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.”

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.

I Wanna Be Ready to Put on a Long White Robe – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appeareth? This is the cry that goes up from the final pages of the Old Testament (Mal 3:2). The Lord himself gives the answer:

See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom! (Mal 4:5-6)

With these words the Old Testament ends.

The New Testament opens in the desert near the banks of the River Jordan, with John the Baptist, of whom Jesus says, He is the Elijah who was to come (Mt 11:14). In John the Baptist is the fulfillment of the Elijah figure, who was to come to prepare the hearts of the people for the great coming of the Messiah.

All of this leads us to this Sunday’s Gospel, in which John the Baptist summons the faithful to repentance so that they will be ready when the Messiah arrives. Those of us who want to be ready also need to go into the wilderness and listen to John’s message: Prepare the way of the Lord! Although only the Lord can finally get us ready, we must be able to say to Him, “I’m as ready as I can be.”

Let’s look at this Gospel reading in three stages, going into the wilderness with John the Baptist as our teacher:

1. Context – Luke sets forth the context meticulously: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.

What’s going on here? Why all the specifics? It almost seems as if we are reading an ancient Middle Eastern phone book or a “Who’s Who in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Yes, notice the following:

The Prestige – You might say that this is a parade of the prestigious, a roll call of royalty, a list of leaders! There is an emperor (i.e., the federal government), a local governor (i.e., the state government), three tetrarchs (state and local officials), and two religious (and secular) leaders. Anybody who is anybody is in the list, yet it was not to any of them that the Word of God came.

The Person – It was John the Baptist, the simple man in the desert, to whom the Word came. Who? He was not on anyone’s list! John the who? Where do you say he lives? He doesn’t live in the palace or even in Jerusalem? Recall these Scripture passages:

But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:27-29).

At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure (Luke 10:21).

He has lifted up the lowly, and the rich he has sent away empty. To this simple, unlettered man, the Word of God came, and many went out to hear him speak the Word of God in wisdom.

The Place – Where is the Word of God proclaimed? Where is John the Baptist found? Where will Jesus appear? In a palace? In the “Ivy League” town of Jerusalem? No indeed; not in a palace, not in some air-conditioned environment, not in a place of power, but in a place of vulnerability, where one experiences one’s limitations. In the desert, neediness reaches out and grabs you. Yes, it is in a hot desert that the prophet was found.

It is in this hostile climate that we go to hear the call and feel its power. Do you understand the context? It is not be overlooked. The context is not found in the halls of power; it is found in the desert, where thirst and hunger hit rich and poor alike. It is here that the Word of God is found and heard.

2. Call – The text says, John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert.

Here we have a basic biblical call, “Repent and believe in the good news!” John said this, but so did Jesus in His opening call: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:14 -15)

There must be balance in preaching. Repent and believe the good news! Modern thinking and practice have strayed from this kerygmatic balance between “Repent” and “Believe the good news!” Many today only want to hear or proclaim the “good news.” The good news only makes sense, though, if we understand that we are in dire need of a divine physician. Repenting sets the stage for the good news.

As we have discussed in other posts, metanoia means more than moral conversion. It means, more literally, to have one’s thinking changed (meta = change, noia = thought), to have one’s mind renewed, to think in a new way. The basic message is to have our mind converted from worldly self-satisfaction and self-righteousness and to be convinced of our need for forgiveness and for a savior. Yes, we are sinners in need of a savior. We are bound for eternal death and destruction and cannot save ourselves. There is good news, though: the Savior is here, even at the door! We must arise and be ready to answer when He knocks.

Our modern world, concerned more with comfort and relief than with healing, needs to experience something of the desert. There’s nothing like it to remind us of our frailty and neediness. Today in the Church we often try to make everyone feel comfortable; we don’t want to risk talking about sin or other controversial topics because it might unsettle someone. Where’s the desert in that? John wasn’t found in some air-conditioned marble palace. He was in the searing desert with no creature comforts to be found. There was and is just the call to come to a new mind, to reorder misplaced priorities, to surrender self-righteousness, and to accept that we are frail sinners who need a savior.

With the “bad news” established, the good news makes sense—and it really is good news: the savior is near, even at the door. However, we have to go out into the desert and listen to a humble man, not one of the rich and powerful. We must listen to John, a man clothed in camel hair and subsisting on wild honey and locusts.

He does proclaim good news, but we must be ready for it.

3. Content – What does it mean to repent? John says, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Notice the elements of the content:

Ready – The text says, Prepare the way of the Lord. This is a hectic season; we’re all getting ready for Christmas, but mostly in a social way (buying presents, going to parties, and decorating the house). Will we be spiritually ready for Christmas? We know how to get ready for a lot of things. We prepare for tax day. We make sure to be on time for work. We know how to catch a plane. We know how to get to a movie or a sporting event at the right time. We spend years getting ready for careers. Why don’t we spend more time getting ready for God? The one thing that is most certain is that we will die one day and stand before God. Are you ready? As the text says, Prepare the way of the Lord! This world will pass away, but the things of God remain. Careers and promotions are not certain, but death and judgment are. Why do we get ready for uncertain, worldly things and yet not spend time on spiritual things?

Right – The text says, make straight his paths. The winding roads shall be made straight! A winding road is a symbol of shifting priorities, of waywardness, of a heart that is not steadfast and straight. Too often we are all over the moral map; we are inconsistent and crooked. Scripture says,

In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prov 3:6).

Put away from you crooked speech and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil (Prov 4:24-27).

Consider this example. If I am driving from Washington, D.C. to New York City and see a sign that says, “South to Richmond,” I know that following the sign would be foolish; it would lead me in the wrong direction. We know how to set a course for worldly destinations and how to avoid going the wrong way, but what about our course home to Heaven? We might sing, “I’m on my way to Heaven and I’m so glad the world can’t do me no harm,” but then we see an exit marked, “Sin City, Next Exit” and sure enough we take it. Why? Many of us are outraged to hear that we can’t just go whichever way we please, do whatever we want, and still end up in Heaven. Then comes all the anger directed at the Church, the Bible, the preacher, and anyone who might remind us that we have to make straight the ways of the Lord. You can’t go down to go up. You can’t turn left or right and say you’re going straight. Thus, the text says that we should make straight the way of the Lord.

Reverent – The text says, Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.

The mountain represents pride. Every sin is rooted in pride, because it asserts that our way is better than God’s. We think that we know better than God. We are modern; Scripture is old fashioned. We are with it while the Church is out of touch. This is the mountain of pride and we must let it go. God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. There is nothing that excludes us more from Heaven than pride, thinking that we know better than God does.

The valley symbolizes low self-esteem and despair. It may not be obvious, but a lot of sins come from low self-esteem. For example, we gossip and denigrate others because we think that if they are brought low, we will feel better about our own self. We also give way to peer pressure easily because we can only feel better about our own self if we “fit in” and are approved by others. Sometimes we’ll even sin in order to accomplish that. Some young women will fornicate for the price of a nice meal, selling their bodies for less than a prostitute would—all because they fear that they won’t be loved if they don’t. Young men pressure young women and disrespect them because they think that they must in order to “be a man.” Many young men join gangs—even drop out and commit crimes—all to “belong” and be “cool.” Low self-esteem is an ugly business that leads us to commit many sins. These valleys have to be filled in.

The solution to both pride and low self-esteem is fear of the Lord, reverence. The fear of human beings and what they will think is at the root of much sin. That is why the Scriptures admonish us to fear the Lord instead. When I fear the Lord, I don’t need to fear anyone else. When I reverence the Lord, my pride is dissolved. Mountains are made low and valleys are leveled when we have a reverential and loving fear of the Lord.

Refined – The text says, the rough ways shall be made smooth. Rough ways are filled with obstacles, stumbling blocks, and pitfalls. What are some of the things that hinder our ways? What are some of our obstacles and pitfalls?

What are some of the specific things that cause me to stumble? Are they habits, excesses, or unlawful pleasures? What are the things that make me rough and difficult to live with? Am I unyielding, unforgiving, unmerciful, or unkind? Am I lax, frivolous, unspiritual, or unaccountable? What are the rough ways in me and in my path that need smoothing? What trips me up? What in me needs softening and smoothing?

Recognizing – The text says, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. The Greek word used in this passage is ὁράω (horao). While it is translated as “see,” it involves an active receptivity, more in the sense of looking than merely having something overshadow us or cross our visual path. The danger is that we can close our eyes. Thus, we must remain active and receptive. We must look for salvation and redemption; we must seek it. It is a gift, but we must open our eyes and accustom ourselves to its light and to its ways.

Learning the ways of the faith is very much like learning a language. Until we learn the letters, the meaning of the words, and the grammar, a different language can look or sound like gibberish. For many today, the ways of faith are just that: gibberish. For us who believe, though, because we have been made ready for God, because we make straight his paths, because we reverence God and reject roughness, we are able to recognize our redemption and rejoice in its presence.

Preparing our Hearts for Mystery in Advent

As we look toward Christmas and ponder the incarnation, we ought to remember that so profound was truth of the incarnation that the early Church fell to her knees at these words: “and He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, from the virgin Mary, and became man.” This act of falling to one’s knees at these words is still practiced in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite; in the ordinary form, we are asked to bow.

These gestures acknowledge the profound mystery of the truth of the Incarnation. How does the infinite enter the finite? How does He, whom the very heavens cannot contain, enter the womb of Mary. How can He, who holds all creation together in Himself, be held in Mary’s arms?

In modern times we tend to trivialize God. In this age of empiricism and science we want to fit Him into our categories. But God is not just one more thing in the universe (even if very big or powerful) — He is existence itself. Our feeble words betray more than bespeak Him. We know Him as unknown. Our words about Him, even if true, say more about what He is not than what He is.

To some degree the ancients grasped this better than we; they remained astounded at things like the Incarnation. We avoid the tension of this deep mystery by sentimentalizing it. We speak of “the baby Jesus” and sing sentimental songs. This is not wrong, but one wonders if we do this to avoid the astounding mystery and the tension that such mysteries and imponderables summon.

In a passage we will read this week in the Office of Readings, St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote of this mystery:

The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like. He takes to himself all that is human, except for sin …. He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory, that I may share in his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me? (Sermon, Oratio, 49)

We must all fall silent during Advent to ponder such things. There is a place for sentimentality, but wonder and awe — even shock — should also bring us to our knees. The cooing and crying of the little Infant is the same voice, the same Word that summoned creation into existence. It is an ineffable mystery, an unfathomable truth. And this Eternal Word made Flesh brings gifts to us at Christmas’ approach. An old song by St. Ambrose says,

O equal to thy Father, Thou,
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate
.

Hush, fall silent before the mystery; less analysis and more wonder and awe.

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.”

See What the End Shall Be – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent

In the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we step back nine months to March 25th, the feast of the Annunciation, an all-but-hidden event that changed the world. God, whose focal presence departed the Temple just prior to the Babylonian invasion (cf Ez 10:18) and the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, now returns to the ark of Mary’s womb. The glorious presence of God returns now to His people, in an obscure town of fewer than three hundred, a town so small that no road led to it.

We are reading here of a pivotal moment in the history of mankind. God not only returns to His people but also becomes one with them in the Incarnation.

We do well to consider four aspects of this crucial moment. As we do so, we consider not only Mary’s glories but ours as well (in a subordinate yet real way). Mary is the perfect disciple and her glories typify in a most excellent way the glories that God wishes to bestow upon us, though in a different but still substantial way. Let’s look at four aspects of this Gospel.

I. The RESPECT of God – The text says, The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man name Joseph and the virgin’s name was Mary … Mary said “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Note that God asks Mary for her cooperation. Although the angel Gabriel’s words are not delivered in the form of a question, it is clear from Mary’s response that she considers this to be a request from God. She says yes, understanding it as a request rather than merely a statement of what shall be.

Here we see an important indicator of God’s respect for Mary’s freedom. Surely He has prepared her and equipped her with every good grace to say yes, but in the end her freely offered yes is significant. It is something that God seeks and respects. Otherwise, why would He bother to send an angel at all? Why would He come through Mary at all? Why not simply appear suddenly as a full-grown man and start to work? As it is, God wills to come through Mary (cf Gen 3:15) and seeks her yes in the place of Eve’s no.

God’s respect for Mary’s freely offered yes also extends to us. Indeed, we can see here how God’s respect is in direct contrast to the behavior of the devil, who provokes, shouts, and intrudes. Through cultural noise and other avenues, Satan tempts and provokes us. God, however, whispers and respectfully invites. He does not force a decision on us but rather summons us in love and then patiently awaits our answer.

In Scripture we read this of Jesus: Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). Hence, although all-powerful and able to coerce, God does not do so; He does not act violently or impose His will. He respects the freedom He Himself gave us and invites us to cooperate in His plan for us.

God respects Mary’s and our freedom; He “needs” us to open the door for Him to go to work.

II. The Revelation of God – Note the great love, appreciation, and regard that God extends to Mary through the angel. The text says, Hail, Full of grace! The Lord is with you … Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

Gabriel reveals Mary’s sinless state. Mary is surely God’s masterpiece, the result of His grace and work. She is sinless by being “full of grace.” Filled with grace, she has no room in her for sin.

In his greeting, Gabriel speaks to Mary’s dignity and perfection: Χαιρε κεχαριτωμενη (Chaire, Kecharitomene) (Hail, full of grace). Kecharitomene (full of grace) is a perfect, passive participle indicating an action completed (perfected) in the past but still operative in the present. Thus Gabriel salutes her not by her name, “Mary,” but in a different way: “Hail to her who was perfectly graced and is so now!” Mary had been freed of all sin in the past. She was and is perfectly, fully graced. Gabriel greets Mary and regards respectfully the work of God in her.

In a less perfect (but still true) way, God also loves us and loves in us the perfection we will one day attain by His grace and mercy. A couple of texts come to mind:

    • I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving kindness (Jer 31:3).
    • Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior … you are precious and honored in my sight, and … I love you (Isaiah 43:1-3).

God does not love us because we are good. Rather, God loves us and then if we accept His love we are good. Mary was, by a singular grace, wholly open to God’s love and perfection. If we are faithful, each of us will one day become the man or woman God has always intended us to be.

God shows great regard for Mary (through Gabriel) and also knows the glory we will one day share.

III. The RIDDLE in the middle – There remains Mary’s mysterious question: “How will this be since I do not know man?” Had she been thinking in biological terms she would have known the obvious answer to the question: she and Joseph would conceive. But her question implies that she had other notions about her future than regular marital relations.

Some contend that the question does not really come from Mary, but rather is a rhetorical question or literary device  placed here by Luke so that the angel can inform us, the readers, that God alone is the true Father of the Son. Such a notion seems more like the concoction of nervous moderns attempting to solve the mystery. Reducing a pivotal question like this to a mere literary device seems unbecoming.

A better solution is to explore the ancient tradition that there is a backstory supplied to us in the Protoevangelium of James. This is  a brief text from the early Second Century that focuses on the infancy and early years of both Mary and Jesus. While not a book of scripture, the text provides an important historical of how the early Church and Christians understood these early events. It also helps to solve the “riddle” of Mary’s question “How shall this be since I know not man?” The text explains that Joseph was an older widower and appointed by the High Priest as a kind of guardian for Mary who was a consecrated virgin who had lived and worked in the Temple. Here are some verses:  

And Anna said: As the Lord my God lives, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life….And her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth. And she said to the midwife: What have I brought forth? And she said: A girl….and [Anna] called her name Mary….And the child was three years old…she, [with Joachim and Anna] went up into the temple of the Lord. And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying: The Lord has magnified your name in all generations. In you, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel. And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her….And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel. And when she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying: Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her? And they said to the high priest: You stand by the altar of the Lord; go in, and pray concerning her; and whatever the Lord shall manifest unto you, that also will we do.

And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him: Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod; and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be. And the heralds went out through all the circuit of Judæa, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and all ran.

And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid… [But the high priest said], “And now fear the Lord, O Joseph…And Joseph took her into his keeping. (Protoevangelium 8-10) 

This back-story provides a context for Mary’s unusual question. Catholic tradition sees evidence in her question of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. 

In the end, Mary’s question seems to point to some expectation on her part that she would “not know man” going forward. We are not going to be able to completely satisfy our curiosity in this matter and ultimately it is none of our business.

One thing is sure: the Church teaches, without ambiguity, that Mary remained ever-virgin. It seems reasonable to conclude that Mary’s question indicates that she was clear on this. There remains also an element of mystery that we must respect.

Protestants and others who deny Mary’s perpetual virginity have some thinking to do. Mary’s question is neither meaningless nor naïve. Ancient Christianity as evidenced by the Protoevangelium of James already had an understanding of Mary’s perpetual status as a consecrated virgin and saw Mary’s question as a true question with a true context and it ought to be respected as at least pointing to her virginity even if it does not prove it.

IV. The REASSURANCE of God – Mary is in the presence of an archangel. This alone is frightening enough, but in addition her world is shifting dramatically. Hence, her fear and anxiety are understandable. Gabriel gives Mary a number of reassurances: Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God … Behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the most high, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end …

In effect, Gabriel is telling Mary that however the details unfold, there will be total victory in the end; she is to bear a son, who is the Son of the most High God and who will have a kingdom that will never end or be conquered. In spite of any concerns she has, this will all lead to victory.

Mary will need this reassurance for there are some difficult days ahead: homelessness at the time of Jesus’ birth, the flight to Egypt, Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart, and the actual thrusting of that sword while she is at the foot of the cross. This knowledge of ultimate victory is an important reassurance for her to hold close.

It is an important reassurance for us as well. We, too, have some difficult valleys to cross, some arduous hills to climb. We must constantly keep in mind the end of the story: Jesus is the victor. Even if we might think that we are losing, total victory belongs to Jesus in the end and to us if we stay with Him. The conclusion of the story is already declared: Jesus wins, overwhelmingly. All of His enemies will be placed under His feet (e.g., Rev 20-22; 1 Cor 15:25-26; John 16:33 inter al).

Consider this magnificent passage from Isaiah:

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).

If we were to memorize and internalize this passage, so many of our fears and anxieties would flee; our trust would build and we would live victorious lives. At times it may seem that evil has the upper hand, but God has the ultimate victory. No matter how dark it may appear at any given time, God has already won; it’s just that the news has not yet leaked out.

This truth and reassurance must be emblazoned on our hearts, for like Mary, we have difficult days in our future. All the more reason that God’s reassurance is essential for us. It got Mary through the cross and it will get us through our trials.

Hence, we have here a pivotal moment in history, when God’s presence returns to the human family. And it all happens so quietly, in Nazareth, a town so small that there was not even a road that led to it. Quietly, but clearly and powerfully, He has thrust the first blow at Satan’s realm. God’s Victory is certain.

A Mid-Advent Picture of What Our Savior Offers

jesus-heals-the-paralyticThe Gospel for last Monday’s Mass (Monday of the Second Week of Advent) is the well-known story of the paralytic. There are many wonderful details that I could discuss (e.g., the four friends who bring him to Jesus—talk about great friends!), but I’d like to focus today on Jesus’ command: “Rise, take up your stretcher, and go home.” It is a small picture of the grace unto salvation offered to us by the Lord. Here is a man who is powerless to help or heal himself, so the Lord helps and heals him. Though “dead in his sins,” he now rises and lays hold of a whole new life.

This is a mid-Advent picture of why we need a Savior, and what He offers. Note three aspects of what Jesus says to the paralytic:

Rise – In other words, receive new life, new capacities. No longer be weighed down by weakness. Be set free. Rise to new life! When Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, he said to the bystanders, “Untie him and let him go free.” St. Paul says of us, “You were dead in your sins … but made alive through Christ” (Col 2:13). And thus the paralyzed man, once powerless to move or take control, is now strong and free. His paralysis represents our weakness, our spiritual palsy, our inability to walk uprightly and in justice. To all this, Jesus says, “Rise!” He bids us no longer to be in bondage to sin, Satan, the world, and the flesh.

Rule – The Lord tells the paralytic man to take up his stretcher. He wants him to take authority over that on which he once depended. Whatever crutch you once leaned on, be strong enough now to carry it; don’t lean on it any longer. If you once depended on sin for happiness, take authority over it now. If you once needed alcohol to calm your nerves, take authority over it now; don’t lean on it anymore. If you once depended on gossip and detraction to feel important, take authority over it. Don’t be dependent on any sin. By being healed, have the power to carry it off like a trophy of victory. While it is true that we will always need some help in this life, no longer should we be wholly dependent on anything or anyone in this world. The Lord has authority in our life and He grants us increasing authority over our passions, desires, struggles, and gifts. He tells us to take up the authority He has rightly granted us and command our soul in justice and truth.

Return – The Lord says to him, “Go home.” In other words, make your journey back to God, back to your true home in the heart of the Father. Sin had separated us from God and driven a wedge between us. But now the veil in the Temple has been torn from top to bottom. Through Jesus, we have access to the Father. Like prodigal sons, we are now heading home. Look off in the distance! It is the Father, running to us to greet us! By offering forgiveness for our sins, Jesus has opened the gates of Heaven and restored us to a right and just relationship with His Father. If we will accept this gift and celebrate it regularly, our return is well underway; it is just over the next hill (Calvary). And just beyond is the heavenly Zion. “I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go up to the House of the Lord!’”

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.”