November 28, 2021 – First Sunday of Advent
Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16 / 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2 / Luke 21:34-36
For years, the following story about Saint Oscar Romero circulated among the Jesuits.
Romero, the newly appointed archbishop of San Salvador, was visiting a desolate rural village in the poorest region of El Salvador. After celebrating Mass, he was presented with a half-eaten tomato by a farm worker. Romero had little interaction with the poor in the past and the story says he was repulsed at the sight of the tomato.
He turned to the priest who accompanied him and whispered, “Why would anyone offer me a half-eaten tomato?”
“It was all he had to offer,” the priest replied. “It was his last possession, half of everything he had to eat for today. It was his gift to you, a sign of love.”
Romero was brought to tears and was transformed that day. It was a conversion experience, leading Archbishop Romero to become a strong advocate for the poor, a voice for the voiceless – a position that ultimately cost him his life.
Several years ago, there was a group of teenagers and adult leaders heading out for a week-long mission trip. They attended Mass together prior to departure. In the parking lot after Mass, they received a blessing and began loading their bags into two vans and saying their goodbyes.
I watched a set of parents with their teenage son and daughter. The mom hugged each of her children and said, “I love you.” The dad simply waved as they stepped into the van.
“You didn’t even tell them you loved them!” Mom said with a surprised look on her face.
“They know I love them,” her husband replied.
Then the mom said something that really stuck with me: “Saying, ‘I love you’ is not only for them. It reminds you what it means to love them, the responsibility that comes along with it.”
In other words, they aren’t simply words of affection. They serve as a call to action. There are things we need to do to reflect the love we have for others. That’s a beautiful way to think about the words, “I love you” – words often taken for granted. By the look in the father’s eyes, his wife’s wisdom clearly made an impact.
This story speaks to the expression, “Love is a verb” – it is an action rather than a feeling.
Our scripture readings for this First Sunday in Advent give us two images of the heart.
The Gospel of Luke warns us, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy…”
And earlier, in Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, he wrote: “May the Lord make you increase in love for one another and for all…so as to strengthen your hearts…”
The first image – that of a drowsy heart – points to a heart that has begun to take things for granted, a heart set on cruise control. Our hearts have become drowsy through inactivity or the doldrums that come with uninspired repetition. Our appreciation of love, our openness to love, and our willingness to love are stagnant. We enter the initial stages of slumber. It is impossible for a drowsy heart to be vigilant, as the gospel warns us to be.
The second image – that of a strengthened heart – points us to a heart strengthened through an “increase in love for one another.” Just as the heart has become drowsy with inactivity, it is strengthened when put through a “workout.”
I once researched the best way to get back in shape after years of no exercise. (I was researching for a friend!) Here are three strategies health and wellness experts provided:
- Find your motivation.
- Redefine what exercise means.
- Develop a new routine.
The same holds true for strengthening our hearts.
Archbishop Romero suffered from a drowsy heart as he went through the motions of his ministry. He was content serving the upper class of El Salvador and doing the basics of priestly ministry.
His elevation to archbishop thrust him into a new world and opened his eyes to the plight of the poor. He was loved in a new and profound way, and gradually, over time, was transformed and learned to love as God called him to love.
Referencing the three previously-mentioned strategies, his encounters with the poor of El Salvador motivated him; he re-defined what it meant to love; and he transformed the way he engaged in his ministry.
The father in my earlier story had become complacent. He no longer felt he needed to express his love for his children, assuming they already knew he loved them. His wife motivated him, re-defined what it meant to love, and stirred his heart to consider a new direction.
A drowsy heart can be strengthened by a transformational encounter such as Archbishop Romero experienced, by a loved one gently holding us accountable such as the wife did for her husband, or by our own prayerful self-assessment and the realization we must do more.
Advent is the perfect time for such self-assessment. The Advent season calls us to stir our drowsy hearts from their inactivity, to wake them up and transform them. We explore new ways to exercise the heart muscle.
Some questions to explore when evaluating how we love:
- Do we tend to view how we love God and others as a checklist? In other words, do we say, “I’ve done this and this, so my work is done”?
- Where is our love directed – inward and focused on our own needs? Or selflessly toward others?
- Is the love we share intentional, or is it haphazard and inconsistent?
- When we are challenged, do we “love our way through it”? Or do we dismiss love as a viable option when we need it most?
- How do we love others? Do we reserve our love for a select few or do we see God’s image in all men and women and serve them accordingly?
- And finally, one question we probably don’t ask ourselves enough: Do we allow ourselves to be loved? Are we open to accepting the love of others? When we allow others to love us – when we embrace it – their love reflects back to them and they are affirmed.
As we answer these questions for ourselves, we are called to look for ways to motivate ourselves, re-define what love looks like for us, and move toward becoming the people God envisioned us to be.
As scripture invites us today, may we use the Advent season to increase in our love of God and others, and in so doing, strengthen our drowsy hearts.