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has since left the Dominican Order and the Catholic Faith after his credentials to teach as a Catholic Theologian were withdrawn due to his denial of Original Sin).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:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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.