Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The season of Advent began on the evening of Dec. 1, 2018. It is probably my favorite time of the church year. Despite the distractions of a “commercial winter holiday” (they won’t even let us call it Christmas), this season is rich in quiet beauty, silence, early darkness and even blankets of snow. It is a time to be warmed and covered by God our Father’s great love for us.
In this first week of Advent, we look forward once again to the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This is a time of preparation, of examining and, if necessary, re-ordering our priorities, so that we will be ready when he arrives, just as the wise virgins were ready (see Mt 25:1-13). We spend much time and effort on preparing our homes to celebrate Christmas, cleaning and decorating and shopping for gifts. Should we not also spend a little time and effort on preparing our hearts for Jesus?
I desire to use this Advent as a spiritual retreat, an opportunity for personal renewal of my vocation as priest and bishop. In the spirit of such a retreat, I offer these brief, personal, and heart-felt reflections, and I urge each of you, also, to spend time in prayerful reflection about your own vocation in the church.
This Advent comes at a time of suffering and confusion for our church. My heart is weary of bad news, of failed leadership, of scandal and corruption. I long to hear prophetic voices speaking of peace, of an uplifting of what is good and just, and of renewal of God’s covenant with his faithful children.
In fact, we do hear such voices in our Advent readings. “I will raise up for David a just shoot. He will do what is right and just in the land” (Jeremiah 33:15, first Sunday of Advent). “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery. Put on the splendor of glory from God forever…” (Baruch 5:1, second Sunday of Advent). “The Lord has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst…” (Zephaniah 3:15, third Sunday of Advent).
As a bishop, such words convict me, not merely personally for my own sins and failings (as indeed they should all of us, for how far we all are from the holiness which Christ desires for us), but for all the sins and failings of the church’s leaders. Yet, paradoxically, they also give me comfort and hope, because Christ, who knows the weakness of our fallen nature intimately from his incarnation, and who foreknew each one of our sins even before the first moment of creation, still loves each of us enough to come into the world to die for our salvation.
I, too, need to hear again this great message of hope. I, too, need to be reminded to seek God’s perfect justice and righteousness, and that with Christ there is ultimately an end to mourning, and that my “enemies,” the things that afflict and burden my heart, do not divide me from the presence of my king and savior.
Yet there is always a cost for this hope, this faith. Christ’s gift of salvation is free in the sense that I cannot in the least earn it. It is not free in the sense that it makes no demands on me. On the contrary, to receive the mercy, hope, and love of Christ as our savior will cost me everything, even my very life – but only in terms of this world. “He who loves his life will lose it. He who hates his life in this world, will preserve it for eternal life” (Jn 12:25).
This is precisely why the current scandals in the church are so bitter. Too many priests and bishops forgot that to follow Jesus means to die to self. They tried to be both in the world (which we are be virtue of being created), and of the world (which we no longer are, by virtue of being baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection).
For too long, nearly the whole church has accepted the lie that the cost of discipleship could be set aside, that we could all be exactly the same as those on the “broad and easy path,” yet somehow ourselves remain on the “narrow way” that leads to salvation.
Is that not a contradiction, and a turning away from the clear teaching of Christ? Have I, as priest and bishop, been too hesitant to denounce this lie, or too quick to go along with the easy, compromising way? Have I tolerated evil in your holy church, oh my savior?
I pray: Jesus, my infant king whom I long once more to see, strengthen my faith and my commitment to follow you wherever you lead. Do not judge me as I deserve, for no one can withstand your justice, but be merciful towards me, and towards all those you have placed in my care. Increase my zeal, inflame my heart with the fire of your love, give me courage to say and to do whatever is necessary for the salvation of souls, to speak the truth in love.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as I place myself in prayer before Jesus in this first week of Advent, I hold all of you close to my heart. I hope you, too, open your hearts regularly in prayer to God’s guidance and correction, and may use this season of preparation for spiritual renewal. May God move in your heart and mind with his peace, courage, hope, and love. May God bless you with an Advent renewal of faith.
Please pray for me, just as I pray always for all of you.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City