessed a fair amount of resistance, which I have not found edifying, to be honest.

Once this year is over and once some of the more severe effects of the pandemic have abated, I think it will be good for us to look back and to think prayerfully and soberly about what we experienced. What did we each experience in ourselves? Where can I say that I was up to the challenge, or I rose to it? Where was I defensive, or selfish, or self-protective in a way that wasn’t good for me, or good for other people? We are in the midst of it now, and it is still hard to sort that out. Because it was such an unusually charged election year, and politics seemed to leach into everything, it complicated and flavored the response of all of us to the pandemic too, I think.

So, all of that is on the human level. But we are invited not to live only on the human level, rather to allow the supernatural gifts of God – the power of the coming of Jesus into our midst, his invitation to us – to be the predominant themes or tools that we use to shape our responses, our actions, our choices, especially in difficult times.

“Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda,” by Bartolomé Estaban Murillo (1617-1682), oil on canvas, painted between 1667 and 1670, housed at the National Gallery, London. This Christmas, Archbishop Lucas encourages us to think about those areas in our lives where we most need a Savior and to invite the Lord in. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Q: As you talked about the temptation to “go back to normal,” I realize this is often my default mode. “Well, if this problem would just go away, if life would just be problem-free, I could just do my thing and be okay.” But that really means I try to be self-reliant, and not to rely on Jesus. I think this is a real challenge.

That is our challenge individually and as a Church. One thing I hope we think about – individually and as parish communities – is the invitation to come back to Mass and the sacraments on a regular basis. Why would we come back? And what is the value we want to offer our fellow parishioners, our brothers and sisters? Rather than simply a nice experience (which we hope it is), what is the real invitation? Really, whom do we find in the sacraments, and in our life together in a parish community that we can’t find someplace else? That really is the antidote for the cultural push to self-reliance and autonomy, which are not Gospel values.

Self-reliance only takes us so far. Some are blessed with different gifts and material resources, or different social networks, which make it seem like that path of autonomy will work for us. But as I said, there are those among us who really struggle, through no fault of their own. Or maybe they live with the consequences of decisions they have made that cannot be unmade, but they are still our brothers and sisters. To say to those around us who may be struggling, “Just pull yourself up and take care of yourself,” is not a Gospel approach and it does not build up the human family.

We have had time to reflect. Families have talked about the experience of spending more time together and seeing the value of that. But then we have also missed people. Younger people haven’t been able to see their grandparents, or they have had to visit them through a window, or with Zoom, or FaceTime. Thank God we have those things, but they are not the same as being together, getting a hug, sharing a meal, sharing a home.

I am hoping that having had this experience of missing human relations, that we will be drawn to nurture them and to tend them.

Q: Could you speak a bit more about what it means to take up those “tools”? How do we start again to take steps forward in faith?

Sure. I think that what we want to avoid is to think that we go forward by being anxious to get back to where we were. That is not forward. And in some ways it would be as if to say, “God has given us a wasted year, this year 2020 has been no good for us, and we haven’t had the opportunity to grow. And we are just anxious to crumple it up and toss it out, and go back to where we were.” Well, it is not possible to go back to where we were. And we would say, as we study salvation history, it is not good for us to want to go back.

I remember reflecting on this with you back in the spring, when we were already anxious to be out of the shackles of the pandemic. Remember the Israelites in the desert, having been freed from slavery in Egypt, suddenly somewhat disoriented, losing confidence in God and in the plan of God to bring them to someplace good. They just wanted to go back to what they had when they were enslaved.

That is never very healthy, I think. It is OK to miss what we had, and what we do not have right now. I’ve been whining about and mourning some things as much as anybody else, so I do not mean to be overly sanctimonious here. But, back to your question, what is the way forward? What is the step forward that God has been preparing us for? It may take a little distance before we can figure that out, but as I say, it is important for us in our prayer and in our reflections and planning not to think that it has been a wasted year.

It has been a burden and a challenge, certainly. It has been more than that for some who have been directly affected by the virus, by death in their family, by unemployment, by isolation, by all the other things that have come with it. We do not wish for those things to continue, nor wish them on anybody else. We do not have to pretend like they are good things. But in time, Jesus is offering us the means to grow as persons, the means to grow as a community in him, the means to continue to understand how to serve him better in our brothers and sisters, how better to take care of ourselves. I hope that we have been learning some of those things, and that fortified by this experience we can approach the future with less fear, maybe with more generous hearts, maybe with more attention paid to the needs of our brothers and sisters.

Isolation was a terrible problem even before the pandemic, particularly for older people. But isolation has been exacerbated for the homeless, those who were struggling to find employment, the incarcerated, and people in hospitals and nursing homes who haven’t been able to have visitors so regularly. When those opportunities open up again, will we see them as our responsibilities, and see to it that no one in our families, our parishes, our neighborhoods, suffer isolation? That is a terrible result of original sin and of human sinfulness, and it is not God’s plan. Jesus comes to us with the mission of communion, restoring our broken relationship with God and our relationships with each other.

Q: Given the darkness and confusion of the year, it seems there is a special urgency to pay attention to what is being offered us in this season. What do you think would most help the faithful not to miss the opportunity of the Christmas celebration this year?

Think of your brokenness, of a part of your life that is dark. Think of what you are missing, particularly in terms of relationships or warmth, and then ask, “Would not that be a great place for a Savior?” Would we not like some divine intervention in that spot that we don’t seem to be able to fix ourselves, where we are not so self-sufficient? Maybe we are experiencing something that is simply beyond us – like the pandemic – or maybe it’s something that I have caused myself, through my own selfishness or blockheadedness. Well, that is exactly where the Lord wants to come.

I would challenge us all to really make this Christmas very personal. Personal in the sense of coming to know that Jesus wants to give me something, He wants to give you something, He wants to give each of us the gift of himself. His coming means mercy and healing for us on a very deep and personal level.

When our heavenly Father looks on us in our weakness and our loneliness and our brokenness, He loves us. He doesn’t send us punishment, and he doesn’t turn his back on us, but he gives us the gift of his Son. In a sense, we are only able to take advantage of the gift, we are only able to open it (to use the Christmas image) if we are sinners, and if we understand that about ourselves. It is true about me, and it might be true about you too, if you think about it. That is exactly where the Lord wants to come.

Maybe the gift of this year is that we see that we are not so self-sufficient, that we see that everything in this world that we tend to count on day by day can be taken away, or limited, or become difficult to access. This human limitation doesn’t feel great because it is the result of original sin. There is a messiness to life, so we need a Savior, and he wants to come to be with us. The key is to recognize and experience that desire, that need for a Savior, and then let him come in – not as a prize for being good or having it all figured out, but as the antidote for the most serious human illness: the brokenness and the alienation of sin.

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