'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'

Friday, November 18, 2016 - Updated: 6:00 am

The spring of 1968 was a time of unprecedented disquiet in our country. The beginning of April that year saw the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pacifist and civil rights leader. In the days shortly after Dr. King’s murder, race riots broke out across the country, evidence of a divide between the races in our country.

Because of the great unrest in the country, a number of events, public and private, were canceled or rescheduled. One of those rescheduled events was the Academy Awards, Hollywood’s annual recognition of significant achievements in the motion picture industry.

As some of you may remember, the movie that won Best Picture of the Year was “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It starred Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, whose daughter brings home for dinner her beau, an African-American man played by Sidney Poitier. The film, in a very powerful way, underscored the discomfort many have about welcoming into their homes and hearts people who are not like them. Whether race or national origin, political persuasion or religious affiliation, economic status or employment, many of us unfortunately wear blinders that prevent us from seeing the face of Christ in certain people.

The face of Christ

You and I, as pilgrims on the journey to God’s kingdom in heaven, will very shortly begin the holy season of Advent. Advent is the liturgical season of the church year that is devoted to preparing for the anniversary of the birth of Christ at Christmas. “When the church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present the ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” 524).

Advent not only affords us the opportunity to reflect back on salvation history and the waiting of God’s chosen people for the birth of the Messiah. Advent not only helps us to prepare for meeting the Messiah at the end of our lives. Advent rightly challenges us to reflect and meditate on both realities by placing before our attention another important reality: How willing and ready are we to recognize Christ as he chooses to come to us TODAY? How willing and ready are we to see the face of Christ where we would rather not see him? Part of the struggle for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was welcoming Sidney Poitier, not only as a dinner guest, but potentially into their family and most especially into their hearts.

The Advent season, in which we will soon be immersed, carries with it the customary seasonal sentiments of preparing for Christmas. The telltale signs are all about us. The upcoming Light Up Night. The twinkling lights of Christmas decorations brightening up our neighborhoods. The checkout lines in greeting card stores becoming longer. Parking spaces in mall lots already at a premium. Wish lists of people whom we love occupying a special place in women’s purses and men’s wallets. Christmas carols with familiar annual tunes.

However, these sights, sounds and sentiments of the Christmas season do have a way of distracting us from the real meaning of the season. If we are not careful, the sights, sounds and sentiments of the season can secularize what Advent is all about.

Advent expectation

One of the ways in which we can observe Advent this year is by attuning ourselves to three important realities of Advent expectation:

1. Whenever we crack open our Bibles and read the ancient and familiar stories of the chosen people waiting for the coming of the Messiah, we do have the opportunity to reflect on how important it is for us to identify with their waiting — by seeing once again the important place that God should have in each of our lives.

2. Whenever we take the familiar passages of the Bible that challenge us to focus our attention on preparing for the second coming of Jesus at the end of our lives, we get a chance to assess what, in fact, are the priorities of our lives, TODAY.

3. And finally, whenever we look back with our ancestors in the faith and look forward with the eyes of hope, we are called to see how welcoming are our hearts to the presence of Jesus now — especially in others and in situations of life wherein we might not readily want to welcome Jesus.

Part of the challenge that I anticipate facing this holy season of Advent (and I suspect many of you as well), and especially following the recent political campaign, is to take a look at where I need to see Jesus and where I have been unwilling to look for him in the past.

Perhaps for many of us, that struggle will mirror the struggles of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Perhaps we need to confront ourselves with the prejudices that blind our vision.

Perhaps our struggle will cause us to focus on where Christ is in the midst of situations we might be tempted to think of as hopeless.

Perhaps our journey to heaven will encourage us to shift any preoccupation we may have with power, prestige or popularity.

John the Baptist

Yes, there are a number of “characters” of Advent who challenge us to face squarely our willingness or unwillingness to recognize Christ as he chooses to come to us. One of those important ancestors of the faith is John the Baptist. A sentiment of his life must become the desire of our lives as Christians: “Jesus must increase, but I must decrease.” I suspect that, when all is said and done, each one of us would have to admit that that is the challenge of Advent and of every one of the 365 days of the year: “Jesus must increase, but I must decrease.”

There is much that can be said about the lessons taught by the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” As with that film, Advent calls us to welcome Christ as the invited guest into our hearts. But Advent also invites us to see ourselves as the invited guests to God’s banquet table in heaven. Whether we arrive at that table in the future depends in large part on how we are ready to welcome the same God into our hearts today.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

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