The Hobbit and God's Christmas Battle Plan

Luke 2:1-14

A book that has captured imaginations for over a generation is The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien was an active Catholic and that the story has many Christian themes. The Hobbit has recently been made into an incredibly popular series of three films. The second installment just came out. In the first movie, The Unexpected Journey, we see how Gandalf, a good wizard, helps form a group to send an important quest to liberate a land from an oppressive dragon. This group is almost entirely made out of strong dwarves who are proven warriors. There is one noticeable exception. Gandalf insists on including in the quest one hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. This decision is shockingly unexpected and the dwarves are opposed. How could this weak hobbit help defeat the evil dragon? It seems to go against all proper logic for waging war. But Gandalf, for reasons I will explain later, stands by his decision. He sees a power in Bilbo that the others do not. This scene seems to be a great analogy for what is happening at Christmas. Often the story of Christmas seems too familiar, too comfortable. However, when we stop and think about it Christmas too is a shockingly unexpected strategy of God. Let us look closer at this metaphor from The Hobbit. We’ll begin with the dragon.

Jesus was born into an oppressed world. Christ entered a world that was under siege by the enemy.  When Jesus was born some 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, there was a certain world power that was an obvious “dragon”: the Roman Empire. That fact that the people of Israel were under Roman oppression is found in the story of Jesus’ birth. Because in Rome Caesar demanded a census, Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem to be counted. The Jewish people were expecting a saviour, or messiah, to come and rescue them from this tyranny. This saviour was supposed to be a political or military leader who would forcibly cast off Rome’s yolk and re-establish an independent nation of Israel. Today also, as Jesus is born anew this Christmas, He comes into a world with its fair share of dragons that terrorize humanity: war, crime, oppression, inequality and poverty. Most importantly, whether it be today or 200 years ago, here in Richmond or in Bethlehem, Jesus also comes to liberate our hearts from certain dragons that lay siege to our soul: pride, selfishness, loneliness, greed and envy. Jesus always comes into a world that is oppressed and in need of liberation.

God’s way of doing battle is completely different than we expect. Deep down, we all probably think much like the dwarves from the Hobbit. They believe that the way to beat the dragon is to get together the strongest, most powerful group of people. You need to fight fire with fire. But God’s way of thinking is much different. God could have entered the world as a powerful political or military ruler, but He did not. If we want to know God’s battle plan we need only look to two places. First, we can look at the manger. What do we see there? We see a poor baby who had to be born among animals because there was no room in the inn. We see incredible humility. We see a boy who will grow up to spend His time serving, healing and reconciling those who are on the margins of society: tax collectors, sinners, lepers and prostitutes. The second place we need to look if we want to know God’s battle plan is the Cross. There we learn that Jesus chose to destroy evil not through more violence or political machinations but through self-sacrifice. From the Cross we learn that you do not fight fire with fire. Evil is only defeated through love. This is revolutionary. God’s way of doing battle is completely not what we expect.

Because Jesus’ way of doing things in so unexpected, we can easily miss Him. Remember that the dwarves wanted nothing to do with Bilbo because he didn’t meet their expectations of a warrior. They overlooked the power in him that Gandalf could see.  Likewise, since Jesus’ way of battling evil is so revolutionary, we risk ignoring Him in our life. 2000 years ago so many people did not recognize Jesus for who He was. Before He was even born, Jesus was turned away from the inn. The powerful do not come to visit the new-born Jesus, but only the simple shepherds. Later when Jesus grew up and began His ministry and teaching He was rejected by so many people. Why? He simple did not fit the bill of how God should go about conquering evil in the world. Likewise, in our own life too we risk letting Jesus pass us by, failing to recognize His power. We can ask ourselves a few questions. Are we trying to make Jesus the center of our lives because we think He alone can save us, or is something else taking His place? Is this reflected by the time we put into cultivating a relationship with Christ through prayer and going to Mass? Or, are we trying to fill our hearts with what we think might be more satisfying, such as possessions and entertainment? We could also ask ourselves if our life shows that we are trying to continue Jesus’ mission, His way of battling the dragons in this world. Are we striving to live with deeper humility, service, love, mercy and forgiveness? Or, do we following another strategy, seeking to become more powerful, wealthy and popular? Regardless of time or place, people have always risked missing or ignoring Jesus.

Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to deepen our commitment to Christ and His mission. Today is an incredible chance to renew our desire to follow Jesus and not let Him pass us by. Our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, is a powerful example who can encourage us to do this. Many of you will know that Pope Francis was recently named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. This reflects how his words and gestures have captured attention among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But how does a 77 year old man - with only one functioning lung - exert such an influence? The answer, quite simply, is that he is someone who has not allowed Jesus and His message to pass him by. Throughout his life, Pope Francis has welcomed Christ more and more into his heart. He has said that his deepest identity is that of a sinner in desperate need of Jesus the Saviour. Through prayer, Mass, the other sacraments and reading the Scriptures he centers his life around Christ. Flowing from this, Pope Francis has committed himself to continuing the mission, or battle-plan, of Jesus for fighting the dragons in this world. Through his words and gestures he has shown the power of mercy, love, forgiveness, humility and service. He has washed the feet of convicts in a prison. He traveled to a remote island in the Mediterranean Sea in order to celebrate Mass for African migrants. He has boldly spoken out against war and global financial inequality. His example is a great challenge and encouragement to deepen our commitment to Jesus and His mission this Christmas.

At a certain moment in the movie The Hobbit, Gandalf defends his choice of making Bilbo a member of the group sent to conquer the dragon. He explains that while others believe “it is only great power that can hold evil in check”, that is not what he has found. Gandalf says he has found that “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay”. With the help of Jesus, let us be numbered among these “ordinary folk”. Today let us choose one way to deepen our commitment to Jesus and His mission. Maybe it is to pray or go to Mass, to serve in a new way your parish or community or to forgive someone who has wronged you. Let us choose one concrete action. Perhaps we can make this our Christmas gift for Jesus.

When God throws a wrench in your plans...

A while ago a friend told me a story about a terrible commute he had one day coming home from work. On this particular afternoon it was very important for him to be home on time because he had made important plans for the evening. Things, however, did not go according to plan.  Because of a road construction, his normal 45 minute commute home from work took two hours!  I don’t know about you, but if this happened to me I would have been extremely frustrated. The funny thing was that my friend was not. He explained that he trusted that God had a reason for throwing a wrench in his plans. He said that because of the longer commute he was able to have a very good conversation with a co-worker he carpooled with, which would not have happened otherwise.  We have all probably had such an experience when our plans get drastically altered. This can be a very challenging situation.

If we want a remarkable story of someone who had their plans drastically altered, we need not look further than poor Joseph in the Gospel of today. St. Joseph is an example of someone who had their life literally turned upside down. For a moment, try to put yourself in his shoes.  Imagine this. Things in his life have been incredible. His business as a carpenter in Nazareth has never been so great. Most exciting of all, he has recently been engaged! He could not be happier. He and his fiancĂ©e, Mary, have been busy making plans for the future. He feels like you are on top of the world. One day, however, he receives news that brings your world crashing down on itself: Mary is expecting a child and he are not the father. Imagine how crushed St. Joseph must have felt. The plans for the rest of his life seem ruined. What will others think and say about him? About Mary?  At first he has to assume that Mary has broken the engagement and he decides to Mary quietly so that she is not publicly shamed. Just when Joseph thinks things cannot get any stranger he has an unbelievable dream. In this dream, an angel tells him to change his plans again! The angel says that the child Mary is carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that the child will be someone incredible. More changes, more uncertainties! How would you react if this happened to you? What would you think and do? St. Joseph is a remarkable story of someone who had their plans in life drastically altered.

We have all experienced how difficult it can be when our life is changed suddenly. Everyone knows what it feels like when you make plans or have certain expectations for the future and then something happens that alters everything.  You probably would not need to try very hard to think of some examples in your own life. Maybe you are someone close has experienced trouble at work. Perhaps you were certain that you would receive a promotion, made arrangements for your new work situation only to find that you were passed over. Worse even would be the case of being laid off unexpectedly. This can turn your life upside down. Or maybe you are a student and had plans to enter a special program and then unexpectedly failed a course that meant you were no longer eligible for entry. Now you might have to look at different options. Among the most drastic of examples, we can consider the situation where you or a family member suddenly falls seriously ill. Such an event can change your life in the blink of an eye. When our lives change suddenly like this we can feel an array of strong emotions: sadness, confusion, anger and discouragement. It is very natural to wonder why God would allow these things to happen. Accepting the situation can seem impossible at times. We all know how difficult an experience it is when our life is changed suddenly.

From the example of St. Joseph we learn that trusting in God is an effective response in such circumstances. In the Gospel of today we see that in the face of such a dramatic change in his life, Joseph was able to trust that God was in charge. Such an action must not have been easy for St. Joseph. Trust like that is hard for all of us. As the following story illustrates, such trust really takes a leap of faith. One night, a house caught fire and a small boy was forced to flee to the roof of the house. The boy’s father stood on the ground below with his arms outstretched and yelled to his son, “jump, I will catch you!” The father knew that his son must jump in order to survive. When he looked down, however, all the boy could see was smoke, fire and blackness. Quite understandably, he was too terrified to leave the roof. The man yelled again to his son, “jump, I will catch you!” But the boy protested, “daddy, I can’t see you!”  To this the father replied, “But I can see you, and that’s all that matters.” When faced with unexpected changes in life, we can find ourselves in the position of the little boy. Trusting that God, our Father, is there with us can be terrifying. It is hard to believe that He is in control, because he can seem so hidden. But He does see us and He will save us. Taking the leap to trust that God is in charge is an effective and powerful way to respond when our life is changed suddenly.

When we are able to trust in this way, we allow God to work wonders. This kind of trust has an incredible power to transform our lives and the lives of others. We can see this so clearly in the life of St. Joseph. After he had his dream, he made the decision to trust God which set into motion an incredible chain of events. He welcomed Mary into his home and became the foster father of Jesus the Saviour of the world. Joseph went on to play a unique and important role in the history of salvation.  Looking back at the example of my friend and his commute we can see what a difference trust made. He trusted that there was a reason to allow his plans to get ruined. Instead of becoming frustrated he was able to have an important conversation with a co-worker. When we trust in God He will work powerfully in our life and the life of others.

Perhaps you have heard this before… How do you make God laugh? Tell him about your plans. Unexpected changes are part of life. Because of this, it is so important that we follow the example of St. Joseph and trust that God is ultimately in control. Today we should ask ourselves an important question: has something unexpected happened to me in my life that I find difficult to accept? In this Mass we can ask God for the grace to trust that God is in control. When we do this, God will act. Trust allows Jesus and His peace and joy to more fully work in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Overcoming Criticism

These days we are all aware of the need to keep our heart healthy. Many foods are even advertised as being “heart healthy”.  The heart is perhaps the most important organ as it pumps life-giving blood throughout the body. We know that eating certain foods have a bad effect on our heart because arteries become clogged and blood flow is restricted. Clogged arteries put a barrier in the way of blood and our health suffers. This situation is one we want to avoid. Interestingly, a similar problem can affect our spiritual health.

The life of Jesus is like the blood that should flow freely throughout our existence, bringing us nourishment and strength. In particular, when the life of Christ is alive in us, we should be filled with joy.  On this third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday, we are reminded that the coming of Jesus brings joy. We light a pink candle on the Advent Wreath and can wear rose-colored vestments in order to recall an important message:  Jesus, the one who brings joy is coming soon! Recently, Pope Francis wrote a document called “The Joy of the Gospel”. There he explains the effect that Jesus should have on our lives. In the opening lines he writes:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. (EVANGELII GAUDIUM, 1)
In our bodies, when our heart is working well and blood is pumped freely, our health is good.  Likewise, when the life of Jesus flows freely in our lives we are spiritually healthy; in particular we should be filled with joy.

During this Advent season, we have been challenged to remove any obstacles that prevent the life of Christ from flowing freely in our heart. We have tried to remove any barriers that stop Jesus from coming into our life. With a physical heart, when we eat unhealthy food, our arteries become clogged, blood-flow is restricted and our health is damaged. Likewise, certain behaviors cause barriers in our spiritual life and prevent the life of Christ from fully entering our life. This has a negative effect on our spiritual health. In the end it decreases our joy. Advent is a time to ask ourselves an important question: what behaviors in my life have become barriers which prevent Jesus from fully entering my heart? More than this, we have been challenged to change these behaviors.  Last week we met the figure of John the Baptist and heard his message to repent because Jesus is coming soon. In the Gospel of today, Jesus praises the person of John the Baptist and stresses the importance of his message. Returning to our heart analogy, repentance is about identifying ways in which our arteries have become blocked and trying to remove these blockages so that blood can travel freely once more. During Advent we are challenged to repent and remove any obstacles that stop Jesus and His joy from fully entering our life.

In the second reading from the Letter of James, we were warned against a certain behavior that greatly damages our spiritual health: criticism and complaining.  When we tear down other people, we put up a barrier that stops Jesus from fully entering our life.  Criticizing and complaining damages a community, whether it be our family, our work community or our parish. On top of this, such behavior harms us because it makes us preoccupied with what is bad or going wrong. When we get stuck in this habit, we lose sight of all the good things in our life. In the end, we prevent Jesus from filling us with joy.  Unfortunately, criticizing is all too easy. As the following story illustrates, we can always find something to complain about.  
A father and his son took a donkey to the market. At first, the man sat on the donkey, and the boy walked. People along the way said, “What a terrible thing, a big strong fellow sitting on the donkey’s back, while the youngster has to walk.” So the father dismounted, and the son took his place. Soon onlookers remarked, “How terrible, this man walking, and the little boy sitting.” At that, they both got on the donkey’s back—only to hear others say, “How cruel, two people sitting on one donkey.” Off they came. But other bystanders commented. “How crazy, the donkey has nothing on his back and two people are walking.” Finally, they were both carrying the donkey. They never did make it to market.”
We need to be on guard against criticizing and complaining. Such behavior tears apart community and acts as a barrier preventing Jesus from fully entering our life.

There are practical ways that we can repent of this behavior. Just because criticism and complaining is sadly commonplace does not mean that we should just give up trying to better ourselves in this area.  I would like to offer two practical suggestions.
  1.  Be aware of what you are doing. Once we realize that we tend to criticize and complain we should stop and think, “why am I behaving like this?” Be aware that criticizing and complaining is often an attempt to tear others down in order to make ourselves feel better. Our criticisms often say more about ourselves and our own insecurities than it does about other.
  2.  Actively search out the good in others. It is all too easy notice what others have done wrong. Challenge yourself to search for the good in others and recognize this. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is that for everything negative we say about someone we should say two positive comments. This means that is we cannot find something good to say, we should not say anything at all.  

The habit of criticizing and complaining can be overcome. Since this behavior damages our community and prevents the joy of Christ from fully entering our life it is well worth the effort.

Christmas is just 10 days away. We all want to take steps to welcome Christ as fully as possible into our lives. Just as blood gives life to the body, Jesus alone is the one who gives nourishment and joy to our life. Let us try to remove obstacles that prevent the life of Christ from flowing freely in our hearts, in particular the habit of being critical and complaining.   Today ask yourselves if there is perhaps one particular area in which you criticize and complain a lot: family, work, or parish community. This is a clogged artery and is bad for your spiritual health. Try to unclog this artery by actively searching for the good in others rather than being content to simply complain and criticize.  Our personal joy and the joy of our community depend upon it.