A Life for Christ — 2nd Sunday of Advent—Year C

This weekend the Catholic Church Jesus Christ established joyfully celebrates and remembers one of her martyrs. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he answered God’s calling. He renounced his possessions, left his home and family behind, and lived in a different land. He lived differently, he dressed differently, and lived a celibate life for the love of God and the service of God’s people. His life was a prophetic sign for others, pointing them to Christ and his Kingdom. He was humble but brave in doing what was right. And for this faithfulness, the wicked had him killed. Today we celebrate him as one of those blessed in the Kingdom of Heaven. This description sounds a lot like St. John the Baptist, featured in today’s Gospel, but I speak of another: Brother James Miller, born in our diocese, a native son of Stevens Point, who became a Christian Brother and a missionary. He was martyred in Guatemala and, in a Mass celebrated there yesterday (December 7, 2019) was beatified by the Catholic Church, that is, declared one of the blessed in Heaven.

James Miller was born in Stevens Point in 1944, grew up on a dairy farm, and graduated from Pacelli High School. Discerning his religious vocation, he entered the novitiate of the Christian Brothers in 1962, and taught for them in St. Paul, Minnesota. In addition to teaching religion, Brother James taught English and Spanish, coached football, and worked in the maintenance of the school building. In fact, his skill and pleasure in doing such repairs would win him the nickname “Brother Fix-it.” After taking final vows in 1969, Brother James was sent abroad. He worked as a teacher, an administrator, and even a builder of schools in both Nicaragua and Guatemala, serving the poor with Christ’s love.

It was a time of great violence in Latin America, of war and terrorism between the region’s dictatorial governments and communist rebels. In these conflicts, Catholic priests and religious could be marked for death by either side. The Sandinista rebels put Brother James on a list of people to be “dealt with,” viewing him as an ally of the Nicaraguan government, but it may have been his religious community’s resistance to the Guatemalan government’s wrongdoing which led to his martyrdom.

Despite the students at Brother James’ school in Guatemala being exempt from being drafted, four men abducted a local youth from the city marketplace and forced him into military service. The Christian Brothers went to the authorities objecting to this breach and demanding their young man’s release. Soon after, on February 13, 1982, the 37-years-old Brother James Miller was up on a ladder outside, repairing a wall of the school building. There, he was shot, point-blank, multiple times, by three still-unknown gunmen. It is suggested that Brother James died before his body hit the ground.

When I read the story of St. John the Baptist’s martyrdom — of how his objection to the king’s sin landed him in a prison, of how the dancing of Herod’s daughter, the rash vows of the king, and the scheming of his vengeful queen, resulted in an executioner being dispatched to the dungeon with orders to bring back John’s head on a platter — I wonder if John the Baptist knew what was coming. Did he have any awareness of the events at the party leading to his death? I think quite likely not. I can easily imagine the sword-bearing henchman entering John’s dark cell, giving a curt command for him to bend down, and ending his holy life without any warning or explanation.

This reflection comes to mind because when Brother James was getting into the car to depart for dangerous Guatemala and, though they did not know it, he would never return, his biological brother Ralph told him to “be careful.” Brother James replied, “I’m no martyr.” And yet Brother James Miller and John the Baptist did become martyrs. They may not have expected the day or hour, but they had already made the decision to live for Christ and even die for Christ years before. Whether to love and serve Christ the King is a decision, a resolution, we each have to make and constantly renew. There is no hedging – not making the choice is making a choice; and everything follows from the choice we make.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, has a famous prayer reflection: “The Meditation on Two Standards.” (The word “Standard” in this case means a military or ceremonial flag carried on a pole.) St. Ignatius asks us to imagine a great field near Jerusalem, the holy city, where the supreme commander-in-chief of the good is Christ our Lord; and another field in the region of Babylon, the city of sin, where the chief of the enemy is Lucifer.

Imagine that chief of all the enemy seated in that field of Babylon in a great throne of fire and smoke, horrible and terrifying in shape. Consider how he issues a summons to innumerable demons and how he scatters them, some to one city and others to another, and so through all the world not one province, place, state, nor particular person is omitted. Consider how he instructs them to cast out nets and chains; to tempt human beings to a longing for riches, to a desire for the vain honor of this world, and to vast pride, thereby leading them to all other sins besides.

And then, on the contrary, imagine the supreme and true captain, who is Christ our Lord. Consider how Christ our Lord puts himself in a great field near Jerusalem, in a humble place, beautiful and welcoming. Consider how the Lord of all the world chooses so many persons – apostles, disciples, and others – and sends them through all the world spreading his holy teaching to people of all conditions and states of life. Consider the discourse which Christ our Lord gives to all His servants and friends whom He sends on this expedition, counseling them to poverty rather than riches; to contempt for worldly honor, and to humility against pride, leading them to all other virtues besides.

Whose side, whose standard will you rally to today? John the Baptist appears in our Gospel crying out to us: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Blessed James Miller and St. John the Baptist gloriously rejoice today with their Lord, Jesus Christ the King. Now, which side do you choose? With whom and for whom will you live and die?

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