The Gospel today surely announces a critical Advent theme: Watch! And while I want to comment primarily on the Reading from Isaiah, the Gospel admonition surely deserves some attention as well.

For it is too often the case that many today hold the unbiblical notion that most, if not all, are going to heaven. But for four weeks now we have been reading gospels wherein the Lord Jesus warns us that some (perhaps many, possibly even most) are not heading for heaven. There are wise and foolish virgins, industrious and lazy servants, sheep and goats, and today, those who keep watch and those who do not.

And though many today like to brush aside the teachings on judgment, or teachings that some are lost, to those who do, and to all, Jesus says, Watch! In other words, watch out, be serious, sober and prepared for death and judgment. Realize that your choices are leading somewhere.

Some have tried to tame and domesticate Jesus, but it is not the fake Jesus they have reinvented that they will meet, it is the real Jesus, the Jesus who warns repeatedly of the reality of judgment and the strong possibility of Hell. At the beginning of Advent we do well to heed Jesus’ admonition and realize our need to be saved.

And that leads to the first reading from Isaiah which rather thoroughly sets forth our need for a savior. Isaiah distinguishes five ailments which beset us, and from which we need rescue. We are: drifting, demanding, depraved, disaffected and depressed. But in the end Isaiah reminds us of our dignity. Lets look at each in turn.

1. Drifting – The text says, Why [O Lord] do you let us wander from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.

It is a common human tendency that we wander, or drift. It is a rarer thing that most people, in one moment, reject God, especially if they were raised with some faith. Rather, what usually happens is that we just drift away, wander off course. It is like the captain or pilot of a boat who stops paying close attention. Soon enough the boat is farther and farther off course. At first things are not noticed, but the cumulative effect is that the boat is now headed in the wrong direction. He did not suddenly turn the helm and shift 180 degrees, he just stopped paying attention and drifted, and drifted some more.

And so it is with some of us who may wonder how we got so far off course. I talk with many people who have left the Church, and so many of them cannot point to an incident or moment when they walked out of Church and said, “I’ll never come back here.” It is usually just that they drifted away, fell away, from the practice of the faith. They missed a Sunday here or there, and little by little, missing Mass became the norm. Maybe they moved to a new city and never got around to finding a parish. They just got disconnected and drifted.

Funny thing about drifting, the further off course you get, the harder it is to get back on course. It just seems increasingly monumental to make the changes necessary to get back on track. Thus Isaiah speaks of the heart of a drifter becoming hardened. Our bad habits become “hard” to break, and as God seems more and more distant, we lose our holy fear and reverence for Him.

Interesting how, in taking up our voice, Isaiah, “blames” God for it all. Somehow it is “His fault” for letting us wander for he lets us do it.

It is true that God has made us free and that he is very serious about respecting our freedom. How else could we love God, if we were not free. Compelled love is not love at all.

But what Isaiah is really getting at is that some of us are so far afield, so lost, that only God can find us and save us. And so we must depend on God being like a Shepherd who seeks his lost sheep.

Thus, here is the first way that Isaiah sets forth our need for a Savior. And so in Advent, reflecting this way, the Church cries out, Come Emmanuel, Come Lord Jesus! Seek and find us for many of us are drifting.

2. Demanding - The text says, Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.

There is a human tendency to demand signs and wonders. Our flesh demands to see. And when we do not see, in a fleshly sort of way, we are dismissive, even scoffing.

This human tendency has reached a peak in our modern times when so many reject faith because it does not meet the demands of empirical science and a materialist age. If something is not physical and measurable by some human instrument, many rejects its very existence. Never mind that many things that are very real (e.g. justice, or fear) cannot be measured on an atomic scale. What most moderns are really about doing is more specific: rejecting is God and the demands of faith. “Since we cannot see him with our eyes, he is not there and thus, we may do as we please.”

Isaiah gives voice to the human demand to see on our own terms. We demand signs and wonders, and then we will believe. It is almost as though we are saying to God, “Force me to believe in you” or “Make everything so certain that I don’t really have to walk by faith.”

Many of us look back to the miracles of the scriptures and think, “If I saw that, I would believe.” But faith is not so simple. For many who did see miracles (e.g. the Hebrew people in the desert), saw but still gave way to doubt. Many who saw Jesus work miracles, fled at the first sign of trouble or when he said something that displeased them.

Our flesh demands to see. But, in the end, even after seeing it usually refuses to believe.

Further, God does not usually do the “biggie-wow” things to overwhelm us. Satan does overwhelm us. But God is a quiet and persistent lover who respectfully and delicately works in us, if we let him. It is Satan who roars at us with temptation, fear, and sheer volume, so that we are distracted and confused. God more often is that still, small voice speaking in the depth of our heart.

Thus the Lord, speaking through Isaiah, warns us of this second ailment, the demand for signs and wonders. Our rebellious flesh pouts and draws back in resentful rebellion.

Thus our need for a Savior, to give us a new heart and mind, attuned to the small still voice of God in a strident world. And so in Advent, reflecting thus, the Church cries our, Come Emmanuel, Come Lord Jesus! Calm our souls and lets us find you in the daily and small things.

3. Depraved - The text says, Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people.

The word depraved comes from the Latin pravitas, meaning crooked or deformed. It means to be lacking what we ought to have. Hence, the Lord though Isaiah here describes our deformed state in the following ways. We are:

A. Unthinking - the text says that we are “unmindful” of God. Indeed our minds are very weak and we can go for long periods, so turned in on ourselves, that we barely, if ever, think of God. Our thoughts are wholly focused on things that are passing, and almost wholly forgetful of God and heaven which remain forever. It is so easy for our senseless minds to be darkened. Our culture too has “kicked God to the curb” and thus there are even fewer reminders of Him than in previous generations. We desperately need God to save us and give us new minds. Come Lord Jesus!

B. Unhappy – the text says of God “You are angry.” But, biblically we need to remember that the “wrath of God” is more in us, than in God. God’s anger is his passion to set things right. But God is not moody or prone to egotistical rage. More often than not, it is we who project our own unhappiness and anger on God. The “Wrath of God” is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. God does not loose his temper, or fly into a rage, he does not lose his serenity. It is we who are unhappy, angry, egotistical, scornful etc. We need God to give us a new heart. Come Lord Jesus!

C. Undistinguished – the text says, we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people. We are called to be holy, that is, “set apart” and distinguished from the sinful world around us. But too often we are indistinguishable. We do not shine forth like a light in the darkness, we seem little different than the pagan world around us. We divorce, fornicate, fail to forgive, support abortion, contraception, fail the poor, etc., in numbers akin to secular people who know not God. We do not seem joyful, serene or alive. We just look like “everybody else.” And we seem to have as our main goal to “fit in” and be like everyone. Save us O Lord from our mediocrity and fear. Come Lord Jesus!

4. Disaffected - The text says, There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.

In other words we, collectively speaking, have no passion for God. We get all worked up about politics, sports, the lottery, a T.V. show, etc. But when it comes to God, many can barely rouse themselves to pray, go to Church, or read scripture. We find time for everything else, but God can wait.

Here too Isaiah gives voice to the human tendency to blame God, for he says (i.e. we say) God has hidden his face. But God has not moved. If you can’t see God, guess who turned away? If you’re not as close to God as you used to be, guess who moved?

Our heart and our priorities are messed up. We need a savior to give us a new heart, a greater love and better priorities and desires. Come Lord Jesus!

5. Depressed – The text says, All our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.

One of the definitions of depression is anger turned inward. And while Isaiah has given voice to our tendency to direct anger and blame at God, here he gives voice to our other tendency, to turn on ourselves.

Thus, our good deeds are described like polluted rags. It may be true that they are less than they could be, but calling them polluted rags is the kind of exaggeration that bespeaks a frustration with our seemingly hopeless situation, and addiction to sin and injustice.

Ultimately the devil wants us to diminish what little good we can find in ourselves and to lock us into a depressed and angry state. If there were no good in us at all, why bother?

There is such a thing as unhealthy guilt and a self loathing that is not of God, but from the devil, our accuser. It may well be this that Isaiah articulates here. And from such depressed self loathing (masquerading as piety) we need a savior. Come Lord Jesus!

And so the cry has gone up: Come Lord Jesus, save us, Savior of the world! We need a savior, and Advent is a time to mediate on our need.

But Isaiah ends on a final note and the song goes from D minor to D Major. And the final Note is our

Dignity - the text says, Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.

Yes, we are a mess, but a loveable mess. And God has so loved us, as to send his Son, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren.

We are not forsaken, and in Advent we call upon a Father who loves us. And our cry, Come Lord Jesus is heard and heeded by the Father, who loves us and is fashioning us into his very image. God is able and he will fix and fashion us well. Help is on the way!

Here’s a magnificent Advent Hymn that so beautifully expresses the longing of the Church for her savior to come. The second verse says:

Zion hears the watchmen shouting,
Her hearts leaps up with joy undoubting!
She stands and waits with eager eyes.
See! Her Love from heaven descending,
Adorned with grace and truth unending.
Her light burns clear her star doth rise!

Now come our precious Crown,
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son
Hosanna!

35 Responses

  1. Liam Ronan says:

    Very inspiring, Monsignor, and very useful points for contemplation during Advent. Thank you.

  2. Dennis McMahon says:

    This is a very good read. In my opinion, it can change lives. I have copied and pasted the url on my blog. My blog is http://www.divinemercydiary.blogspot.com/

    I trust this is ok. If not, let me know and I shall delete it.

    Dennis McMahon
    Practicing Roman Catholic
    Canada

  3. Jill says:

    This is a wonderful reflection. Thank you very much Msgr. Pope.

  4. Bob says:

    I remember my good, faithful, yet beautifully flawed father praying the Advent prayers before each meal and the prescribed family member lighting the appropriate candle during this momentous season of anticipation. He is gone on to be enveloped by and live joyfully in the eternal light we anticipate. I pray for him and ask him, if God sees fit, to be with us in a new way this Advent season. I love him. It is true that I miss him but I am even more happy for him and eagerly anticipate sharing in that eternal embrace with the Church triumphant.

  5. Ikedi says:

    Very insightful, practical and realistic blog post Msgr. Pope. Praise the Lord for purgatory for many would be lost without it considering many of these vices are vices people never take the liberty to overcome through what has been provided for us through Holy Mother Church.

    • Cornel says:

      Yet, many say there’s no purgatory! I thank God for the gift of the catholic faith.

    • Mr. Checker says:

      This thinking is wrong – only those who die in a state of grace will be saved, or even admitted to the fires of purgation. Often purgatory is presented as a place for people who are not bad enough to be damned and not good enough to go to heaven. This is a dangerous way to articulate the truth. Only those who die in a state of grace are saved. The rest (most) are damned. Purgatory is ONLY for the saved, who die in a state of grace free from mortal sin. Contraceptors, fornicators, Sunday Sabbath violaters who do not repent (among many other mortal sinners) will be damned. Repent now! Time is short! Repent!!!

      • I think what Ikedi and Cornel are saying is that Purgatory is consoling in that it bridges the gap between our current state and the call to be “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” It is clear that purgatory is only for the saved as you state but it consoles since Godly perfection is so high a standard as to be unimaginable to us mere mortals here.

  6. Carson says:

    Pope Benedict XVI speculated that the number of condemned might not be that numerous
    here is a link to the article I read it in, I read the article on CNA.

    Pope Benedict speculated that the condemned might not be numerous, describing how thoroughly they would have to have destroyed themselves:

    http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/what_the_pope_really_said_about_hell/
    this article is from Feb 11, 2008

    The way I read the article, Pope Benedict contradicts himself.

    I tend to agree with Msgr Charles Pope
    For it is too often the case that many today hold the unbiblical notion that most, if not all, are going to heaven.

    I

    • I will admit to beinig a bit confused by Pope oBenedict on the matter as well. I think the solution is rooted in the use of the the word hope. I think it is fine to hope that most are saved, as I think the Pope (rightly) does. However the biblical sobriety that many are in serious danger of being lost (as the Lord clearly says) ought to motivate us to be diligent in working for the salvation of souls, starting with our own. That the Lord is so urgent in his use of parables does not negate hope, but hope is balanced by sobriety and the end result in known only to God. Meanwhile sober vigilance is commanded of us.

      • Matthew says:

        Msgr. Pope,

        Thank you for an insightful and honest article. On this point, however, may I recommend Fr. Ryan Erlenbush’s blogpost on the matter:

        I think Fr. Erlenbush quite clearly explains why we may not hope that all men be saved, and he makes the point that theologians ought to be precise in their use of terminology, which Balthasar is at best not.

        • Yes, hope is used in the theological and the more common way and that should be distinguished. However, I am not sure why one would say that we, as you put it “may not hope that all men be saved” For if hope is defined as the “confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life” then it would seem we may hope for all to be saved, though, at the same time soberly accept that not all accept the grace of God to save them. God wants all to be saved but has also made us free. Scripture would seem to indicate that many if not most reject God’s offer. As for Fr. E’s post perhaps you could supply the link?

          • Matthew says:

            Msgr. Pope,

            My apologies for not including the link, I thought I had done so.

            Here it is: http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2011/10/can-we-hope-that-all-men-be-saved.html

            Fr. Erlenbush argues, using St. Thomas, that hope as a theological virtue has as its object oneself. Thus, properly speaking, hope concerns our own desire for salvation, whereas the theological virtue of love concerns the desire for others to be saved.

            Perhaps this comes across as mere semantics, but I think the point is that each person has only the capability to effect his own salvation. In charity he must pray for others, of course, but this is an act of charity, not hope, for the theological virtue of hope requires certainty to be truly theological hope (Fr. Erlenbush), which cannot extend beyond the individual.

      • Carson says:

        I know this is going back a couple of weeks, but in your response you wrote you thought the solution
        was rooted in the word hope.

        But on what scripture, or theologian (Aquinas), etc, can Pope Benedict substain is “speculation”.
        What substaniates his “speculation”?

        Some Catholic beliefs were held for centuries before becoming infallible.
        The thought may have been there and believed, but never declared infallible.
        But the thought existed.

        On what grounds can Pope Benedict speculate that the number of condemned might not
        be that numerous? What scripture or theologian substaniates that?

  7. Morrie says:

    Monsignor,

    I really appreciate the thought put into this. Good writing as well. There is much that I will bring with me during this advent.

    Thanks.

  8. Richard Connell says:

    Adam and Eve fell, and we all fell when Adam and Eve fell. Now, Adam and Eve are saints in heaven with their own question. They accepted the Salvation that Jesus offered to them. This is my question: Just as we all had no choice but to fall when our first parents fell, in the same way, shouldn’t we all have no choice but to be saved when our first parents accepted Salvation?

    • Your premise that we had no choice is problematic, for we have all ratified the sin of Adam and Eve. Further, scripture says “In Adam all have sinned” Indicating that we all share in his sin. How this is the case is to some mysterious since they pre-existed us. But I have never known anyone, other than infants and the severely mentally handicapped, who have not ratified Adam’s choice over and over again. So, though the connection may have mysterious elements, the practical proof of it does not.

  9. Gerald Reiner says:

    God wants most people to be saved.
    Team A includes the Blessed Virgin Mary, the apostles, martyrs, and 2/3 of the angels.
    Team B includes Lucifer, possilbly Judas, possibly Hitler, other bad humans and 1/3 of the angels.
    I am betting that Team A has more victories in the fight over souls.
    This idea should not be the cause for complacency. Constant vigilence is called for.
    The measure by which you judge, will be the measure used to judge you.

    • Well, I suppose you’ll have to talk to Jesus about this. I don’t know numbers and percentages, but it is Jesus who used words like few and many in describing “Team A and Team B” I am not trying to prove most are lost. I hope none are. But I also want to take seriously what scripture says. Jesus warned over and over about judgment and that some, possibly even most would be caught unprepared. I don’t know the exact numbers or even percentages, I can only be sober and acknowledge the Lord’s warnings.

  10. Carson says:

    How are you defining victory for Team A?

    I may be misunderstading you. We may all want and hope all go to heaven,
    but that is not the message Jesus gives, is it?

    this is the statement by Msgr Pope repeated:
    For it is too often the case that many today hold the unbiblical notion that most,
    if not all, are going to heaven.

  11. Vincent Torley says:

    One should avoid adopting beliefs that threaten one’s sanity. The belief that most people are going to Hell is one of these beliefs. If you think about its full implications, it will send you round the twist. It means that most of the people you love will suffer eternal damnation. You can’t hold that belief in your head and continue to lead a normal life.

    You can’t hold that belief in your head and continue to love other people properly either – for what you’ll find yourself doing is emotionally distancing yourself from the people in your life whom you think are most likely to be damned and least likely to turn around in response to your entreaties. Emotionally, you’ll start walling yourself off from them now, in order to lessen the pain of learning that they’re damned, later on. It’s a subconscious thing that we all do – cushioning ourselves against future shock and disappointment. So the belief that most people will be damned actually makes you less loving – which in turn increases your chances of damnation. It’s counter-productive, spiritually.

    On the other hand, anyone who takes a good, honest look at themselves – I’m talking serious introspection here – can sense that they have a real capacity to damn themselves. That’s a fact.

    I personally think it’s best for people’s sanity if each of us tries to live as if we have a 20 to 30% chance of being damned (at least, that’s how I’d rate my chances), while at the same time regarding other people as if they have a 2% chance of being damned. I know it sounds funny, but it works.

    Lastly, all I can say is: thank God for Purgatory. Most of us are going to be spending a long time there.

    • Well, I think your argument is with Jesus who said that those who would be saved were “few” and those on the road to destruction are “many” (e.g. Matt 7:13-14) I don’t know how this causes insanity but perhaps you could raise your concerns with Jesus. While many have debated the words of Jesus and what exactly few and many mean, I personally just take it at face value and presume that we ought not treat judgement and salvation lightly, but rather seek earnestly the Lord’s grace and mercy for ourselves and others. I personally don’t feel driven to the edge of insanity. Neither do I feel smug toward others, only more urgent to speak the truth in love.

  12. Robert says:

    Monsignor, my RCIA class leader told us of your writings, and I have become a regular reader
    as a result. Thank you for this. I was one of the drifters — for more than 40 years in fact. I am
    now working to right the ship and the course, and this and other columns have proven very
    helpful. Thank you.

  13. Theresa says:

    We are Catholics and as such we do not take a verse to prove a point when the bible is to be considered in context. Otherwise i could quote Roman 10.9 if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Sorry Christ very well may have been referring to those who will die in a state of grace, and those heading for destruction may be heading to a painful and lengthy period of purification. Another point that is problematic here is translation. How accurate are the translation of each word.

    Also as Catholics, we are to use our intellect and reason. Reason compels me to ask would a God who is love-agape-incomparable love create man if he knew that the majority of his creation would be doomed to eternal misery. The position that most are doomed to hell does not fit with the Christian omnipotent God. He could accomplish anything why would a loving God who is omnipotent set himself up to fail. Or why would he set us up to fail – does this match with a merciful God of justice? Is it just or merciful to set up so may to e dammed for a few to e saved? I am sorry this does not fit right whereas our Holy Father’s words seem far more in lie with the Judeo Christian God. That is not to say we are to assume salvation is ours. This would e foolish and presumptuous. God wants our love more then He wants our fear. Perfect contrition (sorrow from love) is far more valuable then an imperfect contrition (sorrow from fear.) A very good topic to discuss and ponder because most of us do not reflect enough on our personal moment of death, am I truly ready to face an all loving God? If I really contemplate this reality I know, that as I am today, I could not.

    • Well I’ll have you know Theresa that I am a Catholic and do not need you to get all superior and stuff. I also have an intellect and reason, neither am I locked in servile fear. It is not just one Scripture quote and you know it. Jesus spoke consistently, as did the Apostolic letters and warned consistently of the very real danger of Hell and of the urgency to prepare for judgment. None of the texts permit the simple conclusion that the vast majority are saved. Their tone is far more sober than that. As for all your questions, you can ask God each of them. I have no simple answers and neither do I conclude that most go actually to hell, only that the texts of scripture lead to such a possible conclusion. And as I have said in other responses I do not have percentages, nor do I wholly exclude that in the end we can hope that many if not most are in fact saved. I personally want everyone to be saved and am working to help as many as I can. What I DO think is that we ought not easily presume this as does the modern age since the Biblical texts point in a very different and sobering direction. The presumption of our modern age is not in accordance with the tone of scripture, in toto, not just one text.

      • Carson says:

        Sin. We as humans fail to see the horror of sin.
        We rationalize. (I freely admit, myself included).
        What did it cost God? Everything. Humilation, beyond compare.

        When I hear statments like “God couldn’t condemn, etc”. I think, how
        does this person view sin? The severity of it?

        • Carson says:

          People put the question, “how could God send a person to hell?”

          Why do not people ask “why do we not love God, who is all good and deserving of our love?”

          I know it sounds like a canned statement, like surrending to God is no big deal,
          but still, I present the thought.

  14. Joseph Jayaseelan says:

    Thank you father. This is another master piece from you.

  15. Carl Eppig says:

    Msgr, I have a one on one RCIA session every Tuesday morning with a man who works at night and can’t attend regular sessions. This morning I used this article as my lesson and it was very effective. Many thanks.

    Carl

  16. ANNE says:

    My husband(a Jewish convert to the Catholic faith), my son(a 17 year old) and I read this yesterday as an Advent activity. It appealed to all of us and now we have decided to read your posts every day during Advent. Thank you for not pulling any punches, for mining the riches of Scripture, and being relevant to my two guys who need something to engage them beyond the relentless sports cycle. The New York Jets vs. Bills game Sunday afternoon garnered more hours of attentiveness and passion than the First Sunday of Advent in our home. Please continue writing so I have something to offer my guys during Advent.

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