One of the goals of Advent (in many ways 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 a bit 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).
The problem is not just a collective one; each of us is personally sinful and needs a savior. If we are honest we must 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, vengeful, and just plain mean. We struggle with laziness, indifference, worldliness, and lack of discipline. We routinely fail to give witness to Christ and to our faith. We fail to submit our will to God, to give good example, to act justly, to show mercy, and to 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?
To a large extent, Advent lays out the bad news so that we appreciate the magnificence of the good news of a cure. This is to prepare us for a Christmas that is really the joyful “counterpoint” to sin. After a devoutly celebrated Advent, at Christmas we can declare with ancient Israel, Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord! Advent sets 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! And then we can say, Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
One of the great problems in the Church today is the suppression of the “bad news.” Many in the Church prefer not to talk clearly and directly about sin. If it is mentioned at all, it is usually by way of abstractions and generalities. The paradoxical result of this suppression is not a happier Church, but a lukewarm, in some ways sadder one. Largely gone are the religious festivals, the joyful processions, and the confident public expression of Catholic faith.
So, remember this: a good Advent sets the stage for a joyful Christmas. This joy is different from the sentimentality about snow, lights, and tinsel. It is a deep, grateful joy that comes from knowing we are loved and have been rescued despite our sin. Permanent joy and salvation await us if we persevere in running the race of faith. Paradoxically, it comes from being deeply aware of our sinful condition.
Make a good Advent. Listen carefully to its message: “You need a savior!” If you deny sin, you deny the Savior. If you deny the Savior and the need for salvation, then Christmas and the cross are emptied of meaning.
Will Christmas be for you a mere holiday, or will it be a holy day?
This song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” speaks of Israel as a captive in need of ransom, mourning in exile. But then comes this refrain: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”