The very first reading for Advent in the Office of Readings of the Breviary is a text from Isaiah Chapter 1. As such, it sounds a kind of keynote for the season, which is penitential in tone. In effect, the reading sets forth the need for a savior, as it vividly describes our sinful condition. We’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But praise the Lord, there is a doctor on the way. His name is Emmanuel; His name is Jesus, which means “God saves.”
Let’s look at this keynote reading of Advent in five stages.
I. Distant Sons – Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for the Lord speaks: Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me! An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood. Ah! sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the Lord, spurned the Holy One of Israel, apostatized (Is 1:2-4).
At the heart of most of our troubles is that we have distanced ourselves from God. Sometimes this is through forgetfulness rooted in a dullness of mind. Culturally in the West we have moved God to the periphery by an increasingly strident secularism. We are distant children. Collectively speaking, we have disowned our Father: the God who made us and who enables us to do everything we have done.
In so doing, we are cutting ourselves off from the very source of our power and achievement. This, of course, is the height of foolishness. Consider a fan that has just been unplugged. At first the blades continue to spin and the fan may “think” that all is well. But gradually the blades move more and more slowly. Eventually, they stop completely. It is this way with us as well.
Most of us believers are rightly concerned that our culture, having been unmoored, is becoming just as God described faithless ancient Israel: a sinful nation laden with wickedness, evil, and corruption. No age of this “paradise lost” has ever been sinless, but increasingly we cannot even get consensus on the most basic moral issues: that killing infants in the womb is wrong, that homosexual acts are disordered, and that promiscuity is unhealthy for the body and the culture. Even the most rudimentary understanding of biology shows that a life in the womb is a human baby and that homosexual acts are not meant to be (the parts don’t fit and the full purpose of sex is impossible). And clearly promiscuity brings disease. And this is just the biological evidence. Even a high school biology student can figure out that these practices are misguided.
But so deep is our confusion, that even the most obvious aspects of things evade us as we get lost in our rationalizations and foolish attempts to justify what we know, deep down, is wrong. Yes, unplugged from God, we get a little slow in our thinking.
The Lord goes on to compare His distant children to oxen and donkeys. Yes, even they are smarter than some of us, for they know their owner and who feeds them. Are you and I smarter than a donkey or an ox? There is a reason our nativity sets usually feature a donkey and a cow. They were there for the birth of Christ, but we had no room for him in the inn.
So the first reason we need a savior is that we tend to stray from God. And having strayed, we get lost in more ways than one. God has to come find us, just as in the garden when the first couple sinned He went through the Garden calling, “Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9) So now He seeks us, His distant children.
II. Disease-Struck – Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot to the head there is no sound spot: Wound and welt and gaping gash, not drained, or bandaged, or eased with salve (Isaiah 1:5-6).
This is a bad situation. The Lord says simply, “There is no sound spot.” The damage caused by sin is enormous and the Lord describes it sickening terms: wounds; welts; and horrifying, pus-filled, gaping gashes.
We tend to make light of sin, but God does not. St. Paul put things more bluntly and tersely: “You were dead in your sins” (Eph 2:1).
But making light of our sins we stand there and continue to get struck; we continue to rebel. We ignore the body count of abortion, the toll that divorce and promiscuity take on children, the high price of greed, and the foolishness of casting aside God and His wisdom.
As God describes it, our stance is unreasonable and just plain stupid. We rebel, glory in evil things, and assert a false notion of freedom. But God says to us that if we could only see ourselves as He does, we would be sickened: gaping wounds and foul discharge.
Jesus said to Sister Faustina, You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror. … But because you are such great misery I have revealed to you the whole ocean of my mercy (Diary II. 718).
Here, then, is the second reason we need a savior: Our sins and stubbornness have made us wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev 3:17). We cannot save ourselves. Only with grace and mercy do we stand a chance. We need more than an angel; we need a savior.
III. Desolate Scene – Your country is waste, your cities burnt with fire. Your land before your eyes strangers devour, [a waste, like Sodom overthrown]—And daughter Zion is left like a hut in a vineyard, Like a shed in a melon patch, like a city blockaded. Unless the Lord of hosts had left us a scanty remnant, We had become as Sodom, we should be like Gomorrah (Is 1:7-9).
Ruined cultures eventually produced ruined cities and plundered landscapes. You don’t think it can happen today? Throughout the age of the Church, empires have risen and fallen, countries have come and gone, and powerful coalitions have gathered and fallen apart. None of them thought that they would collapse either. But they are all gone. Where is Rome? Where is the Napoleonic Empire? Where is the USSR? It was once said, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Now it does. The Church alone, by Christ’s promise, is indefectible. And she, too, needs often-severe purifications.
In the Bible the usual focus was on land, crops, and buildings. In our age, we speak of “economies.” But no matter what we call it, we cannot have strong economies or unless we are strong, true, consistent and disciplined. Our moral decline produces a decadence (from the Latin for “to be fallen down”) and a laziness.
We are even too lazy to have children. And thus the text above speaks of “strangers devouring your land.” Once-Christian Europe is soon to become a Muslim caliphate. Hagia Sophia became a mosque; will the great cathedrals of Europe go the same way?
In America the situation is more complex. Thankfully, most of our immigrants are Catholic Christians. But it does seem clear that our years of being an economic and political leader among the nations is fading; the thinning soil of our culture can little longer sustain the taller growths. Our economy has been stagnant for at least a decade now, and unemployment is shockingly high. There’s no telling where it will end up, but things don’t look very vigorous right now.
And here is the third reason we need a savior: to save us from the mess we’ve made and reinvigorate us with the things that make for healthy families, healthy communities, a healthy culture, and a healthy Church. We need rebuilding, reinvigoration, restoration, refocusing, and reformation.
IV. Disconnected Sacrifices – Hear the word of the Lord, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah! What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; In the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness: these I cannot bear. Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you; Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow (Is 1:10-19).
Even our worship lacks integrity. That which is supposed to glorify God and bring forth in us a holy obedience has become lip service. God seeks hearts that are humble, docile, loving, and repentant. We cannot buy Him off by just singing hymns, saying a few prayers, or attending Mass. These things, good though they are, are meant to effect a conversion in us that makes us more loving of both God and neighbor, less violent, more just, more merciful, more generous to the poor, and more holy. Our worship should effect change in us such that we cease doing evil and learn to do good, we strive for justice, we address injustice, and we defend and help the poor.
An additional problem with our worship today is that God has become almost an afterthought. Much of our liturgy is self-centered, self-congratulatory, and anthropocentric (rather than theocentric). We are “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.” While the Mass should focus on God and summon us to humility and joy before Him, too often it seems more an exercise in pride and self-congratulation. We are very narcissistic, even in a communal setting.
God cannot be pleased with all of this. Even if our worship is rightly ordered, we are not going to buy God off. God wants an obedient heart more than sacrifice. Sacrifice without obedience is a sham.
This is the fourth reason we need a savior: We need God to restore our integrity and give us a new heart. We are “dis-integrated,” in the sense that pieces of our life that should be together (e.g., worship and obedience, liturgy and healing) are not. Too often our worship does just the opposite of what it should. Instead of drawing us more deeply into the love and obedience of God it becomes the very occasion of keeping God at a distance and seeking to placate him with superficial gestures. This makes our worship an insult and a lie. God doesn’t mince words in the passage above when He says how displeased He is with this.
We need God to give us a new heart, one that loves Him as well as the people and things that He loves. Only then will our worship will truly reflect the heart that God seeks: a loving, humble, and generous heart.
V. Desire to Save – Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Is 1:18-20).
God says that we should get started. Let the healing begin! And all the people must say,
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until you, O Lord, the Son of God appear.”