One of the goals of Advent (in many ways a penitential season) is to meditate on our need for a savior. In daily Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours, we read lengthy passages from Isaiah and the other prophets, who speak boldly and bluntly about the people’s sin. Some of the passages are even a bit humorous. Here are a few:
Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil (Isaiah 1: 2-6).
Hear this, O House of Jacob, called by the name Israel, sprung from the stock of Judah. You swear by the name of the Lord and invoke the God of Israel, but without sincerity or justice. …. I know that you are stubborn, that you neck is like an iron sinew and you forehead is bronze (Isaiah 48:1, 4).
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay; you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. … Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you (Isaiah 64:6-8,1).
The problem is not just a collective one; each of us is personally sinful and needs a savior. If we are honest we must admit that we can be selfish, egotistical, rude, insensitive, prideful, lustful, greedy, unkind, and ungrateful. We can be dishonest, insincere, shallow, inconsistent, double-minded, and uncommitted. We can be stingy, selfish, petty, spiteful, hateful, wrathful, vengeful, and just plain mean. We struggle with laziness, indifference, worldliness, and lack of discipline. We routinely fail to give witness to Christ and to our faith. We fail to submit our will to God, to give good example, to act justly, to show mercy, and to repent. We fail to obey God, lead a holy life, stand up for justice, speak the truth, call sinners to Christ, and pray for others. Did I mention somewhere that we need a savior?
To a large extent, Advent lays out the bad news so that we appreciate the magnificence of the good news of a cure. This is to prepare us for a Christmas that is really the joyful “counterpoint” to sin. After a devoutly celebrated Advent, at Christmas we can declare with ancient Israel, Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord! Advent sets the stage for Christmas joy by reminding us of the drama of sin that threatens to destroy us. Suddenly, Christ appears to cast out our ancient enemy! And then we can say, Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
One of the great problems in the Church today is the suppression of the “bad news.” Many in the Church prefer not to talk clearly and directly about sin. If it is mentioned at all, it is usually by way of abstractions and generalities. The paradoxical result of this suppression is not a happier Church, but a lukewarm, in some ways sadder one. Largely gone are the religious festivals, the joyful processions, and the confident public expression of Catholic faith.
So, remember this: a good Advent sets the stage for a joyful Christmas. This joy is different from the sentimentality about snow, lights, and tinsel. It is a deep, grateful joy that comes from knowing we are loved and have been rescued despite our sin. Permanent joy and salvation await us if we persevere in running the race of faith. Paradoxically, it comes from being deeply aware of our sinful condition.
Make a good Advent. Listen carefully to its message: “You need a savior!” If you deny sin, you deny the Savior. If you deny the Savior and the need for salvation, then Christmas and the cross are emptied of meaning.
Will Christmas be for you a mere holiday, or will it be a holyday?
This song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” speaks of Israel as a captive in need of ransom, mourning in exile. But then comes this refrain: “Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
The coming of Christ at Christmas was as an infant and thus we don’t usually think of wedding imagery. Yet since the first coming of Christ has certainly already been fulfilled, we now focus more on His second coming, of which the first coming is a sacramental reminder.
Thus, in Advent, our longing and excitement are also directed to His glorious second coming. Mother Church, the New Jerusalem, our Mother, looks for her groom Jesus to come again all His glory:
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).
This longing remains until Mother Church, Christ’s beautiful bride, 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). Her longing cannot be quenched until He comes again in all His radiant beauty and majesty. Until then she longs, looks, and waits.
Although some of her children have attained to this glory, she waits and longs until the number of her elect children are complete and she, in her fullness, will go to be with her spouse forever in beatific glory.
One of the great Advent hymns of the Protestant tradition, “Wake, O Wake,” picks up this bridal theme and “weds” it with Advent longing. This particular translation (from the German) is a masterpiece; 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 the great wedding song of Advent, “Wake, O Wake,” by the choir of Trinity College in Cambridge.
As Catholics, we open Advent with the New Testament. We read its earliest pages, and the light shows brighter than ever as one covenant passes on and the New Covenant begins. The Groom has found his Bride.
Catholics reverence the whole of the Scriptures and refuse Marcionism, a heresy that (among other things) rejected the Old Testament. However, not all of Scripture has equal authority in its application. We read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. Many of the things that the Old Testament pointed to are fulfilled and transposed in the New Testament. We no longer sacrifice lambs, because Christ Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. We no longer require the Jewish temple and its rituals, because Jesus is the Temple. Many of its rituals have been taken up in a transposed way into our Liturgy with Him who is our High Priest.
Yet the searing assessments of the prophets and their warnings of the need to repent from injustice and infractions of the Law ring as true as ever. Jesus came to fulfill the moral Law, not to replace or cancel it—and fulfill it He did.
We are blessed by the Old Testament, but also blessed to be in the times of the New Testament. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote,
On many past occasions and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe (Heb 1:1-2).
I have always cherished the way this verse begins in the old Latin Vulgate: Multifarium multisque modis …. It is so stately in its cadence! But I digress …
As we prepare for Christmas, we ought to meditate on the glory of having the very Word by and through whom God the Father uttered all things into being, pitch His tent among us and speak to us. Jesus is no mere prophet; He is the very Word they heard. There is a glory to the Gospels and the New Testament that cannot be denied. The very Word of God speaks through His own Body, the Church.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux reflected on this truth and on the longing expressed in the Old Testament’s Song of Songs (note that Bernard uses hyperbole):
[The bride, The Church says] Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth …. No longer am I satisfied to listen to Moses for he is a slow speaker and not able to speak well (Ex 4:10). Isaiah is a man of unclean lips (Is 6:5). Jeremiah does not know how to speak, for he is but a youth (Jer 1:6). Not one of the prophets makes an impact on me with his words …. For they are a watery darkness and a dense cloud (Psalm 18:12). … But He, the one whom they proclaim, let Him speak to me, Let Him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; let Him, whose presence is full of love, from whom exquisite doctrines flow in streams, let Him become a spring inside me welling up to eternal life (Jn 4:14). With good reason, then, I avoid trucking with visions and dreams; I want no part with parables and figures of speech. Even the very beauty of the angels can leave me only wearied. For my Jesus utterly surpasses these in majesty and splendor …. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth [The Song of Songs, Sermon 2 by St. Bernard].
And thus as Advent opens we do well to ponder the gift of our Lord Jesus in the Incarnation, to celebrate the new and everlasting covenant wrought by Him and described in the Gospels. We do not discard the Old Testament, but rather interpret it even more nobly through Christ. Isaac, going up Moriah’s height, is a Christ figure; so is Joseph, betrayed by his brothers but also their savior. The crossing of the Red Sea is baptism. The ark of Noah is the Church. The Ark of the Covenant is a prefigurement of Mary, the ark who carried Jesus in her womb and later in her arms. The Scriptures begin in Genesis, in a garden with the tree of life, and they end in the garden described in Revelation, with the same tree of life. The Scriptures begin with a marriage and end with one. The list could go on and on.
This is our blessing: to know God not merely in words, but to know Him who is the Word made flesh. Ponder well the gift of the Word made flesh. The pursuit of lovers in the Old Testament has borne fruit. The lover has found his beloved. And the Bride, which is the Church, cries out in desire, “Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth.”
A blessed Advent to one and all!
The beautiful Advent hymn in the video below summarizes well the joy of the Bride at the arrival of her Groom. It is also a quick summary of the Song of Songs.
The first weeks of Advent focus more on the Lord’s second coming in glory than on His first coming at Bethlehem. The Gospel clearly states that we must always be prepared, for at an hour we do not expect, the Son of Man will come. “Ready” is the key word. But how should we be ready?
The second reading from today’s Mass (Romans 13:11-14) gives us a basic recipe for readiness. We can distinguish five fundamental instructions in Paul’s recipe.
1. Wake up – The text says, … you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, … St. Paul has more in mind here than physical sleep. But consider for a moment some of the aspects of physical sleep. When we sleep we are unaware of what is taking place around us or even of what we are doing. A family member might tell us, “When you were sleeping you were mumbling and snoring!” “Really?” we might reply, “I didn’t realize I was doing that!” Another time we might doze off in front of the television and miss the game-winning touchdown or the critical scene that helped the movie to make sense. Further, when we are asleep our minds are dreamy and confused. Some of the craziest things happen in dreams because the more rational part of the brain is asleep; any absurd thought might manifest itself and seem perfectly understandable. But when we finally do awake, we think, “What was that all about?”
This text, which tells us to wake up, refers to all of this in a moral and mindful sense. What St. Paul is really saying here is that we need to become more aware of what is happening in our life.
We cannot sleep through life like someone dozing on a couch. We need to be alert and aware of what is happening. We need to be morally awake and responsible for our actions. We cannot and must not engage in dreamy thinking that is not rooted in reality or is fundamentally absurd in its premises. Dreamy thinking has to go.
We need to be alert, rooted in what is real and what is revealed. We cannot go on calling good what God has called sinful. We need to wake up, drink the “coffee” of God’s Word, shake off the cobwebs of drowsiness, and start living in the light of holiness rather than in the darkness of deceit and sin.
Waking up also means taking responsibility and exercising authority over one’s life. When we sleep we toss and turn, having little control over our movements. But when we are awake, we take authority over our actions and are responsible for them.
The first instruction in the recipe for readiness is to wake up. The cobwebs of groggy and sleepy behavior have to give way to the alertness of a new mind. There are many scriptures that make a similar point:
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2).
Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame (1 Cor 15:34).
Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them … put off your old nature, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds (Eph 4:17-18, 22-23).
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Col 3:2).
2. Clean up– The text says, … not in orgies … not in promiscuity and lust … and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. Notice the emphasis in this passage on sexuality. This is because the pagan world at the time of Paul was sexually confused and immature. Promiscuity, fornication, homosexual activity, divorce, abortion, and infanticide were all rampant. Sound familiar? We have slipped right back into that pagan immaturity and immorality. This text tells us it is time to clean up, grow up, and take authority over our sexuality, by God’s grace. It’s time to act more like adults than like irresponsible teenagers.
In saying that we should make no provision for the desires of the flesh, the text is indicating we should avoid the near occasion of sin. We should not put ourselves in compromising and/or tempting situations. To make “provision” literally means to “see ahead” or to “look toward” something in such a way as to facilitate it. The text says to resolve ahead of time not to provide occasion for the flesh.
Many people make light of sexual sin today and say that “it’s no big deal” and that “everyone is doing it.” But God says otherwise and speaks very strongly against it in His Word. He does not do this because He is a prude, or wants to limit our fun. Rather, God wants to save us a lot of suffering and to protect the innocent.
What does promiscuity get us? Sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, teenage pregnancies, children born outside of the ideal nuclear and properly formed family, divorce, bitterness, jealousy, broken hearts, and discarded human beings. God is not out to limit our fun; He is trying to protect us. He is also trying to protect marriage and children. With all this promiscuity, it is children who suffer most. Many of them are simply killed by abortion. Those who do survive to be born are often raised in less-than-ideal settings, without both parents in a stable union of marriage. Many are born to teenage mothers who are not ready to raise them.
God says to all of us that in order to be ready, we have to clean up. We have to take authority over our sexuality, by His grace. Promiscuity, pornography, illicit sexual union, and lust have to go. Those who make light of sexual sin have been deceived; it is a very serious matter and God makes this clear in His word:
As for lewd conduct or promiscuousness or lust of any sort, let them not even be mentioned among you; your holiness forbids this. Nor should there be any obscene, silly or suggestive talk; all that is out of place. Instead, give thanks. Make no mistake about this: no fornicator, no unclean or lustful person—in effect an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God’s wrath down upon the disobedient; therefore, have nothing to do with them (Eph 5:3-7).
Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the Kingdom of God? Do not deceive yourselves: no fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sodomites, thieves, misers, or drunkards, no slanderers or robbers will inherit the kingdom of God … Flee fornication … You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within—the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased at a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:9-11).
3. Sober up – The text says, … not in drunkenness … Physically, to be drunk means to have our mind confused due to the influence of alcohol. Conversely, to be sober is to have a clear mind that is capable of making sound judgments.
So much of our battle to be ready to meet God comes down to our mind. There are many fuzzy-headed, lamebrained, crazy, and just plain wrongful notions today that amount to a lack of sobriety. They emerge from the haze of un-sober thinking and from a world that increasingly resembles the Star Wars barroom scene (in a moral sense).
Don’t believe everything you think. Much of what we think has come from a drunken and confused world. Square everything you think with God’s Word and the teachings of the Church.
So, the third instruction in the recipe for readiness is to sober up, to request and receive from God a clear and sound mind. Here are some other Scripture passages that speak to this need:
Therefore, gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13).
Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, solid in your faith (1 Peter 5:8).
Let the older men be sober, serious and temperate (Titus 2:2).
4. Lighten up– The text says, … not in rivalry and jealousy … An awful lot of our sins revolve around our sensitive egos. Paul warns elsewhere of other things that flow from this source: enmity, strife, anger, selfishness, dissension, factions, and envy (Gal 5:20).
These sorts of things have to go. We need to be more forgiving if we expect to be forgiven. We also need to be less stingy, more generous to the poor, and less prone to the kind of anger that comes from being thin-skinned or from a lack of humility.
Our biggest sin is pride; it is enemy number one. It has to go and along with it all its minions: envy, jealously, selfishness, hatred, fear, bitterness, a hard and unforgiving heart, and just plain old meanness.
The Lord wants to give us the gift of being more lighthearted and less serious about ourselves; a heart that is loving, generous, considerate, happy for the gifts of others, forgiving, truthful, patient, meek, and open to others; a heart that is less egocentric and more theocentric.
5. Dress up– The text says, But put on the Lord Jesus Christ … If we miss this point, then everything else is just a moralism, more rules about how to live. The moral life of the New Testament is not achieved; it is received. The moral life of the New Testament is not so much a prescription, as it is a description. It describes what we are like when Jesus Christ really begins to live His life in us.
St. Paul says, I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20). Jesus says, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5). St John says, But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know [experience] we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:5-6).
Hence the moral life is not imposed; it is imparted. It is not achieved; it is received. It is not demanded; it is delivered. There is surely a requirement that the moral law describes, but the requirement can only be met in a real or full sense when Jesus Christ is living in us. If we try to accomplish it solely by our flesh, we are destined to fail.
Hence we must put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We must humbly give Him our life and assent to His kingship and authority over us. The more we surrender, the more He renders us fit to the life He describes. If we really hope to wake up, clean up, sober up, and lighten up, it will have to be a work of His grace.
The Book of Revelation speaks of the garment, the long white robe that is given to each of the saints to wear (Rev 6:11). Later, Revelation 19:8 describes the long white robe (of the Bride of the Lamb) as the righteous deeds of all the saints. It is in this sense that St. Paul tells us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hence, righteousness is given to us like a precious wedding garment. In the baptismal ritual, the newly baptized are clothed in white and told that their garments represent their dignity, which they are to bring unstained to the judgment seat of Christ. In the funeral rite, the cloth placed over the casket recalls the baptismal garment. Yes, the final instruction in the recipe for readiness is to dress up, to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Only Jesus can truly get us ready.
The Lord’s coming is near. And though we have all been well taught that the word “Advent” means “coming,” there is the danger that we think that we are only passively waiting for Him to come. It is not just that the Lord is coming to us; we are also journeying to Him. In fact, as the Advent prayers in the Roman Missal instruct, we ought to run, not walk, and hasten to greet Him as He draws near.
This notion of running to meet God is set forth as a consistent theme in the prayers of the Roman Missal. Consider the following prayers and how the theme of our hastening to go out to meet God, even as He is coming to us, is set forth:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom (First Sunday of Advent).
Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company (Second Sunday of Advent).
Stir up your mighty power, O Lord, and come to our help with a mighty strength, so that what our sins impede, the grace of your mercy may hasten (Thursday of the First Week of Advent).
Grant that your people, we pray, almighty God, may be ever watchful for the coming of your Only Begotten Son, that, as the author of our salvation himself has taught us, we may hasten, alert with lighted lamps, to meet him when he comes (Friday of the Second Week of Advent).
May the reception of your sacrament strengthen us O Lord, so that we may go out to meet our savior, with worthy deeds when he comes, and merit the rewards of the blessed (Post-communion, Dec 22).
So, more than merely waiting passively, we should be running and hastening to meet the Lord.
The image of the prodigal son comes to mind. In this parable, the father sees his son and runs toward him. But at the same time, the son is hastening toward his father with contrition and hope. In the same way, we look for the Lord’s coming during Advent. But the Lord also looks for us to come to Him by faith. Like the prodigal son, we should consider our need for salvation. With contrition (have you been to confession recently?) we should hasten to meet our Lord, who by faith we know is coming to us.
Thus, we are not counseled to wait for the Lord in a passive sense, as though we were sitting around waiting for a bus to arrive. Rather, we are counseled to wait for the Lord in an active sense, in much the same way that a waiter in a restaurant waits on tables. Alert and aware, the waiter carefully observes the needs of the patrons in his care and serves them. Good waiters strive to avoid distraction and to do their job of serving well with an alert swiftness.
Notice, too, how the prayers above indicate what it means to run to the Lord. We should not run aimlessly or in circles. Rather, running to the Lord means
being engaged in righteous deeds (holiness) by God’s grace,
not being hindered by worldly preoccupations and distractions,
learning heavenly wisdom,
receiving the Lord’s mercy unto the forgiveness of our sins,
being alert and ready for the Lord’s coming, with the lamp of our soul trimmed (humble and purged of sin) and burning (alive with fiery love), and
being strengthened by the Eucharist, which is our food for the journey.
St. Paul also speaks of running:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I discipline my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor 9:24-27).
Are you running to meet the Lord or are you just waiting passively? Advent involves looking and waiting, but it also means running to meet the Lord, who is coming to us. Run, don’t walk, to the nearing Jesus!
The name of the piece in the clip below is Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina (Lord, make haste to help me). It was composed by Antonio Vivaldi and its series of eighth notes create the image of energetic, joyful running. Vivaldi loved to run a melody up and down the musical scale. In this piece he created a sense of running up and down the hills as we hasten to the Lord. (The video below goes on to include the Gloria Patri.) Just try not to tap your toe during the first and third movements of the Vespers of Vivaldi in G Major!
Part of the genius of the African-American spirituals is their ability to treat serious themes such as the final judgment in a creatively compelling manner that steers a middle course between unproductive fear and prideful presumption. Some of them are even playful: “I would not be a sinner. I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die!” Another spiritual says, “Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe. If you don’t watch, he’ll slip it on you!” Yet another warns with love, “In that great gettin’ up morning, fare you well, fare you well! Oh, fare you well poor sinner, fare you well!”
Some of the early African-American hymns from the late 19th century also draw heavily on this tradition. One such hymn is “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?” by Charles P. Jones (1865-1949). The hymn consists in applying the question “Where shall I be?” to a litany of biblically based descriptions of the Second Coming of Jesus, when He will judge the world by fire. Each verse is steeped in rich, biblical tradition. Together, they provide us with a series of good Advent reflections, all rooted in the essential Advent focus of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus.
When I sing it along with my congregation each Advent, I am reminded of the familiar themes of another masterpiece: the ancient “Dies Irae.” That hymn is also richly biblical and I have written about it on the blog in the past (HERE).
Let’s look at each line of “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds.” I provide some biblical background for each line.
Here is the hymn in toto, followed by a line-by-line analysis, including biblical references and some brief commentary. Since this is a long post I have made it available here as a PDF: Where will you be when the first trumpet sounds. You can listen to the hymn in the video at the bottom of the post.
When judgment day is drawing nigh,
Where shall I be?
When God the works of men shall try,
Where shall I be?
When east and west the fire shall roll,
Where shall I be?
How will it be with my poor soul:
Where shall I be?
O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds,
O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?
When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead?
O where shall I be when it sounds?
When wicked men His wrath shall see,
Where shall I be?
And to the rocks and mountains flee,
Where shall I be?
When hills and mountains flee away,
Where shall I be?
When all the works of man decay,
Where shall I be?
When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll,
Where shall I be?
Shall from God’s angry presence roll,
Where shall I be?
When all the saints redeemed shall stand,
Where shall I be?
Forever blest at God’s right hand,
Where shall I be?
1. When judgment day is drawing nigh, Where shall I be?
A.Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door (Matt 24:32-33). B.Do not grumble … The Judge is standing at the door! (James 5:9) C.Here I am! I stand at the door and knock (Rev 3:20). D.If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping (Mk 13:36). E.For, in just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay (Heb 10:37). F.While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thess 5:3). G.Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!” (Rev 10:5-6) Comment: Judgment day is drawer nearer and nearer for us all. With each beat of our heart the moment edges closer. Are you ready for the Day of Judgment? What are you doing to get ready? The “Dies Irae” says, “Day of wrath and doom impending, Heaven and earth in ashes ending …” Do not delay your conversion to the Lord. The Lord has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:19-20).
2. When God the works of men shall try, Where shall I be?
A. Their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15). B.For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done (Matt 16:27). C.And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds (Rev 20:12). D.God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger (Rom 2:6-8). E.But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). F. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-11). Comment:We will not be saved by our deeds but we will be judged by them, for the veracity of saving faith is made manifest by its work. As Jesus attests, The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil (Matt 12:35). Hence, our works shall be tried by God. That is, they shall be judged by the Lord Jesus, to whom we must render an account. The “Dies Irae” says, “Lo the book exactly worded, wherein all hath been recorded, thence shall judgement be awarded.”
3. When east and west the fire shall roll, Where shall I be?
A. Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays (Mal 4:1-3). B.For behold, the LORD is coming forth from His place. He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under Him And the valleys will be split, Like wax before the fire, Like water poured down a steep place (Micah 1:3-4). C. By the wrath of the LORD Almighty the land will be scorched and the people will be fuel for the fire; they will not spare one another (Isaiah 9:19). D.For behold, the LORD will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the LORD will be many (Is 66:15-16). E.By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly … But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (2 Peter 7, 10-12). Comment: The only way to survive on the day of fire is to be fire yourself. Let God set you on fire with love and bring you up to the temperature of glory. Let God send tongues as of fire to enkindle in you the fire of His love.
4. How will it be with my poor soul: Where shall I be?
A. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? “And if it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good (1 Peter 4:17-19). Comment:While we can have confidence for the day of salvation, this confidence cannot be in our own ability. It must rest in the grace and mercy of God. We are all poor sinners, beggars before God. The “Dies Irae” says, “What for I fail sinner pleading, who for me be interceding, when the just are mercy needing?”
5. O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?
A. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Cor 15:52). B.Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Matt 24:30-31). C.For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16). D.The Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south (Zech 9:14). Comment: The trumpet summons all to judgement, some to glory and others to wrath. But all must come. This is an appointment that all must keep! The “Dies Irae” says, “Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth, Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth, all before the throne it bringeth.”
6. When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? O where shall I be when it sounds?
A. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt (Dan 12:1-2). B.And [The Father] He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment (Jn 5:27-29). C.For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Cor 15:52). Comment: Where will you be? Will you be with the righteous or with the wicked, with the Saint or the aints? Everyone will rise, but to entirely different realities. Where shall I be?
7. When wicked men His wrath shall see, Where shall I be?
A. “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them” (Mal 4:1). B.By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:7). C.The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18). D.You formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Eph 2:2-3). E.You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:9-10). Comment: Are you getting this? The Day of Judgment is going to be bad for the wicked. They will experience God’s wrath. And what is God’s wrath? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sin in the presence of God’s holiness. It is like fire and water coming together. They cannot coexist; there is a fundamental conflict and one has to give way. So it is with sin in the presence of God—no can do. Only Jesus can give us the capacity to stand before God’s utter sanctity. Only Jesus can rescue us from the coming wrath. The “Dies Irae” says, “When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded: Call me with thy saints surrounded.”
8. And to the rocks and mountains flee, Where shall I be? When hills and mountains flee away, Where shall I be?
A. As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us! and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26-31) B.Men will go into caves of the rocks And into holes of the ground Before the terror of the LORD And the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble (Is 2:19). C.Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17) Comment: You can’t run from God because He’s already there. There will be no escape, no postponing the Day of Judgment.
9. When all the works of man decay, Where shall I be?
A. Each man’s work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15). B.But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up (2 Peter 3:10). C.Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (Matt 24:2). Comment: All things of man shall pass away, including all our works. Only what we do for Christ will last. Jesus says, You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you (Jn 15:16). Only what you do for Christ will last. All other works will decay.
10. When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll, Where shall I be? Shall from God’s angry presence roll, Where shall I be?
A. Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies … the mountains will be soaked with their blood. All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves (Isaiah 34:1-4). B.The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night (Rev 8:12). Comment:The “Dies Irae” says, “Death is struck and nature quaking, All creation is awaking, To its judge and answer making.” Come on now, if even the stars are struck and must answer, who are we to make light of judgement?
11. When all the saints redeemed shall stand, Where shall I be? Forever blest at God’s right hand, Where shall I be?
A. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness (Mal 3:2). B. Wherefore … having done all to stand, Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints (Ephesians 6:10-18). C. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’” (Matt 25:31-33). Comment: The Dies Irae says, “With thy sheep a place provide me, From the goats afar divide me, To thy right hand do thou guide me. When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded: Call me with thy saints surrounded.”
Yes, it’s quite a song, so rich in biblical allusion! Like the “Dies Irae,” it references many scriptures quite vividly and creatively. And like so many of the spirituals, it is able to combine them in ways that are almost celebratory. The hymn is usually sung in an upbeat manner; in my parish we clap hands as we sing.
At the end of the day the question remains: Where shall I be? Will I be among the righteous in glory, or among the sinful and unrepentant in Hell? Where, poor sinners that we are, shall you and I be? Thanks be to God for His grace and mercy, which help us to stand a chance.
But as with all offers of God, grace and mercy are accessed only through repentance.
This song, like the more ancient “Dies Irae,” could not be more clear: we are hastening to the Day of Judgment, a day about which to be sober and ready. Are you ready? Where shall you be when the first trumpet sounds?
The very first reading for Advent in the Office of Readings of the Breviary is a text from Isaiah Chapter 1. As such, it sounds a kind of keynote for the season, which is penitential in tone. In effect, the reading sets forth the need for a savior, as it vividly describes our sinful condition. We’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But praise the Lord, there is a doctor on the way. His name is Emmanuel; His name is Jesus, which means “God saves.”
Let’s look at this keynote reading of Advent in five stages.
I. Distant Sons– Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for the Lord speaks: Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me! An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood. Ah! sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the Lord, spurned the Holy One of Israel, apostatized (Is 1:2-4).
At the heart of most of our troubles is that we have distanced ourselves from God. Sometimes this is through forgetfulness rooted in a dullness of mind. Culturally in the West we have moved God to the periphery by an increasingly strident secularism. We are distant children. Collectively speaking, we have disowned our Father: the God who made us and who enables us to do everything we have done.
In so doing, we are cutting ourselves off from the very source of our power and achievement. This, of course, is the height of foolishness. Consider a fan that has just been unplugged. At first the blades continue to spin and the fan may “think” that all is well. But gradually the blades move more and more slowly. Eventually, they stop completely. It is this way with us as well.
Most of us believers are rightly concerned that our culture, having been unmoored, is becoming just as God described faithless ancient Israel: a sinful nation laden with wickedness, evil, and corruption. No age of this “paradise lost” has ever been sinless, but increasingly we cannot even get consensus on the most basic moral issues: that killing infants in the womb is wrong, that homosexual acts are disordered, and that promiscuity is unhealthy for the body and the culture. Even the most rudimentary understanding of biology shows that a life in the womb is a human baby and that homosexual acts are not meant to be (the parts don’t fit and the full purpose of sex is impossible). And clearly promiscuity brings disease. And this is just the biological evidence. Even a high school biology student can figure out that these practices are misguided.
But so deep is our confusion, that even the most obvious aspects of things evade us as we get lost in our rationalizations and foolish attempts to justify what we know, deep down, is wrong. Yes, unplugged from God, we get a little slow in our thinking.
The Lord goes on to compare His distant children to oxen and donkeys. Yes, even they are smarter than some of us, for they know their owner and who feeds them. Are you and I smarter than a donkey or an ox? There is a reason our nativity sets usually feature a donkey and a cow. They were there for the birth of Christ, but we had no room for him in the inn.
So the first reason we need a savior is that we tend to stray from God. And having strayed, we get lost in more ways than one. God has to come find us, just as in the garden when the first couple sinned He went through the Garden calling, “Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9) So now He seeks us, His distant children.
II. Disease-Struck – Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot to the head there is no sound spot: Wound and welt and gaping gash, not drained, or bandaged, or eased with salve(Isaiah 1:5-6).
This is a bad situation. The Lord says simply, “There is no sound spot.” The damage caused by sin is enormous and the Lord describes it sickening terms: wounds; welts; and horrifying, pus-filled, gaping gashes.
We tend to make light of sin, but God does not. St. Paul put things more bluntly and tersely: “You were dead in your sins” (Eph 2:1).
But making light of our sins we stand there and continue to get struck; we continue to rebel. We ignore the body count of abortion, the toll that divorce and promiscuity take on children, the high price of greed, and the foolishness of casting aside God and His wisdom.
As God describes it, our stance is unreasonable and just plain stupid. We rebel, glory in evil things, and assert a false notion of freedom. But God says to us that if we could only see ourselves as He does, we would be sickened: gaping wounds and foul discharge.
Jesus said to Sister Faustina, You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror. … But because you are such great misery I have revealed to you the whole ocean of my mercy (Diary II. 718).
Here, then, is the second reason we need a savior: Our sins and stubbornness have made us wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev 3:17). We cannot save ourselves. Only with grace and mercy do we stand a chance. We need more than an angel; we need a savior.
III. Desolate Scene – Your country is waste, your cities burnt with fire. Your land before your eyes strangers devour, [a waste, like Sodom overthrown]—And daughter Zion is left like a hut in a vineyard, Like a shed in a melon patch, like a city blockaded. Unless the Lord of hosts had left us a scanty remnant, We had become as Sodom, we should be like Gomorrah (Is 1:7-9).
Ruined cultures eventually produced ruined cities and plundered landscapes. You don’t think it can happen today? Throughout the age of the Church, empires have risen and fallen, countries have come and gone, and powerful coalitions have gathered and fallen apart. None of them thought that they would collapse either. But they are all gone. Where is Rome? Where is the Napoleonic Empire? Where is the USSR? It was once said, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Now it does. The Church alone, by Christ’s promise, is indefectible. And she, too, needs often-severe purifications.
In the Bible the usual focus was on land, crops, and buildings. In our age, we speak of “economies.” But no matter what we call it, we cannot have strong economies or unless we are strong, true, consistent and disciplined. Our moral decline produces a decadence (from the Latin for “to be fallen down”) and a laziness.
We are even too lazy to have children. And thus the text above speaks of “strangers devouring your land.” Once-Christian Europe is soon to become a Muslim caliphate. Hagia Sophia became a mosque; will the great cathedrals of Europe go the same way?
In America the situation is more complex. Thankfully, most of our immigrants are Catholic Christians. But it does seem clear that our years of being an economic and political leader among the nations is fading; the thinning soil of our culture can little longer sustain the taller growths. Our economy has been stagnant for at least a decade now, and unemployment is shockingly high. There’s no telling where it will end up, but things don’t look very vigorous right now.
And here is the third reason we need a savior: to save us from the mess we’ve made and reinvigorate us with the things that make for healthy families, healthy communities, a healthy culture, and a healthy Church. We need rebuilding, reinvigoration, restoration, refocusing, and reformation.
IV. Disconnected Sacrifices – Hear the word of the Lord, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah! What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; In the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness: these I cannot bear. Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you; Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow (Is 1:10-19).
Even our worship lacks integrity. That which is supposed to glorify God and bring forth in us a holy obedience has become lip service. God seeks hearts that are humble, docile, loving, and repentant. We cannot buy Him off by just singing hymns, saying a few prayers, or attending Mass. These things, good though they are, are meant to effect a conversion in us that makes us more loving of both God and neighbor, less violent, more just, more merciful, more generous to the poor, and more holy. Our worship should effect change in us such that we cease doing evil and learn to do good, we strive for justice, we address injustice, and we defend and help the poor.
An additional problem with our worship today is that God has become almost an afterthought. Much of our liturgy is self-centered, self-congratulatory, and anthropocentric (rather than theocentric). We are “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.” While the Mass should focus on God and summon us to humility and joy before Him, too often it seems more an exercise in pride and self-congratulation. We are very narcissistic, even in a communal setting.
God cannot be pleased with all of this. Even if our worship is rightly ordered, we are not going to buy God off. God wants an obedient heart more than sacrifice. Sacrifice without obedience is a sham.
This is the fourth reason we need a savior: We need God to restore our integrity and give us a new heart. We are “dis-integrated,” in the sense that pieces of our life that should be together (e.g., worship and obedience, liturgy and healing) are not. Too often our worship does just the opposite of what it should. Instead of drawing us more deeply into the love and obedience of God it becomes the very occasion of keeping God at a distance and seeking to placate him with superficial gestures. This makes our worship an insult and a lie. God doesn’t mince words in the passage above when He says how displeased He is with this.
We need God to give us a new heart, one that loves Him as well as the people and things that He loves. Only then will our worship will truly reflect the heart that God seeks: a loving, humble, and generous heart.
V. Desire to Save – Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Is 1:18-20).
God says that we should get started. Let the healing begin! And all the people must say,
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until you, O Lord, the Son of God appear.”
The following are five Advent reflections I prepared for catechumens and candidates in our RCIA program. (They are also available in PDF here: The Season of Advent.)
1. Advent is witnessed by creation – Late autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors, then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. Vacations and the warmth of summer are distant memories, and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and then pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has its delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the childlike excitement a winter storm can arouse. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, longing, and expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreaths and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our ongoing commitment to come out of the darkness into God’s own marvelous light (cf 1 Peter 2:9). There is a gospel song says, “Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.”
2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this Messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so a cry from Israel went up:
O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil … We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people (Is 64:1-7).
In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come, yet we know that sin and injustice still have terrible effects on our lives and our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to set us free every day. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us; now we long for Him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of His glory.
3. Waiting for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This truth flows directly from Scripture, which clearly teaches two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second, we cannot know the day or the hour that He will return. In fact, though some signs will precede His coming, the emphasis of Scripture is on the suddenness of the event.
He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27).
… with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth … (1 Th. 5:3)
… in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet … (1 Cor 15:52)
It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44).
Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security” … (1 Th. 5:3)
Since this is the case, we must live in constant readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect on the necessity of our readiness. An old gospel song says, “Are you ready? Are you ready for the coming of the Lord?” Likewise, there is another gospel song that counsels, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!”
4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgment and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider, for example, this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).
Some of the imagery used here is reminiscent of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away, but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heaven and a new earth,” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American spiritual summarizes the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter with these classic lines: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.” Here, too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses it this way: “God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days, Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, Alleluia!” For the slaves, the day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, vindication, and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is to be living faithfully, holding on to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this, not only do we have nothing to fear about the last day, we can eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All of these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent, and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come. He has called us to the obedience of faith and promised that He will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. We rehearse for His second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom He finds watchful and ready. In a sense, every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every Mass the following prayer is said: Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for His glorious return. Only He can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only He can give us joy and make us holy. We need only yield to His saving work.
And this brings us back to where we started: longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for Him is to know how much we need Him. To long for Him is to constantly seek His face and call upon His name. Cry out with the Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)
This song says, “My Lord is getting us ready for that Great Day, who shall be able to stand? … Sinners will be running on that Great Day … Better get ready … Who shall be able to stand?”