A Late Advent Message From the Lord

The Prophet Isaiah, by Lorenzo Monaco (1405-10)

As the end of Advent approaches, the Office of Readings features some final admonitions from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. On the one hand they console; on the other, they challenge us to remain firm.

Isaiah addressed a people in exile who still awaited the first coming of the Lord. Today, these texts speak to us in difficult times when, exiled from Heaven, we await His magnificent Second Coming.

Let’s look at these admonitions from the Lord (Isaiah 46:3-13), which were addressed to three different groups in ancient Israel. However, let’s apply them to three groups in our own times: the faithful remnant, the foolish rebels, and the fainthearted at risk.

To the Faithful RemnantHear me, O house of Jacob, all who remain of the house of Israel, my burden since your birth, whom I have carried from your infancy. Even to your old age I am the same, even when your hair is gray I will bear you; It is I who have done this, I who will continue, and I who will carry you to safety.

This is directed to the devoted, to the remnant, to those who remain after the cultural revolution in our times, to those sometimes discouraged and sorrowful over the infidelity of loved ones and of the world around them. To these (often the elderly among us who remember a more faithful even if imperfect time) the Lord first speaks.

In effect, He says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Who are the mournful? They are those who see the awful state of God’s people: not glorifying the Lord in their lives, not knowing why they were made, spending themselves on what neither matters nor satisfies. Yes, those who mourn shall be strengthened, and, as their sorrow has motivated them to pray and work for the kingdom, they shall be borne to safety.

Such as these, the faithful remnant, should never forget that God has carried them from the beginning, even in the strength of their prime. Now, reduced by age, they are still carried by the Lord. He has never forgotten them and will carry them to safety; their faith in difficult times will be rewarded.

To The Foolish Rebels Remember this and bear it well in mind, you rebels; remember the former things, those long ago: I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is none like me. Whom would you compare me with, as an equal, or match me against, as though we were alike? There are those who pour out gold from a purse and weigh out silver on the scales; Then they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god before which they fall down in worship. They lift it to their shoulders to carry; when they set it in place again, it stays, and does not move from the spot. Although they cry out to it, it cannot answer; it delivers no one from distress.

The word “rebel” is from the Latin re (again) + bellum (war). In this context it refers to those who are forever at war with God and His plan for their lives. They foolishly forget His saving deeds. They imagine vain things: that there are other gods or entities that could save them. Even more foolishly, they craft other “gods” that they have to lift upon their shoulders to carry.

Many in our day act in the same way: always at war with God, His Church, and His plan. As G.K. Chesterton once noted, when people stop believing in God, it is not that they will believe in nothing but that they will believe in anything. Chesterton also wrote that when we break God’s big laws, we don’t get liberty; we get small laws. We transfer our trust away from God to false, crafted gods like government, or science, or the market. We hope that they will carry us, but we end up carrying the weight of these gods on our own shoulders. We carry this weight in the form of taxes, debt, and anxiety about everything in our health or environment (demanded by the increasingly politicized scientific and medical communities).

Science, the market, and government are not intrinsically evil, but they are not gods, either. They cannot deliver us from ourselves; only God can do that. To the many who rebelliously and foolishly persist with their “non-gods,” He says, “I am God; there is no other.”

To the Fainthearted at Risk Listen to me, you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give to Israel my glory. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand, I accomplish my every purpose. I call from the east a bird of prey, from a distant land, one to carry out my plan. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it, and I will do it.

Among the faithful there are some who are at risk, who are nearly ready to give up. God encourages them, but also warns that His plan will stand whether or not they endure. Thus there is an implicit warning from Jesus here (and an explicit warning elsewhere) that we must persevere. Jesus says that because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved (Matt 24:12-13).

St. Augustine wrote, [God has] devised a plan, a great and wonderful plan … All this had therefore to be prophesied, foretold, and impressed on us as an event in the future, in order that we might wait for it in faith, and not find it as a sudden and dreadful reality (From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop (In ps. 109, 1-3: CCL 40, 1601-1603)).

God’s plan will stand whether or not we do. We must stand as well, even when we want to faint or fall back. Our love must not grow cold nor our strength fail. God has triumphed and Satan has lost. We must choose with whom we will stand.

The evidence of the present age does not seem to show this, but as Scripture reminds us,

Therefore, we do not lose heart … So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-17).

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 Jn 2:16-17).

Here, then, are some final instructions from the Lord this Advent, instructions for us who wait for Him: be faithful; the plan will come to pass. Do not be a foolish rebel, nor one of the at-risk fainthearted. Rather, be part of the faithful remnant. St. Paul says, Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved” (Romans 9:27).

The song performed in the clip below is entitled “Lord Help Me to Hold Out.”

The Perfect Gift: A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

What is the perfect gift? We tend to answer this question more in terms of what we want, but today’s Gospel teaches us that the perfect gift is what God is offering. One of the goals of the spiritual journey is to come to value, more than our latest desire, more than our perceived need—more than all else—what God offers.

In reviewing today’s Gospel, I am going to take a stance regarding St. John the Baptist that I realize is not without controversy. The Gospel opens with John (who is in prison) sending his disciples to Jesus with a strange question: “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” This is a strange question coming from the one who pointed Jesus out and spoke so powerfully of Him!

Many of the Fathers of the Church (e.g., John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Theodore of Mopsuestia) interpreted John’s question as a rhetorical one, designed to teach his reluctant disciples to follow Jesus.

I, however, would like to present a different interpretation: that John’s question is a sincere one, and manifests some puzzlement—even discouragement.

While some will take offense no matter how many disclaimers I provide, I still insist that I mean no impiety in my interpretation. It is a common biblical stance that even the greatest scriptural heroes are presented in very human terms. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the judges and prophets, on down to the Apostles are all depicted as humans who are imperfect from the start, who struggle to understand and have perfect faith. Some of them committed great sins—even including murder. One of the most powerful themes of the Bible is that God is able to work with imperfect, struggling human beings and draw them to great sanctity and great accomplishments.

And thus out of regard for that biblical tradition, I take today’s Gospel at what seems to me to be face value. If St. John is merely asking a rhetorical question, it seems odd that Jesus would not be aware of that. Instead, Jesus sends an answer back to John, asking him not to be scandalized (shocked) by the manner in which He goes about fulfilling Messianic texts.

I am not claiming that St. John is sinning or has failing faith; only that he, like all the prophets and patriarchs (and us), must sometimes struggle to understand God’s ways. Even Mother Mary, when Jesus was twelve and said that He must be in His Father’s house, did not understand what He was saying and had to ponder these things in her heart (cfLuke 2:50-51).

Today’s Gospel is best seen in three stages, as John the Baptist is encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification, to perfection; a journey to understand that the perfect is gift is not one of our own imagining but of God’s true offer. It is a Gospel that encourages us to find and appreciate the perfect gift.

 

Puzzlement When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

This is a strange question given what St. John had already done!With delight, John had pointed out Christ as He approached, saying, Behold, the Lamb of God(John 1:29). With humble hesitation, John had baptized the One who would change everything. He encouraged his disciples to follow after the One who was mightier than he. So why this unusual question?

Is John puzzled? Is he discouraged?It’s hard to say. Some argue that John doesn’t really mean the question seriously; he is just encouraging his disciples to ask it. But that had not been John’s approach in the past.

So perhaps John is puzzled or even struggling to understand.Consider that John had been looking for a Messiah who would root out injustice, crush the wicked, destroy the oppressors, and exalt the poor and the oppressed. Recall his words from last Sunday’s Gospel:

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire(Mat 3:10-12).

John is now in prison, relegated there by a tyrant, an oppressor—the very sort of man John was sure that the Messiah would cut downand cast into the fire. Where was the hoped-for deliverance? Where was the exaltation of the lowly and the casting down of the mighty? Where was the axe being laid to the root of the tree? Jesus was not doing this sort of thing at all. Although He had some confrontations with religious leaders, His main work seems to have been healing the sick and summoning average people to repentance and faith.

So perhaps John’s question is genuine and he is puzzled or discouraged. The very one who had announced Jesus and pointed Him out when He came, sends his disciples to Jesus with a question: Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?

John was not wholly off-base in his expectation of a Messiah coming in wrath. There are many texts that spoke of it. Here are a few:

        • Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come. … Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it! … I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless. Therefore, I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger(Is 13:6-10).
        • Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by him(Nahum 1:6).
        • But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2)

John had worked hard calling people to repentance in order to get them ready for the great and terrible dayof the Lord. John’s puzzlement is thus understandable; Jesus goes about healing and preaching, and instead of slaying the wicked, endures scorn and ridicule from those in power.

The perfect gift for John would be to see all injustice rooted out, to see the threshing floor cleared and the distinction between the wheat and the chaff made obvious, to see the wicked burned with fire and the righteous shine like the firmament. Like many of the prophets, John sensed that the perfect gift was this: let judgment run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream(Amos 5:24).

Of itself this is a good and biblical vision that will one day be accomplished. But at this point is it the perfect gift? Is it the gift that Jesus wants to offer? What is the perfect gift?

Purification Jesus gives an answer to John’s disciples that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than those John had emphasized. The Old Testament texts that spoke of the Messiah were complicated and at times hard to interpret. While some texts spoke of His wrath toward the wicked and unjust, others spoke of His healing and mercy.

The differences in the description of the Messiah had a lot to do with the context, the audience, and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while John the Baptist was not wrong in his application of the wrathful and vindicating texts to the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more in terms of the Messiah’s second coming than his first.

Jesus thus gives the following answer to those sent by John:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.

In this answer, Jesus stitches together many quotesand prophecies about the Messiah, mostly from Isaiah. For example, consider the following:

        • In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel(Isaiah 29:18-19).
        • The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn(Is 61:1-3).
        • The dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall(Is 26:19).
        • Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy(Is 35:5-6).

There is a need to purify our sense of what is best for God to do, to come to a better appreciation of the perfect gift.

To those who are disappointed in His lack of wrathful vengeance, Jesus says something quite remarkable: And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

Many of us have been hurt by others or have been deeply troubled by the fact that the wicked seem to prosper while the just struggle.When will God act? Why doesn’t He do something? It is very easy for us to be puzzled, discouraged, or even offended by God’s seeming inaction.

To all this Jesus simply says, And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.

It is essential to accept Jesus’ teaching in order to have our sense of the perfect gift purified.Rejoicing in any other gifts than grace and mercy is very dangerous. Hoping for a wrathful punishment to be inflicted on the proud and all sinful oppressors, or wishing this upon individuals or even whole segments of the world, is very dangerous. The last time I checked, all of us are sinners.

Here, then, is the necessary purification in our thinking: God’s greatest gift is not the crushing of our enemies; it is His Son, Jesus.Heis the Perfect Gift.

Further, it is not Jesus’ wrath that is His greatest gift; it is His grace and mercy. Thatis the perfect gift from the Perfect Gift.Without Jesus and a whole lot of His grace and mercy, we don’t stand a chance.

Even John the Baptist,of whom Christ said, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist—even he needs lots of grace and mercy.

Perfection – And thus we see that the perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus. It is not the destruction of our enemies. It is not a sudden, swift ushering in of justice before God’s chosen time. The perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus, which all of us without exception desperately need.

In order to emphasize the absolute necessity of grace and mercy, and the perfect gift that they are, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks of St. John the Baptist:

Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”

And thus St. John the Baptist is the best that this world has produced. But pay attention to what the Lord says next:

Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Do you see what grace and mercy can do?Do you see that they surpass any worldly excellence? The world can produce only human, worldly excellence. Grace and mercy produce heavenly excellence and make us like unto God. Without these gifts of God, we don’t stand a chance. John the Baptist needed grace and mercy; Mother Teresa needed grace and mercy. Grace and mercy are perfect and necessary gifts.

One day the perfect justice of God that we all seek will roll in. But unless and untilyou receive the perfect gift of grace and mercy through Jesus, you will not be able to endure the perfect justice of God. So until that time, it has pleased God to offer us the perfect gift of His Son, who by His grace and mercy will prepare us for that day.

If you are looking for the perfect gift this Christmas, look to Jesus.He alone can bestow the grace and mercy that we so desperately need. If even the holy St. John the Baptist was in need, how much more so you and I? Grace and mercy far exceed anything we can ask for or imagine.

Do you want to give the perfect gift to others?Then bring them to Jesus; bring them to Mass. Jesus awaits us in prayer, in the liturgy, in His Word proclaimed, and in the sacraments. Jesus is the perfect gift. The destruction of sinners is not the perfect gift; their conversion and salvation is.

Find the perfect gift this Christmas; find Jesus. Give the perfect gift this Christmas; give Jesus. Give Jesus the perfect gift this Christmas; give Him the give of your very self—the perfect gift.

A Reminder in Advent: Christ Reigns, Rules, and Conquers

Advent is a season of waiting, waiting for God to fulfill His promises. We know that most of His promises from the Old Testament were fulfilled magnificently by Jesus, but as St. Paul reminds, we have received but the first fruits of His work in our soul (cf Rom 8:23). The created world and our physical bodies still await the full implications of what He has done. We still await a new Heaven and a new earth where the justice of God will reside (cf 2 Peter 3:13). We still wait for that time when God will renew and restore all things in Christ and will vanquish Satan and his followers so that they can no longer cause harm.

There are times—times like these—when many may be discouraged. There are times when evil may seem to triumph and the victory of Christ seems far off. For indeed, we live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures.

As Advent progresses, however, there comes a word of encouragement from Isaiah, who is the main prophet of reference during this season. Addressed to the fainthearted, it is an unambiguous declaration that God is working His purposes out and that nothing in this world can prevent His plan from being fulfilled.

It is God who speaks through Isaiah. These words are highly worth reading out loud:

I am God there is no other. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it and I will do it. Listen to me you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give my glory to Israel (Isaiah 46:12ff).

Consider three conclusions for us to take to heart.

1. THE PLAN – In Heaven there is no panic, no puzzlement about what to do, just plans. God says this His plan will stand. The foolish and the self-described “wise and learned” of this world may well scoff and think they have found something greater than God’s wisdom and knowledge. Many secular people dismiss God as a myth or as irrelevant. The wicked may think they can mock God forever, but God’s plan will stand. The works of evil are going nowhere. Scripture says in Psalm 2,

The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” … Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling give homage to his Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Yes, God’s plan will stand, no matter the plans of man. Those who mock Him, or build Towers of Babel, or lead others to sin are going to be surprised; they will have to answer to God.

2. THE PARADOX  God speaks of the “fainthearted” as those who feel far from the victory of justice. He tells them that His justice is near and that it will not tarry.

God often accomplishes His purposes in paradoxical ways! Simply go to the foot of the cross to see that. What sort of King is this? What sort of triumph is this? Yet it is a masterful inversion of Satan’s scheme, a stealthy action. Just as Satan is doing his victory dance, Christ is emptying out Sheol.

Christ conquers by refusing Satan’s terms, by refusing to seek to impress the world on its prideful and vengeful terms. For indeed, darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Pride cannot conquer pride; only humility can do that.

The world demands that Christ become merely a bigger version of Satan: bold, brash, arrogant, and disobedient. It demands that Jesus fight the fight on Satan’s terms, using Satan’s techniques. Jesus will have none of it; He cancels Satan’s pride by humility and obedience. To the proud, the disobedient, and the boastful, the message still goes forth today: My plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose!

To the fainthearted goes the message that God’s justice is near, but we must also learn that it comes, paradoxically, through the cross. Just as the first victory came on the Sunday after Good Friday, so the second and final victory will rise in the wake of the cross. It will come—not on the world’s terms and not by Satan’s tactics but by the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

3. THE PERSPECTIVE There are many today who like to announce that the age of faith is over, that God is but a myth and faith a superstition. People who speak like this know little of history.

For indeed, the Lord’s Church has been here for more than 2000 years, more than 5000 if you count the Old Testament years. During this time, empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, heresies and philosophies have waxed and waned. Self-declared enemies have said that they would bury the Church, but the Church read the funeral rites over them. Where is Caesar now? Where is Julian the Apostate? Where is Napoleon or Hitler or Stalin or the USSR?

When the Muslims wiped out the North African cradle of the Church, Europe lit up with converts from the barbarians. Just when two million Europeans walked out of the Church during the Protestant revolt, nine million entered in Mexico following the apparition at Guadalupe. Today, when Europe is largely divorcing itself from Christ, Africa has lit up again like a great wedding feast with a 7000% increase in the number of Catholics over the last fifty years.

People who say that the age of faith is over or that the Church is doomed have not read history. They lack perspective because they do not know God, whose plan will stand. That the powers of Hell will strive to destroy the Church is evident. That they will fail to prevail is revealed in Scripture (Matt 16:18) and has been shown through all these centuries now. When the current scoffers are dead and gone, the Church will still be here preaching the Gospel. The Lord does not guarantee that we will always be numerous, but we will be here for as long as the sun shall shine and until the Lord comes again.

To the fainthearted, the Spirit says, “Be strong. God’s plan will stand.” And so the Lord Jesus says, Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away (Lk 21:33). These are difficult days, even inside the Church, but the Lord is still the Head of His Body. God’s plan will stand.

An Advent Hymn That Sings of the Great Wedding Feast of the Lamb

ERNEST KARLOVICH LIPGART” VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Another great Advent hymn to discuss is “Wake, O Wake with Tidings Thrilling.” Its original German title is “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” which is more literally translated “Awake, a voice calls to us.” The hymn was written in 1599 by Philipp Nicolai, and concerns the Parable of the Ten Virgins.  It is beautifully creative, painting a picture of joyful anticipation, as the groom finally arrives, and the joyful cry goes out to the bridesmaids to raise their torches high. The bride, of course, is Mother Church, the New Jerusalem, who joyfully looks for Christ, her groom, as He descends from Heaven in the glory of His Second Coming. Thus, the hymn also points to the following passage from the Book of Revelation:

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” … I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given her to wear” (Rev 21:2-3; 19:7-8).

The hymn thus beautifully portrays the longing of the Church, the Bride. She looks and longs until she hears these words from Him: Surge amica mea, speciosa mea et veni! (Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!) (Song of Songs 2:10). Yes, her longing cannot be quenched until He comes again in all His radiant beauty and majesty. Until then, she looks, longs, and waits, until the number of her elect children is complete and she, in her fullness, will go to be with her spouse forever in the beatific glory.

Enjoy one of the great Advent hymns, “Wake, O Wake with Tidings Thrilling!” This particular translation (from the German) is wonderful; it is both biblical and artistic:

Wake, O wake with tidings thrilling;
The Watchmen all the air are filling;
Arise, Jerusalem, Arise!
Midnight strikes, no more delaying;
“The hour has come,” we hear them saying;
Where are ye all ye virgins wise?

The bridegroom comes in sight
Raise high, your torches bright!
Alleluia!
The wedding song swells loud and strong;
Go forth and join the festal throng.

Zion hears the watchman shouting;
Her heart leaps up with joy undoubting;
She stands and waits with eager eyes!
She her love from heaven descending;
Adorned with truth and grace unending;
Her light burns clear her star doth rise!

Now come our precious crown;
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son;
Hosanna!
Let us prepare to follow there
Where in thy supper we may share
.

Yes, there is a great wedding feast in every liturgy, and its culmination looks to the glorious Second Coming of Jesus. This Christmas, look to your wedding garment, which the Lord gave you at baptism to bring unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. The Bridegroom comes! Let us go out to meet Christ the Lord (cf Matt 25:6).

Here is a performance of this great wedding song of Advent by the choir of Trinity College in Cambridge.

Advent Hymns: Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth

dec8-blogContinuing our examination of less-well-known Advent hymns, today we will look at the marvelous “Veni Redemptor Gentium” (“Come Redeemer of the Nations”), written by St. Ambrose in the 4th century. It is more widely known by the title “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth.” Sadly, it is not often sung in Catholic parishes today, and most people I’ve asked have never even heard of it.

One of the beautiful things about the ancient Latin hymns is how richly theological they are. Not content to merely describe an event, they delve into its more hidden mysteries and give a sweeping theological vision.

Here we are in Advent and Jesus is coming. Get ready! Well, yes, but He’s not just coming; He’s redeeming, dying, rising, ascending, and reigning at the Father’s right hand. How can all of that be squeezed into a single Advent hymn? You’ll see below.

Full vision – For now, ponder the theological point that hymns like this make: no act of God can be reduced merely to the act in itself. Everything God does is part of His sweeping master plan to restore all things in Christ, to take back what the devil stole from us. Too often we see the events of our redemption in a disconnected sort of way, but it is all really one thing and the best theology connects the dots. It is not wrong to focus on one thing or another, but we must not forget that it is all one thing in the end.

Without this reminder, we can easily develop a kind of myopia that overemphasizes one aspect of redemption at the expense of others. In the 1970s and 1980s it was “all resurrection all the time” but no passion or death.

Christmas, too, has its hazards. We get rather sentimental about the “baby Jesus” but miss other important aspects of His incarnation. The passion and death are present in His birth into homeless poverty, the swaddling clothes, the flight into Egypt, and so forth. The Eucharist is evident in His birth at Bethlehem (House of Bread) and His being laid in a manger (a feed box for animals). His glory as God and His ultimate triumph are manifested in the star overhead and the angels’ declaration of glory! You see, it is all tied together, and the best theology connects the dots.

With that in mind, I present this wonderful Advent hymn, so seldom sung in our Catholic parishes. It can be sung to any Long Meter (LM) tune but is usually sung to its own melody (“Puer Natus”). You can find this melody in the index of most hymnals. I provide below only the English translation, but both the Latin and the English are available in this document: Veni Redemptor Gentium. I think the poetic translation reprinted below is a minor masterpiece of English literature. Enjoy this sweeping theological vision of the mystery of Advent caught up into the grand and fuller vision of redemption.

Among the theological truths treated in this brief hymn are these: His title as Redeemer, His birth to a virgin, His inclusion of the Gentiles, His sinlessness, His two natures in one person, His incarnation at conception, His passion, His death, His descent into Hell, His ascension, His seat at the Father’s right hand, His divinity, His equality with the Father, His healing and sanctification of our humanity so wounded by sin, His granting us freedom and eternal life, His renewing of our minds through the light of faith, and His opening of Heaven to us.

Not bad for a mere seven verses! St. Ambrose, pray for us!

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come manifest thy virgin birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The Virgin’s womb that glory gained,
Its virgin honor is still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

From God the Father he proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds;
Runs out his course to death and hell,
Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.

O Equal to thy Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud, eternal Son, to thee
Whose advent sets thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.

This video below gives you an idea of what the melody for “Veni Redemptor Gentium” sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different from what is shown above, but the tune is perfect.

Stir Up Your Mighty Power, Lord, and Come! An Advent Meditation on the Paradox of God’s Power

One of the great cries of Advent is for God to rend the heavens and come down (Is 64:1), for Him to stir up His mighty power and come to save us (Ps 80:2). But what is it that we really seek? Is it armies with thunder and lightning? Is it vindication and peace on our terms? In a way, it is a dangerous cry if we mean it that way, for who among us can say that no wrath should come to us but only to those other people who deserve it? If God should come in thunderous judgement, are we really so sure we could endure and be numbered among the just?

It is clear that we need the Lord to save us, but do we see that salvation seen only in earthly terms such that we are saved from our enemies but remain largely unharmed?

In the final essay of volume 11 of his collected works, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict) ponders a similar Advent theme. I’d like to present his reflections and add a few of my own. In a sermon from December 2003, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger taught,

Stir up your might, O Lord, and come! This was the cry of Israel in exile … this was the cry of the disciples on the Sea of Galilee [in the storm] “Wake up O Lord and help us!” … And throughout all of history, the little bark of the Church travels in stormy waters … Stir up your might and come!

… What really is this might of God that seems to be asleep and must be wakened? St. Paul gives the answer in 1 Corinthians when he says that Christ the Crucified One, who is foolishness and weakness to men, is the wisdom and power of God.

Therefore, when we ask for this real power of God, we are not asking for more money for the Church, for more buildings, for more structures, for more political influence. We are praying for this special, entirely different power of God. We are praying with the awareness that he comes in a powerful way that seems to the world to be weakness and foolishness (Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11: pp. 595-596).

Yes, here is the paradox of God’s power: He defeats Satan’s pride by the humility of His Son; disobedience and the refusal to be under any authority are defeated by the obedience and submission of Jesus.

Once stirred, God’s power will not always—or even often—manifest itself in thunder and lightning or in armies that conquer and destroy. Rather, His “strong and outstretched arm” is often found nailed and bloody on the cross. Yet here, and in this way, He defeats Satan. How? Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. And pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that.

Thus, the Lord defeats Satan not by the becoming a bigger, fiercer, more vengeful version of him, but by canceling his evil stance with its opposite. The Lord refuses to meet Satan’s terms, to become anything like him or in any way enter his world. In this way, the Lord conquers pride with humility and hate with love. I am mindful of some of the words from an old hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

The hymn concludes with these words:

Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all
.

Cardinal Ratzinger continues his essay in this way:

He does not come with military divisions; he comes instead with a wounded heart that apparently has nothing more to say, yet then proves to be the true and wholly other power and might of God.

This paradox should challenge us mightily because it means that God’s help will often not be on our terms. We would like to have every foe vanquished and every sorrow of our life removed. No cross at all; just stir up your power Lord and take it all away. But that is not usually how God’s power stirs in this “paradise lost,” which we chose by our own ratification of Adam and Eve’s sinful choice. We preferred a tree and its fruit to God, and He does not cancel our choice. Instead, He plants the tree of the cross and saves us by the very suffering and death we chose in the ancient Garden of Eden.

Here is God’s true power at work in this sin-soaked and rebellious world: the power of the cross. If you didn’t know what you were asking for when praying, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us,” you do now. We might prefer that God save us on our terms, by the mere vanquishing of our foes and the removal of our suffering, but (as St. Paul teaches) power is made perfect in weakness; it is when we are weak that we are strong, for then the power of God rests on us (cf 2 Cor 12:9-10).

Cardinal Ratzinger then sets forth the challenge of this prayer for us:

[Hence our true declaration is] “Lord wake us up from our drowsiness in which we are incapable of perceiving you, in which we conceal and impede the coming of your holy power.

… Christianity is not a moral system in which we may merely roll up our sleeves and change the world. We see in the movements that have promised us a better world how badly that turns out!

… But [on the other hand] Christians are not merely spectators … rather [the Lord] involves us; he desires to be efficacious in and through us … And so in this cry we pray to him for ourselves and to allow our own hearts to be touched: Your power is in us, rouse it and help us not to be an obstacle to it, but, rather, its witnesses [to its] vital strength.

That may well mean suffering, martyrdom, and loss. It may not—and usually does not—mean that God will simply vanquish our foes and remove all our suffering. In this world the saving remedy is the cross; not just for others but for us, too. On Good Friday, Christ looked like a “loser.” Satan and the world danced. But on Sunday, the Lord got up. Friday was first, Saturday lingered, and then came Sunday. As for Christ, so also for us: always carrying in our body the death of Jesus, so that also the life of Jesus may be manifested in us (2 Cor 4:10). The victory will come but it comes through the paradoxical power of the cross.

Does this Advent reflection sound too much like Lent for you? Why do you think we are wearing purple during Advent?

Now pray with me (but be sure to understand what you are asking): Stir up your power, Lord, and come to save us!

Here is the common Psalm for Advent: Lord, make us turn to you, let us see your face and we shall be saved.

A Summary of Our Salvation – A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we are close to the unfolding of the great mystery of the Word made flesh. It is easy for us to look right past it, but we do well to pause and ponder what is taught to us today about the salvation that is to unfold. One significant way we can do this is by reflecting on the first reading, which is from the prophet Micah. In four short verses we are presented with a kind of summary of our salvation, a snapshot of what ails us and how God heals us.

Let’s see what the Lord and the Church have to teach us.

I. Our Humility – The text begins, And you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.

Of all the towns and villages in the land of Judah, one of the lowliest was Bethlehem. Though not far from the great city of Jerusalem—a matter of a few miles—it was little more than a rundown, frontier village with little to recommend itself. It was a place by which one passed quickly on the way to nearby Jerusalem.

Even today, despite all that happened there, Bethlehem remains a troubled and rundown little city, impoverished and crowded. Its steep, hilly streets feature little that is pleasant to the eyes. A great sorrow hangs over it. It is hemmed in by guard towers and walls covered with razor wire. These are signs of a great standoff between Israel and the Palestinians. Largely isolated economically, the city suffers from widespread poverty and unemployment.

The ancient Church of the Nativity at the top of the hill looks every bit of its 1500 years in age. It is dingy, covered in soot, and largely in a state of poor repair, due to a standoff among the Orthodox factions that oversee the building. Thankfully, recent negotiations have yielded a renovation of some of the nave. The tension is palpable as one enters the church; nervous tour guides engage in delicate negotiations to ensure a quick visit to the cave of the Nativity beneath the altar.

Bethlehem remains lowly, troubled, and humble, yet it was here that our Savior chose to be born. He did not choose nearby Jerusalem, distant Rome, or any great imperial city. Not in a palace was He is born but in a cave. Even within this humble and lowly city, one must get mighty low to find the place where Christ was born. One descends steep, narrow steps into a cave, and once inside one must stoop lower still, even kneeling on the floor, to touch the place where Christ was born.

A lowly place in a lowly village—this is where Christ was born. See how the Lord esteems humility? God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. Pride is our greatest enemy; it is at the root of every sin we commit. That is why the Lord teaches us that humility is one of our greatest gifts.

The story also reminds us of something that took place in Bethlehem 1000 years before. The prophet Samuel was sent to anoint a new king to replace Saul. Having been sent to lowly Bethlehem, Samuel surveyed the sons of Jesse. The seven strong young men impressed Samuel, but none of them was the king he was sent to anoint. There was one other son, a boy so young and insignificant that Jesse had not even thought to include him. It was little David, who was out in the field tending the sheep. Yes, the lowliest one, he was the one whom God chose. Humility won the day (cf 1 Sam 16).

So it is that Bethlehem shows forth the humility, the lowliness that alone opens the door to God. Bethlehem is a name that means “house of bread,” not “house of caviar,” not “house of fine wine.” Humility ushers in our God.

II. Our Hardship – The text goes on to speak of our condition prior to the coming of Jesus: Therefore, the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne.

Our condition without Christ is grave. We are given up, given over to sin and to our own fruitless and self-destructive tendencies. Thus, we learn of the gravity of our condition: that we cannot save ourselves. The prophet Isaiah had cried out, Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! … 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 (Is 64:1,6-7).

Yes, our condition apart from Christ is hard and quite hopeless. In the age of the law and the prophets, we learned the hard way that no matter how hard we try we cannot save ourselves. Our wounds are too deep, our pride too great, our hearts too dull, and our minds too dark. We are lost without God. How often have deluded men sought to create utopia only to discover ruins? We have only to consider the utopian notions of the last bloody century.

Yes, the age of the law and the prophets in the Old Testament shouts to us that we cannot save ourselves. We must rely on God; we must turn to Him. We don’t just need an angel—we need a savior. Until she who was to give birth has borne the son, the only way to describe the human family is just the way this text from Micah does: we had been given up, given over to our own sins so as to discover humility and our need for a savior.

Isaiah wrote, All we like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way (Is 53:6). St. Paul would later write of the time before Christ, we were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1), given over to our transgressions and iniquity.

So, here is our hardship. We are wandering, lost, and in need of a savior.

III. Our Head – The text goes on to speak of our Savior, our shepherd, our ruler, and our head: Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times. He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock by the strength of the Lord, in the majestic name of the Lord, his God.

Thus, we see that our Savior will be both God and man. He is God, for His origin is from of old, from ancient times (cf also Hebrews 7:3). He also saves us by the strength of the Lord. Yet He is also one of us, for the text speaks of Him as acting in the name of the Lord, His God.

He must be God in order to have the power to save us, and yet He must also be one of us in order to speak and act on our behalf. As God, He cannot obey God, for there is only one divine will. As man, having a human will, He is able to obey the Father. Thus, it makes sense that our Savior must be both God and man.

It is said that He will shepherd His flock. Shepherds feed, lead, and protect their flocks. All this the Lord does for us. It is a trait of sheep to be wayward; sheep tend to stray. They need the watchful care of a shepherd. Similarly, even after saving us from our sins, the Lord must continue to feed us, lead us, and protect us. Otherwise, having been snatched from the wolf, we might run into a bear. Or, having been saved from the edge of a cliff, we might wander into a thicket.

Christ, our shepherd and head, must go before us, showing us and opening the way. He must also walk behind us to guard us and to observe our every action. He must also walk beside us to keep our paths straight. We need our Savior, not just on Good Friday, but every hour of every day.

IV. Our Healing – The text goes on to say, and the rest of his kindred shall return to the children of Israel and they shall remain, for now his greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth; he shall be peace.

Thus, we see that Jesus’ essential task in healing us is not simply a personal healing for me alone or for you alone. It is also healing that removes the divisions within and among us. One of the chief sources of our suffering in this world is division. Nation is divided against nation; races and ethnic groups are in competition; there is conflict and crushing hatred.

At the time of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles (largely Romans and Greeks) were in major conflict. The Jews of Jesus’ time were taught to love their neighbor and their fellow Jews, but to hate their enemy. Jesus taught that we must love and forgive our enemies and began the process of establishing a universal Church, a Catholic Church. He gave the apostles standing orders to preach the gospel to every nation and to unite everyone under the common title of disciple, of Christian. The dignity of baptism and of being a child of God was to be offered to all. As this text of Micah prophesies, the Lord’s salvation and greatness shall reach to the ends of the earth.

The text goes on to say, He shall be our peace. Note that this is not a “can we all just get along” sort of peace. It means that He shall be our peace. That is to say, the Lord Jesus Christ and the truth He proclaims are to be the source of our unity. In sending the apostles forth to proclaim the Gospel to every nation, Jesus said that they should teach the people to observe everything that He commanded and should draw them into the life of the Church through baptism (cf Matt 28:19). He is our peace. Jesus and His teachings are what are meant to unite us. Every other form of peace is not a true or lasting peace.

Thus, Jesus initiated a process that was not meant to conquer the world politically. Rather, it was a process whereby His truth and grace would be proclaimed and those who accepted these gifts would be able to come to greater and more lasting peace.

This peace must begin in the heart and mind of every individual believer who, by the grace of Jesus Christ, experiences an inner healing of the many conflicts and destructive drives caused by sin. Then, by drawing others to that same healing through evangelization to a life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ, this peace is meant to spread throughout the world. This will put an end to division, bring together the children of God, and show forth God’s greatness, truth, and salvation to the ends of the earth.

He is our peace. Jesus is our healing.

This Sunday’s first reading, coming just before the Christmas reality, presents us with a summary of our salvation. It stresses our need for humility, describes our hardship, announces our Head (a Shepherd), and sets forth the basis for our healing. In a word, the basis for our healing is the Word made flesh, Jesus.

This song says,

We need to hear from you
We need a word from you
If we don’t hear from you
What will we do
Wanting you more each day
Show us your perfect way
There is no other way
That we can live.

Destruction is now is now in view
Seems the world has forgotten all about you
Children are crying and people are dying
They’re lost without you, so lost without you
But you said if we seek
Lord if we seek your face
And turn from our wicked, our wicked ways
You promised to heal our land
Father you can.

A Meditation on an Often-Forgotten Advent Hymn

One of the less-well-known Advent hymns is “Rorate Caeli Desuper” (Heavens, drop dew from above). It is a plaintive hymn that recalls our desperate need for a savior and concludes with consolations from God, who has heard our cries and hastens to save us.

The refrain, which comes from Isaiah 45:8, is shown below in both Latin and English:

Roráte caéli désuper, (Heavens, drop dew from above)
et núbes plúant jústum. (and let the clouds rain forth justice).

This is an image for the gentle work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works subtly like the dewfall and more boldly like rainfall to bring forth Him who is our justice. For indeed, dew and rain are symbols of life, vigor, and/or providence. Water is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The Archangel St. Gabriel told Mary, The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the most High shall overshadow you. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Like a gentle dewfall, the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary and quietly she conceives; He who is our justice begins to dwell among us.

The rains that come forth from the clouds also are an image of God’s work in the Incarnation. Isaiah 45:8 continues by saying, Let the earth open up that salvation may sprout and righteousness spring up with it; I, the LORD, have created it. As God’s grace comes forth like rain from the clouds, truth shall spring up from the earth (see Psalm 85:11). Indeed, we are of the dust of this earth, and as the Lord tabernacles Himself in flesh in the womb of the Blessed Mother, justice and truth spring up from the earth as well. Both the quiet dewfall and the rain bring forth Him who is our justice and truth.

The need for this saving work of God is set forth in the verses that follow. (The Latin and English can be seen side by side here: Rorate Caeli Disuper.)

Be not angry, O Lord, and no longer remember our iniquity:
Behold, the holy city is made a wilderness,
Sion is deserted, Jerusalem a desolation:
the house of your holiness and your glory,
where our fathers praised thee
.

The next verse says that our sins have caused this:

We have sinned, and are as an unclean thing,
and we fall as do all the leaves:
and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away:
thou hast hid thy face from us: and hast consumed us,
because of our iniquities
.

We are fallen like the leaves and the winds carry us away. We cannot see the Lord because we are blinded, consumed, and withered by our sins.

In the next verse, we cry to God to send a savior and shepherd to rescue us:

Behold, O Lord, the affliction of thy people,
and send forth him whom thou wilt send;
send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth,
from Petra of the desert to the mount of daughter Sion:
that he may take away the yoke of our captivity
.

God responds to our cries:

You are my witnesses, saith the Lord,
and my servant whom I have chosen;
that ye may know me and believe me:
I, even I, am the Lord,
and beside me there is no Savior:
and there is none that can deliver out of my hand
.

Not only do I save you, says the Lord, but you shall then be my witnesses to draw others to me; I alone can save.

Then comes the great consolation and promise:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people;
your salvation shall suddenly come:
why wilt thou waste away in sadness?
why hath sorrow seized thee?
Fear not, for I will save thee:
For I am the Lord thy God,
the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer.

Such a beautiful hymn, with its image of the dewfall and the rain symbolizing the Holy Spirit; with its image of Jesus our Savior as justice and truth springing forth from Mary’s womb and, by extension, from the earth! Such beautiful verses, setting fort our pitiful condition, giving voice to our cries, and ushering in the consolations and promises of our God!

Here is a simple, hauntingly beautiful version of the hymn in Gregorian Chant. (Note that the hymn tune is different from that of the antiphon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.)