The first weeks of Advent focus more on the Lord’s second coming in glory than on His first coming at Bethlehem. The Gospel clearly states that we must always be prepared, for at an hour we do not expect, the Son of Man will come. “Ready” is the key word. But how should we be ready?
The second reading from today’s Mass (Romans 13:11-14) gives us a basic recipe for readiness. We can distinguish five fundamental instructions in Paul’s recipe.
1. Wake up – The text says, … you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, … St. Paul has more in mind here than physical sleep. But consider for a moment some of the aspects of physical sleep. When we sleep we are unaware of what is taking place around us or even of what we are doing. A family member might tell us, “When you were sleeping you were mumbling and snoring!” “Really?” we might reply, “I didn’t realize I was doing that!” Another time we might doze off in front of the television and miss the game-winning touchdown or the critical scene that helped the movie to make sense. Further, when we are asleep our minds are dreamy and confused. Some of the craziest things happen in dreams because the more rational part of the brain is asleep; any absurd thought might manifest itself and seem perfectly understandable. But when we finally do awake, we think, “What was that all about?”
This text, which tells us to wake up, refers to all of this in a moral and mindful sense. What St. Paul is really saying here is that we need to become more aware of what is happening in our life.
We cannot sleep through life like someone dozing on a couch. We need to be alert and aware of what is happening. We need to be morally awake and responsible for our actions. We cannot and must not engage in dreamy thinking that is not rooted in reality or is fundamentally absurd in its premises. Dreamy thinking has to go.
We need to be alert, rooted in what is real and what is revealed. We cannot go on calling good what God has called sinful. We need to wake up, drink the “coffee” of God’s Word, shake off the cobwebs of drowsiness, and start living in the light of holiness rather than in the darkness of deceit and sin.
Waking up also means taking responsibility and exercising authority over one’s life. When we sleep we toss and turn, having little control over our movements. But when we are awake, we take authority over our actions and are responsible for them.
The first instruction in the recipe for readiness is to wake up. The cobwebs of groggy and sleepy behavior have to give way to the alertness of a new mind. There are many scriptures that make a similar point:
- Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2).
- Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame (1 Cor 15:34).
- Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them … put off your old nature, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds (Eph 4:17-18, 22-23).
- Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Col 3:2).
2. Clean up – The text says, … not in orgies … not in promiscuity and lust … and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. Notice the emphasis in this passage on sexuality. This is because the pagan world at the time of Paul was sexually confused and immature. Promiscuity, fornication, homosexual activity, divorce, abortion, and infanticide were all rampant. Sound familiar? We have slipped right back into that pagan immaturity and immorality. This text tells us it is time to clean up, grow up, and take authority over our sexuality, by God’s grace. It’s time to act more like adults than like irresponsible teenagers.
In saying that we should make no provision for the desires of the flesh, the text is indicating we should avoid the near occasion of sin. We should not put ourselves in compromising and/or tempting situations. To make “provision” literally means to “see ahead” or to “look toward” something in such a way as to facilitate it. The text says to resolve ahead of time not to provide occasion for the flesh.
Many people make light of sexual sin today and say that “it’s no big deal” and that “everyone is doing it.” But God says otherwise and speaks very strongly against it in His Word. He does not do this because He is a prude, or wants to limit our fun. Rather, God wants to save us a lot of suffering and to protect the innocent.
What does promiscuity get us? Sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, teenage pregnancies, children born outside of the ideal nuclear and properly formed family, divorce, bitterness, jealousy, broken hearts, and discarded human beings. God is not out to limit our fun; He is trying to protect us. He is also trying to protect marriage and children. With all this promiscuity, it is children who suffer most. Many of them are simply killed by abortion. Those who do survive to be born are often raised in less-than-ideal settings, without both parents in a stable union of marriage. Many are born to teenage mothers who are not ready to raise them.
God says to all of us that in order to be ready, we have to clean up. We have to take authority over our sexuality, by His grace. Promiscuity, pornography, illicit sexual union, and lust have to go. Those who make light of sexual sin have been deceived; it is a very serious matter and God makes this clear in His word:
- As for lewd conduct or promiscuousness or lust of any sort, let them not even be mentioned among you; your holiness forbids this. Nor should there be any obscene, silly or suggestive talk; all that is out of place. Instead, give thanks. Make no mistake about this: no fornicator, no unclean or lustful person—in effect an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God’s wrath down upon the disobedient; therefore, have nothing to do with them (Eph 5:3-7).
- Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the Kingdom of God? Do not deceive yourselves: no fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sodomites, thieves, misers, or drunkards, no slanderers or robbers will inherit the kingdom of God … Flee fornication … You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within—the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased at a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:9-11).
3. Sober up – The text says, … not in drunkenness … Physically, to be drunk means to have our mind confused due to the influence of alcohol. Conversely, to be sober is to have a clear mind that is capable of making sound judgments.
So much of our battle to be ready to meet God comes down to our mind. There are many fuzzy-headed, lamebrained, crazy, and just plain wrongful notions today that amount to a lack of sobriety. They emerge from the haze of un-sober thinking and from a world that increasingly resembles the Star Wars barroom scene (in a moral sense).
Don’t believe everything you think. Much of what we think has come from a drunken and confused world. Square everything you think with God’s Word and the teachings of the Church.
So, the third instruction in the recipe for readiness is to sober up, to request and receive from God a clear and sound mind. Here are some other Scripture passages that speak to this need:
- Therefore, gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13).
- Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith (1 Peter 5:8).
- Let the older men be sober, serious and temperate (Titus 2:2).
4. Lighten up – The text says, … not in rivalry and jealousy … An awful lot of our sins revolve around our sensitive egos. Paul warns elsewhere of other things that flow from this source: enmity, strife, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, and envy (Gal 5:20).
These sorts of things have to go. We need to be more forgiving if we expect to be forgiven. We also need to be less stingy, more generous to the poor, and less prone to the kind of anger that comes from being thin-skinned or from a lack of humility.
Our biggest sin is pride; it is enemy number one. It has to go and along with it all its minions: envy, jealously, selfishness, hatred, fear, bitterness, a hard and unforgiving heart, and just plain old meanness.
The Lord wants to give us the gift of being more lighthearted and less serious about ourselves; a heart that is loving, generous, considerate, happy for the gifts of others, forgiving, truthful, patient, meek, and open to others; a heart that is less egocentric and more theocentric.
5. Dress up – The text says, But put on the Lord Jesus Christ … If we miss this point, then everything else is just a moralism, more rules about how to live. The moral life of the New Testament is not achieved; it is received. The moral life of the New Testament is not so much a prescription, as it is a description. It describes what we are like when Jesus Christ really begins to live His life in us.
St. Paul says, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20). Jesus says, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5). St John says, But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know [experience] we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:5-6).
Hence the moral life is not imposed; it is imparted. It is not achieved; it is received. It is not demanded; it is delivered. There is surely a requirement that the moral law describes, but the requirement can only be met in a real or full sense when Jesus Christ is living in us. If we try to accomplish it solely by our flesh, we are destined to fail.
Hence we must put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We must humbly give Him our life and assent to His kingship and authority over us. The more we surrender, the more He renders us fit to the life He describes. If we really hope to wake up, clean up, sober up, and lighten up, it will have to be a work of His grace.
The Book of Revelation speaks of the garment, the long white robe that is given to each of the saints to wear (Rev 6:11). Later, Revelation 19:8 describes the long white robe (of the Bride of the Lamb) as the righteous deeds of all the saints. It is in this sense that St. Paul tells us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hence, righteousness is given to us like a precious wedding garment. In the baptismal ritual, the newly baptized are clothed in white and told that their garments represent their dignity, which they are to bring unstained to the judgment seat of Christ. In the funeral rite, the cloth placed over the casket recalls the baptismal garment. Yes, the final instruction in the recipe for readiness is to dress up, to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Only Jesus can truly get us ready.