While it may have been used before, the phrase “too big to fail” wasn’t as familiar to most individuals until 2007-2008. That’s when the Banks in the United States and around the world found themselves amid a financial crisis that some claim was as severe as the Great Depression. To avoid a further economic catastrophe, arguing that because these different financial institutions were so intertwined with so many other businesses, it would have this domino effect, causing other companies and industries to face potential ruin, these banks were said to be “too big to fail.” Which meant the government had to bail them out. Well, more specifically, all of us taxpayers had to bail them out whether we wanted to or not. That phrase, “too big to fail,” seems to be getting deployed more frequently in the years that have followed. The other night, on this podcast, which had a bunch of individuals discussing marketing, entertainment, and financial issues, they talked about how Disney, in one year, has lost close to $200 billion – and how Anheuser-Busch has lost over $27 billion in just four months because of both companies inserting themselves into political, cultural issues that are controversial. One of the guests speculated that there were executives who must have thought they might upset some people but that both companies had been around for so long that they could weather whatever fall-out they might receive. Yet now, both examples were being cited as contenders for who committed the greatest act of brand suicide.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT – December 3, 2023. I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
All of these crises – whether it was the Banks in 2007, or Disney, Anheuser Busch this year – have many things in common, but one in particular is an astonishing arrogance -where they’ve even created ths vocabulary that has been accepted: “Too big to fail?” Says who? It’s somewhat shocking to see these types of massive examples occurring where people rightly wonder how it is possible to continue to make such mistakes without learning from them, and some even getting away with them (whether not facing any criminal charges or after making a mess at one company finding a job relatively quickly at another one). One of the commentators speculating who was worse between Disney and Anheuser-Busch said somewhat philosophically, “If you think that you are more powerful than your audience, you have lost the plot,” as the rest of the panel argued what will happen next and whether other companies will be a bit more thoughtful before making similar foolish and destructive moves.
But as people of faith, we realize that this hubris and lack of humility isn’t a new phenomenon and will likely continue. While they might not have ever said it, over 2,500 years ago, the Israelites had fallen for that lie that they, too, were “too big to fail.” They had been God’s Chosen People – He chose Them. That’s pretty remarkable. And they saw what that had meant – centuries before with amazing signs and wonders: God Himself appearing to Moses in a bush that was on fire, but not consuming the bush, leading the people out of slavery in Egypt into freedom with more miracles like the ten plagues, the pillar of fire, pillar of cloud leading them to the parting of the Red Sea, to being fed manna, this heavenly bread that literally rained down upon them while they were in the wilderness. They heard, they saw, they experienced the power of the Lord God, they knew there was – there is– no other. But Israel had, as our marketing friend put it, “lost the plot,” so to speak. Namely in their presumption of God’s protection and favor, conveniently forgetting how they had turned away from God. So once again, the people find themselves oppressed by foreigners who hate them, enslaving and humiliating them to the point that they realize they’re in deep, deep trouble. God’s chosen people look like they’re about to be obliterated.
That’s what we hear with the prophet Isaiah, somewhat sounding confused in this beautifully poetic first reading: You, Lord, are our father, our redeemer, you are named forever, he begins, shifting in the following sentence: “Why do you let us wander O Lord from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Then he shifts back praying that God would “rend the heavens, come down, with the mountains quaking before you…” doing awesome deeds as He did before, knowing that “No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds.” At first, it might sound like Isaiah blames God, but he’s not. He’s overwhelmed by the sinfulness of his fellow people. He’s saddened seeing what they have done with God’s most precious and generous gifts to humanity of freedom. He’s horrified with the lack of faithfulness and how far they have fallen, having been God’s chosen people. Were they still? You can hear the tension of that question as Isaiah recalls God’s goodness, what He has done, and what He can do, and asks, “why couldn’t you save us from ourselves?” Which is ultimately the question. Why does God take this massive gamble in allowing us to turn away? To turn away from His law, To turn away from His commandments? To turn away from His love? To turn away from Him?
While Isaiah knows what God is capable of doing – while He wishes for that to be made manifest amid these dire circumstances, he knows that ‘we are sinful, we have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags.’ Isaiah knows that this is a mess of their own creation. They have learned quite well; they are not too big to fail. But Isaiah ends on a hopeful note – “You are our father, we are the clay, and you the potter, we are all the work of your hands.” Isaiah doesn’t see how things will ever turn around to get better. But he knows that it has to start with the people having a change of heart, remembering the plot – they could still be God’s Chosen people. But that would require repenting of their self-sufficiency borne of ignorance and unfounded self-righteousness and looking to God as their father, humbling themselves to see the need to be “clay” that needs to be refashioned by the master potter’s hands.
It’s obvious why the prophet’s words greet us as we begin this Holy Season of Advent. In the year 2023, seemingly everywhere we turn is disturbing news that seems to either broadcast or sow seeds of instability, anxiety, and fear. War drums are being banged by people who will never set foot on any battlefield themselves but easily send others sons and daughters. Economic predators whose greed seems to know no bounds. Health scares are being launched, terrorizing people still traumatized from COVID. And the lists can go on and on. As people of faith, it’s not unreasonable for us to come together and want to join our voices with Isaiah’s – God – why don’t you just rend the heavens, come down, fix this, fix that, fix us – save us from ourselves.
But we can’t just take that part of the scripture, that quote, out of context, and forget the rest of what Isaiah says. We have to internalize the rest of his calls… And recognize we have even more significant issues as a people than the Israelites did: When we see how quote/unquote advanced we are as a society and as a world and consider some realities, we need to be concerned. That we have so much stuff, so much food, so much convenience -yet people are struggling, starving, and homeless, whether globally or in our neighborhoods, is unconscionable. That we can see and hear vulgarity, violence, and pornography not on some cable TV channel that you can block but that our children can see on their phones – and what that is doing to their minds and hearts, what it is doing to all of our minds and hearts barely even makes it into public discourse let alone debates is disturbing. That we have so much science and knowledge that every couple I know that is expecting a child is almost overloaded with appointments measuring every possible thing imaginable, evaluating week by week the growth and development of their baby son or daughter – and yet abortion is still a legalized horrific crime against humanity that a large number have argue in favor of is astonishing. For all of my life, the argument that some used to offer was that a bunch of people on the Supreme Court just decided that, and there was nothing they could do. That’s not the case anymore, and now people are actually voting to make abortion legal. So there’s a greater moral responsibility on all of us than ever before.
We can go on and on – and that’s not to dismiss any of those issues as not worth digging deeper into. They, and many others, demand men and women who claim to be of Judeo-Christian faith to be addressed as God’s people. But for us, as Catholic Christians beginning this Holy Season of Advent, that is an essential message the scriptures confront us with, which might seem surprising. The avalanche of Christmas marketing numbs us, and many of us, myself included, have succumbed to all those beautiful tasks and traditions of preparing for Christmas that Advent is treated like the Church trying to tap our breaks on them and remembering “the reason for the season.” But Advent is more than just about Jesus being born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, that first Christmas. Pope Benedict XVI once beautifully said, “Advent is living on the closeness of God and toward the closeness of God.” As Catholic Christians, as much as we’re facing more significant challenges than the Israelites of Isaiah’s day and age, that’s why we are confident and hopeful. We’re not crying out to God and waiting for Him to reveal Himself or His plan. Jesus Christ has been born, crucified, and risen from the dead. We’re not to pretend like those things didn’t happen so we can be surprised at Christmas. That is our Hope. This cry of Isaiah for God to come down has been fulfilled.
To the cries and concerns of humanity of our day and age, Jesus speaks directly in today’s Gospel. The entire tone of the Gospel reading is far from the idyllic strains of “silent night.” This passage comes from Jesus speaking to his apostles and disciples right before His passion and death, warning them that one of the consequences of that which would look and feel like “the end of the world” to the Jews of Jesus’ day and age was the destruction of Jerusalem. The loss of this their city, this their temple, coupled with the horrific slaughter of over 1.1 million Jews in less than five months – it’s a reminder of how often our elder brothers and sisters of the covenant have suffered atrocities at the hands of evil men. That’s the historical context of Jesus saying, “Be watchful, Be alert!” But the Church has seen and heard in this a deeper spiritual message to His followers of every day and age.
We have to be mindful of the spiritual warfare that is still continuing, that the evil one and his lies, his manipulations, his lulling people into complacency, and lukewarmness are still at work and will be until the end of time. And that there will be great harm done from that. But unlike Isaiah, we have met God – we hear Him speaking directly to us in these words. We dare to receive Jesus’ very body and blood into the innermost parts of ourselves when we receive the Eucharist. To us, he says, “BE WATCHFUL, BE ALERT… WATCH”
In a world where we constantly hear about people being “woke,” Jesus is calling us to wake up. In a world of hardening of hearts, where God has gone from being mocked and denied to openly hated in graphic ways, I won’t deign to share. When we see continued examples that make us fearful and worried by things we see and experience that feel like “end times,” these words are meant to shake us, telling us not to focus on those things but on Him.
A year ago, I first learned of and started reading this book entitled “Advent of the Heart” which was written by a priest named Fr. Alfred Delp, who was falsely accused, arrested, and eventually martyred by the Nazis in 1945. What put him in their crosshairs was that he often preached about the horrors they were experiencing and feared of his time. Fr Delp wrote this collection of homilies while he was expecting that he would killed just as millions of others were, giving an incredible weight to his reflections. He said, “Advent means a heart that is awake and ready.” And in one moving homily, he challenged his congregants, “Yes, Arise! It is time to awaken from sleep. It is time for an awakening to begin somewhere, and it is time that someone places things again in the order that they were given by the Lord God. Moreover, it is time for each individual to use every opportunity to guide life into this order now – and to do it with the same ‘unshakeability’ with which the Lord will come.”
No one, nothing, no people, no institution, no nation can ever be said to be “too big to fail.” History is a particularly sobering reminder of that reality. But our source, our origin, our destiny – our God – hears our cries, rends the heavens in this very time, in this same space – reminding us that the only plot that ultimately matters is found in Him. Will we awaken and be watchful, be alert to His presence already in our midst, realizing it is in believing in Him and perceiving His presence that we have everything we could ever want or need?
Thanks to everyone who contributed on #GivingTuesday and kicked off our Newman Catholic Center at Montclair State University (aka Red Hawk Catholic) Annual Christmas Appeal. To our goal of $35,000, we’ve raised about 25% so far (appx. $9,000). We appreciate your considering to support us and our mission of bringing Christ’s light and life to the faculty, staff, administration and especially the students of MSU! To donate online, please click our PayPal Link here . (If for some reason the link doesn’t work, you can get to the Donate link on REDHAWKCATHOLIC.COM the link is on the top to the right. Checks can be made out and mailed to Newman Catholic; 894 Valley Road, Montclair, NJ 07043. Thanks so much for your generosity and support! Father Jim