The Accent of Advent – Discovering our Need for a Savior

Advent is nearly over and what have we done? If we have prayed and reflected in the proper spirit of Advent then we have meditated well on our need for a savior, so that, as we celebrate his presence among us we may have great joy. Advent, to some extent lays out the bad news so that the good news of a cure will be experienced as fabulous.

One of the great problems in the Church today has been the suppression of the “bad news.”  Many in the Church prefer not to talk about sin in a direct and clear manner. If it is mentioned at all it is usually done by way of abstractions and generalities. The paradoxical result of this suppression is not a happier Church, but one which seems more lukewarm, even, in some ways, sadder. Largely gone are the religious festivals, joyful processions, and the confident and public expression of Catholic faith.

But in the end the point of Christmas is really to be the joyful “counterpoint” to sin: Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord! Advent is to set the stage for Christmas joy by reminding us of the drama of sin that threatens to destroy us. Suddenly Christ appears to cast out our ancient enemy! Today is born our SAVIOR! Christ the Lord.

Early in my priesthood I had occasion to work with a religious sister who often vigorously disagreed with my preaching. In particular it was my rather explicit mentioning of sin itself that upset her. She was in her 70s  and had grown up in what she termed a “very severe” Church. She said that she and her generation had worked hard to usher in a kinder, gentler Church;  a Church that was more consoling, encouraging, and positive. Mentioning sin reminded her of the bad old Church. But what really sent her over the edge was a book she’d read by a popular theologian of that time, Matthew Fox. The title of the book was Original Blessing  It amounted to a denial of Original Sin and presented a theory that everyone was basically good, and meant well. At least this is what Sister got out of it. (Fox has since left the Dominican Order and the Catholic Faith after his credentials to teach as a Catholic Theologian were withdrawn due to his denial of Original Sin).

“Everyone is basically good and means well? Does she really believe that?”  It seemed so crazy and naive to me. I know that there is goodness in all of us, but if we are all in such good shape why did Jesus have to save us? Each day I would bring her the newspaper and set it down before her. In every edition there was the daily fare of crime, political corruption, astonishing greed, another murder, another sexual scandal, the end of another celebrity marriage, statistics showing higher divorce rates, higher levels of teenage pregnancy, increasing dropout rates and on and on. “Sister,” I said, “If it isn’t Original Sin at work, what is it?” As you might imagine, she had a thousand different answers, any answer but the Church’s doctrinal answer.

OK, here’s the bottom line. We all need a savior! I have no doubt that there are things about most,  if not all,  of us that are fundamentally good and decent. Thank you Lord. But the bottom line is we’ve all got some “stuff” going on that isn’t good, we’ve got some “issues” that need addressing, or to use the old fashioned word: we’ve got sin. Joseph and Mary were told to “Name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.” (Matt 1:21).

One of the goals of Advent (at heart, a penitential season) is to meditate on our need for a savior. In daily Mass and in the Liturgy of the hours we read lengthy passages from Isaiah and the other prophets who speak boldly and bluntly about the people’s sin. Some of the passages are even humorous. Here are a few:

  1. Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!  For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master,  the donkey his owner’s manger,  but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!  They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. Why should you be beaten anymore?  Why do you persist in rebellion?  Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head  there is no soundness— only wounds and welts and open sores,  not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil. (Isaiah 1: 2-6)
  2. Hear this O House of Jacob, called by the name Israel, sprung from the stock of Judah. You swear by the name of the Lord and invoke the God of Israel, but without sincerity or justice….I know that you are stubborn, that you neck is like an iron sinew and you forehead is bronze! (Isaiah 48:1, 4)
  3. All of us have become like one who is unclean,  and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;  we all shrivel up like a leaf,  and like the wind our sins sweep us away.  No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you;  for you have hidden your face from us  and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter;  we are all the work of your hand…. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! (Isaiah 64:6-8,1)

Negative or Necessary? Texts like these are not merely negative, self deprecating texts. They are truthful descriptions of the human family wounded by sin and are meant as a kind of diagnosis that will make us yearn for a cure, yearn for a savior. Any honest self assessment will reveal to all of us that we are in desperate need of a savior. Collectively the human family has been deeply wounded by Original Sin and all the “piling on” of sin we have done since. We have a fallen nature, live in a fallen world, dominated by a fallen angel.

And the problem is not just a collective one. You and I personally are sinful and need a savior. If we are honest we have to admit that we can be: selfish, egotistical, rude, insensitive, prideful, lustful, greedy, unkind and ungrateful. We can be dishonest, insincere, shallow, inconsistent, double minded and uncommitted. We can be stingy, selfish, petty, spiteful, hateful, wrathful, revengeful and just plain mean. We struggle with laziness, indifference, worldliness, lack of discipline and self control. We routinely fail to give witness to Christ and our faith. We fail to submit our will to God, to give good example, to act justly, show mercy or repent. We fail to obey God, lead a holy life, stand up for justice, speak the truth, call sinners to Christ and pray for others. Did I mention somewhere that we need a savior?

A good advent sets the stage for a joyful Christmas. Now joyful is different than sentimental. Without a deep appreciation of our desperate state, Christmas is reduced to a sentimental sort of thing: “Isn’t that sweet, the baby Jesus is so cute!” No indeed, Christmas is more! Today is born our SAVIOR, Christ the Lord! The crib leads right to the cross. Christ has come so we stand a chance! He took up our humanity to restore it and the gift that he is offering you and me this Christmas is a transformed humanity. Through the sacraments and the power of his Word Jesus sets loose a healing power that puts sinful drives to death and brings forth grace healing, peace, mercy, love, generosity, kindness, patience, chastity, self-control, serenity, a praying spirit, gratitude, confidence, countless gifts and talents, and an ultimate and complete transformation.

Deny sin, you deny the Savior.Deny the Savior and and the need for salvation and the incarnation and the cross are emptied of meaning. Hmm… looks like a soulful admission of sin is the necessary premise to rejoice this Christmas. Have you been to confession? No Advent is complete without it.

This video from West Side Story is one of the lesser known scenes. It takes up the modern attitude and refrain that everyone is basically good and that if one seems depraved it is only that he is deprived. In the end even these gang members know better. Sure they’ve have a tough life, but they are not without personal responsibility and one day they will face the judge. A savior, not a social worker is the only one who can help them on that day.

6 Replies to “The Accent of Advent – Discovering our Need for a Savior”

  1. I enjoyed reading your post. I personally don’t like people to butter up the truth and sugarcoat things. If I’m doing something wrong, I want honesty so I can fix it! A big problem I see with patients in the ER today (especially children and teens these days) is that too many people in their lives have sugarcoated things for them. When they get the truth, or a nurse, doctor or tech who is particularly blunt and honest, they don’t know how to handle it.

    I always have had an issue with dreaming about revenge on those who have badly hurt me, and people I love and care for (not that I’ve ever carried it out, it’s always wishful thinking on my part!). However, a quote I saw recently has put to rest my thoughts of the bad people getting exactly what they deserve. It goes like this: “If I were to do unto others as others do unto me, how much jail time is that?” It made me laugh, and made me think about what would happen if I actually did carry out my wishful thinking. I’d probably be in a lot of trouble!

    My point is, I took a lot away from this post and I agree with you a hundred percent. While it would be great if the world wasn’t in sin, it is, and we need to see it rather than ignore it or sugarcoat it.

  2. A good reminder. I think in many ways we have lost the sense that Advent is a penitential season just as much as Lent. We would do well to recover it.

    I’ve met many well meaning people who have taken the attitude of the sister that you spoke of when it comes to teaching the faith: the less mention of sin the better. While clearly this attitude is mistaken, I think there is something worth listening to in it. Many of those who adopt such an attitude have, like the sister, experienced a version of the faith in which the emphasis is so heavily placed on sin and the threat of God’s judgment that there is little place left for joy. If the most common emotions I associate with my relationship with God are fear and guilt, then I will find it hard to love God. The solution is not, of course, to toss out the notion of sin, but rather to ensure that it is being understood properly and grounded adequately in a theology of redemption.

    1) understanding sin properly: For far too long, too many Catholics were taught (implicitly or explicitly) to think of sin as a rather lengthy and arbitrary set of divine rules. Break them, and you will pay the price unless you repent. I have found that people can better appreciate the concept of sin when it is introduced with one of the definitions used in the Catechism: sin “is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor” (no. 1849). Go is love, and what he commands of us is love. When we act contrary to love, that hurts our relationships- with God, with our neighbor, and even with ourself. God does not want this. He desires us to have communion with him and one another. So he he tells us not to do the things that distance us from him and others and alienate us form ourself. His rules aren’t arbitrary; they are rooted in how he created us and in what sort of creatures we are. His rules aren’t restrictions on our freedom that impinge upon our happiness (as many seem to think); rather they are guidelines on how to be free and happy. (When the manufacturer of my vehicle tells me that I need to change the oil at a certain mileage and use a certain grade of oil when I do, these are not restrictions on my freedom. Following these rules will in fact make more more free to be able to drive my car.)

    2) Grounding sin in a theology of redemption: Awareness of our own sinfulness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for conversion. This awareness alone leads only to despair, or at best moral behavior motivated by guilt and fear. These are not particularly good motivators. What is also required is a deep sense that God loves me in spite of my sin- loves me enough, in fact, to die for me (Rom 5:6-8). When I realize both that I am hopelessly mired in sin and that God loves me, forgives me, and is going to rescue me, then I can truly be inspired to live for God. As the First Epistle of John states so beautifully,

    “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another…We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. In this is love brought to perfection among us, that we have confidence on the day of judgment because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4: 10-11,16-19)

    We love and we obey God then, not out of fear, but out of gratitude. (Thus, it is highly appropriate that we receive and celebrate this gift of redemption each week at “Eucharist”, a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.”)

    For too long, the faith was taught badly in many quarters of the Church, and sin was emphasized to the neglect of God’s love. The overreaction to this situation was to begin teaching God’s love with little or no mention of sin. This, as you have rightly pointed out Monsignor, leaves us little reason for joy or commitment to our faith. (“Of course God loves me… I’m a wonderful person.”) Hopefully we are reaching a point where we can come back to some kind of equilibrium and properly balance both sides of this profound mystery which is our redemption.

  3. Our priest made this point exactly. If our world had needed money, God would’ve sent an economist. If our world needed more food, God would’ve sent a food specialist. But God knew that the world needed to be saved from SIN, so He sent us a Savior. I think Advent is very much like Lent in that respect where we reflect and try to turn away from sin, but instead of preparing for the ultimate sacrifice, we prepare for the coming of our Savior. But I can’t help but think in my heart I’m looking to Holy Week and Easter even as I prepare for Christmas. I suppose I’m all mixed up.

    Like DT, the Eucharist is the heart of Mass for me. I come Sunday after Sunday to give thanks and beg for mercy and to be saved for I never ever again want to be separated from our dear Lord Jesus Christ.

  4. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and His word is not in us.” 1 John 1:8-10.

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