Here in the heart of Advent, we are considering how prepared we are for the Lord to come again. Either He will come to us or we will go to Him, but either way we must prepare. In today’s post I’d like to consider some teachings about the Day of Judgment, from an Advent hymn that most do not know is an Advent hymn. Tomorrow I would like to consider the great Parousia, wherein the saved enter into glory with the Lord.
Regarding the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord, Judgment Day,” I am of the mind that one of the great treasures and masterpieces of the Church’s Gregorian Chant is the current sequence hymn for Latin Requiem Masses, the Dies Irae. This gorgeous chant was one of the more beautiful and soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant, and many composers such as Mozart and Verdi set the text to stirring musical compositions.
But the hymn was not in fact composed for funerals. Actually, it was composed, by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century, as an Advent hymn. Yes, that’s right, an Advent hymn. Don’t forget that Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas; it is also about getting ready for the Second Coming of the Lord. And that is what this hymn is really about. At this time of year, as the the leaves fall and summer turns to winter, we are reminded of the passing of all things. The Gospels we read are those that remind us of death and the judgment to come.
Journey with me into the beauty and solemn majesty of this hymn. I will offer an inspiring English translation by W. J. Irons, one that preserves the meter and renders the Latin well enough. (You can see the Latin Text along with English here: Dies Irae.) I will also offer the scriptural verses that serve as background to the text.
The syllables of this magnificent hymn hammer away in trochaic dimeter: Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybila! Perhaps at times it is a bit heavy, but at the same time, no hymn more beautifully sets forth a basis for God’s mercy. The dark clouds of judgment part and give way to the bright beauty of the final line: Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (Sweet Jesus Lord, give them [the dead] rest).
The hymn opens on the Day of Judgment warning that the day will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin. God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. And now it is time to put an end to wickedness and lies:
- Day of wrath and doom impending,
- Heaven and earth in ashes ending:
- David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.
Yes, all are struck with a holy fear! No one and no thing can treat this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. The bodies of the dead come forth from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and all of creation will answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all. Consider two scriptural roots to this first verse:
- (Zeph 1:15-18) A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on men, so that they shall walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. In the fire of his jealous wrath, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
- (2 Peter 3:10-13) 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 … the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire!
The “Sibyl” referred to here is most likely the Erythraean Sibyl, who wrote an acrostic on the name of the Christ in the Sibylline Oracles. These will figure prominently in tomorrow’s meditation on the Parousia.
And now the stunning, opening stunning scene of creation. All have been set aghast; our rapt attention turns to Jesus, who has come to judge the living and the dead and the whole world by fire:
- Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth
- When from heaven the judge descendeth
- On whose sentence all dependeth!
- Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
- Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
- All before the throne it bringeth.
- Death is struck and nature quaking,
- All creation is awaking,
- To its judge an answer making.
- Lo the book exactly worded,
- Wherein all hath been recorded,
- Thence shall judgment be awarded.
- When the Judge his seat attaineth,
- And each hidden deed arraigneth:
- Nothing unavenged remaineth.
Here, too, many Biblical texts are brought to mind and masterfully united. Here are just a few of them:
- (Matt 25:31-33) When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left …
- (Matt 24:30-32) And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven. And then shall all tribes of the earth mourn: and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty. And he shall send his angels with a trumpet and a great voice: and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens to the utmost bounds of them.
- (Rev 20:12) And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
- (Rom 2:4-6) Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works:
- Luke 12:3 What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.
- 2 Peter 3:14 and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
So, Judgment shall be according to our deeds; whatever is in the Book! Ah, but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy. And so our hymn turns to pondering the need for mercy, and appeals to God for that mercy, basing it on the very will of God to save us. Was He not to be called Jesus because He would save us from our sins? (Mt 1:21) Did not God so love the world that He sent His own Son? And did He not come to save rather than condemn? (Jn 3:16-17) Did He not endure great sorrows and the cross itself to save us? Ah, Lord, do not now forsake me as I ponder my last end. Keep me faithful unto death!
- What shall I frail man be pleading?
- Who for me be interceding?
- When the just are mercy needing?
- King of majesty tremendous,
- Who does free salvation send us,
- Font of pity then befriend us.
- Think kind Jesus, my salvation,
- Caused thy wondrous incarnation:
- Leave me not to reprobation.
- Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
- On the cross of suffering bought me:
- Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
- Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
- Grant thy gift of absolution,
- Before the day of retribution.
- Guilty now I pour my moaning:
- All my shame and anguish owning:
- Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.
- Through the sinful Mary shriven,
- Through the dying thief forgiven,
- Thou to me a hope has given.
Yes, there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy. Pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary, since for now we can call on that mercy. For of that day, though there will be wailing and grinding of teeth at a just condemnation, such tears will be of no avail then (Mt 13:42). Please Lord, let me not be with the goats at the left, but with the sheep on the right (Mt 25:33). And in the end, it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. Only you, Jesus, can save me from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10):
- Worthless are my tears and sighing:
- Yet good Lord in grace complying,
- Rescue me from fire undying.
- 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.
- Lo I kneel with heart-submission,
- See like ashes my contrition:
- Help me in my last condition.
And now comes the great summation: that day is surely coming! Grant me O Lord your grace to be ready; prepare me:
- Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
- from the dust of earth returning.
- Man for judgment must prepare him,
- Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
- Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
- Grant the dead eternal rest.
It is a masterpiece of beauty and truth, if you ask me. Some years ago, I memorized most of it. I sing it from time to time over in Church late at night, the hauntingly beautiful chant ringing through her echoing arches. When I die, please sing it at my funeral! For I go to the Lord, the judge of all, and only grace and mercy will see me through. Perhaps the plaintive calls of the choir below at my funeral will resonate to the very heavens as I am judged. Amen.
All the way back in 1973, George Gilder published a book entitled Men and Marriage. He expanded and republished it in 1986. In his book, Gilder argued that our culture was marginalizing men, to its great peril. He articulated the critical role that marriage has in helping men focus their sexual energies in a creative and beneficial way. Women have their nurturing role rather clearly defined in the very design of their bodies. But men’s role in the raising of children and in society in general is less evident. The traditional family gave men a rather clearly defined role that had dignity and supplied them with the feeling that they were needed, indeed essential.
But, as Gilder showed even then, much of that has been stripped away. Feminism and the sexual revolution are sources of the erosion, along with other deleterious social effects. And the erosion of esteem for the roles of husband, father, provider, and leader is hurting not only men, but children, women, and our culture as a whole. For when the sexual energies of men are not channeled toward creative ends, they tend toward destructive ones.
Gilder’s description of the problem is in full blossom today, and more and more social commentators now describe men as increasingly a combination of angry, disengaged, dysfunctional, cynical, fearful, and legally and socially constrained. The wider culture, heavily influenced by feminism, often depicts men as sexual predators, drinkers, imbeciles, buffoons, and as stupid and immature. And after consuming a steady diet of these portraits, some men do indeed display some of these traits.
Over the years, we have discussed many aspects of the problem on this blog. Most significantly, we have focused on the apparent lack of connection that young people today have with the ideas of courtship, dating, and marriage. Marriage is delayed any many are never getting there at all. The com-box lights up whenever I write on these matters. Many commenters are bewildered, like me, but others are young people who are quite angry and cynical about one another. Our culture has really poisoned the atmosphere between the sexes. Promiscuity makes even simple flirtation fraught with a sense of danger, and merely unwanted attention becomes the stuff of sexual harassment. The men who write in are the bitterest of all. One man wrote, “Sure women are beautiful but that is where the appeal stops. The relationship is nothing but trouble and power struggle, and I risk losing everything, everything!”
Welcome to the world of post-radical-feminism and the post-sexual-revolution. It is a toxic world for romance, let alone the deeper values of marital and family love. It is toxic for men and for women, but most tragically it is toxic for children, who are often raised in a culture of deepening confusion and conflict in its most necessary component: the traditional family.
There is an article on Brietbart that articulates the problem for men and their anger. It is a lengthy article, and I should warn you that if you click on the link to the article in the previous sentence you will read some rather “raw” language. But frankly, it IS raw out there today for increasing numbers of young people, who have inherited the whirlwind of the sexual revolution and radical feminism. It is a lonely world, a world in which hostility and widespread promiscuity have destroyed innocence and poisoned relationships between young men and women that used to be natural and oriented toward marriage and family.
Here are some excerpts of the article, which I present here as a kind of log of the cultural decline we are experiencing. The quotes from the article are in bold italics, while my comments are in plain red text.
Social commentators, journalists, academics, scientists and young men themselves have all spotted the trend: among men of about 15 to 30 years old, ever-increasing numbers are checking out of society altogether, giving up on women, sex and relationships and retreating into pornography, sexual fetishes, chemical addictions, video games and, in some cases, boorish [male] culture, all of which insulate them from a hostile, debilitating social environment created, some argue, by the modern feminist movement.
Of course in retreating from an ugly world, they dwell in an even uglier one. But to them it seems to feel less threatening, more predictable, and less complicated. Gilder discusses the observation that if men cannot be encouraged to commit to the creative and constructive relationship of the family, they will (as sociological studies show) tend toward destructive and damaging relationships that range from violent ones (gangs) to less harmful but disengaged ones like gaming, or drinking.
You can hardly blame them. Cruelly derided as man-children and crybabies for objecting to absurdly unfair conditions in college, bars, clubs and beyond, men are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: ridiculed as basement-dwellers for avoiding aggressive, demanding women with unrealistic expectations, or called rapists and misogynists merely for expressing sexual interest.
The new rules men are expected to live by are never clearly explained, … leaving [males] clueless and neurotic about interacting with [women]. “That might sound like a good thing because it encourages men to take the unromantic but practical approach of asking women how they should behave, but it causes a lot of them to just opt out of the game and retreat to the sanctuary of their groups … where being rude to women gets you approval, and you can pretty much entirely avoid one-on-one socialising with the opposite sex.”
Here, too, this “retreat” cannot receive approval, but some understanding of the disgust and fear that underlies it may be important. Generally, men used to seek the company of women and seek a wife. Now they do not. What has changed? While some aspects of the women’s movement were necessary (better access to jobs, fairer compensation, etc.) there now seems to have been an overcorrection, such that women now outrank men in terms of many indicators of social success such as graduation levels, income, and legal access to benefits and rights. Many men find the legal and legislative world hostile to them and discover that it is politically incorrect to say that the “corrections” are now harming men.
Women have been sending men mixed messages for the last few decades, leaving boys utterly confused about what they are supposed to represent to women, which perhaps explains the strong language some of them use when describing their situation. As the role of breadwinner has been taken away from them by women who earn more and do better in school, men are left to intuit what to do, trying to find a virtuous mean between what women say they want and what they actually pursue, which can be very different things.
Men say the gap between what women say and what they do has never been wider. Men are constantly told they should be delicate, sensitive fellow travelers on the feminist path. But the same women who say they want a nice, unthreatening boyfriend go home and swoon over simple-minded, giant-chested, testosterone-saturated hunks in Game of Thrones. Men know this, and, for some, this giant inconsistency makes the whole game look too much like hard work. Why bother trying to work out what a woman wants, when you can play sports, [self-gratify through masturbation] or just play video games from the comfort of your bedroom?
Yes, men speak to me all the time about such mixed messages, both here at the blog and in ministerial settings. Women make it very difficult to understand what they want. Part of the problem is that women are not monolithic. Different women want different things. But even with an individual woman, many men struggle to understand. Women have always had, in every culture and time, a “lot of moving parts.” But the frenetic and ephemeral quality of modern culture puts the inconsistencies on steroids and leaves a lot of men bewildered and angry.
Again, the retreat of men into lesser or native activities cannot be approved. But in merely reporting it here I do not do so. It is important to examine the trend and to try to understand it, since even many churchgoing Catholic males are manifesting these attitudes and behaviors.
The article goes on to discuss what drives women to exhibit the behaviors that men are fleeing. Here, too, you do not need to accept all that is said here or read it in terms of assigning blame. But women have widely changed their behavior, and once again it is good to ask why.
Women today are schooled in victimhood, taught to be aggressively vulnerable and convinced that the slightest of perceived infractions, approaches or clumsy misunderstandings represents “assault,” “abuse” or “harassment.” That may work in the safe confines of campus, where men can have their academic careers destroyed on the mere say-so of a female student … academics such as Camille Paglia have been warning for years that “rape drives” on campus put women at greater risk, if anything … damage [is] being done to them by the onset of absurd, unworkable, prudish and downright misandrist laws such as California’s “Yes Means Yes” legislation—and by third-wave feminism … which is currently enjoying a hysterical last gasp before women themselves reject it.
Another root of the problem is the school system, both public and private. We have discussed on this blog many times before that normal boyhood has been demonized and treated as something to be medicated away.
In schools today across Britain and America, boys are relentlessly pathologised, as academics were warning as long ago as 2001. Boyishness and boisterousness have come to be seen as “problematic,” with girls’ behavior a gold standard against which these defective boys are measured. When they are found wanting, the solution is often drugs. One in seven American boys will be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at some point in their school career. Millions will be prescribed a powerful mood stabilizer such as Ritalin, for the crime of being born male. The side effects of these drugs can be hideous and include sudden death.
Meanwhile, boys are falling behind girls academically, perhaps because relentless and well-funded focus has been placed on girls’ achievement in the past few decades and little to none on the boys who are now achieving lower grades, fewer honors, fewer degrees and less marketable information economy skills. Boys’ literacy, in particular, is in crisis throughout the West. We’ve been obsessing so much over girls, we haven’t noticed that boys have slipped into serious academic trouble.
OK, so even if there was a need to correct and focus a bit more on girls, it looks as if we’ve overcorrected. This may not be politically correct, but it certainly looks as though the statistics indicate this.
Jack Donovan, a writer based in Portland who has written several books on men and masculinity, each of which has become a cult hit, says the phenomenon is already endemic among the adult population. “I see a lot of young men who would otherwise be dating and marrying giving up on women,” he explains, “Or giving up on the idea of having a wife and family. This includes both the kind of men who would traditionally be a little awkward with women, and the kind of men who aren’t awkward with women at all. “They’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and realized it is a bad deal. They know that if they invest in a marriage and children, a woman can take all of that away from them on a whim. He goes on: “Almost all young men have attended mandatory sexual harassment and anti-rape seminars, and they know that they can be fired, expelled, or arrested based more or less on the word of any woman. They know they are basically guilty until proven innocent in most situations.”
This is pretty clear and it is well aligned with what I am hearing, increasingly, from men.
Well, this is a tough topic to be sure. Not exactly the best topic for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception! However, it does illustrate well what happens when a culture loses its relative innocence, and sex becomes a toxic, cynical, fearful pursuit, one that is no longer tied to marriage and family. (Mondays are also my usual day for doing “culture check” articles.)
It will be admitted that not all young people are lost in this cycle, but increasing numbers are. A good start toward addressing the problem is raising awareness of and naming the demons. There was a time, not so long ago, when we got the courtship and marriage thing right … or at least largely right. People mostly got married and stay married. Our families weren’t perfect, but they functioned. Our culture wasn’t perfect—far from it—but its basic units and foundations were operative.
Have mercy on us Lord, and on the whole world.
An old spiritual says, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, but the fire next time. The second reading in today’s Mass speaks to us of the “fire next time” and again reminds us of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. In this homily, I will focus on that second reading, wherein St. Peter reminds us of the passing that will come for us all, sooner or later. And since Advent is a time to prepare through prayer and repentance, we do well to heed this sacred teaching and warning, echoed by St. John the Baptist as well, of whom the Gospel today says, A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:2-3).
Note four aspects of the second reading:
I. The PATIENCE that is PURPOSEFUL – The text says, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
Though the Lord seems long-delayed in coming (2000+ years!), the text tells us that this delay is so that as many of us as possible can be saved.
But notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. So God’s patience should not be seen as an excuse for presumption, but, rather, a time for repentance. This is no time to say, “Later.” This is a time to be serious about repenting and about preparing to meet the Lord.
Note, too, that the Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), referring not just to better behavior, but also to a new mind. For our transformation is not merely external, but also internal. When what we think changes, so does our behavior. When our thinking is conformed to God’s revealed truth, our priorities, feelings, desires, and decisions all begin to change as well. Conversion and repentance are the result of being a changed and transformed human being with a new mind.
II. The PASSING that is PERILOUS - The text says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
In effect, the text says that God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days. And when he comes it will be
Sudden – For the text says that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief.
This image is quite a consistent with the image Jesus used for the Day of Judgment as well. But the image should not be true for those of us who wait and watch. St. Paul says, But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief … So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thess 5:4,6).
Further, the image of God as a thief is also not appropriate for us if we realize that all we have and all we are belongs to God. For those who are worldly and who claim authority over themselves and their things, God is a thief who comes suddenly and in a hidden way. He overtakes their perceived ownership and possession and puts an end to it. To them He seems a thief as He “steals” what they consider theirs. They are badly misled.
But for us who watch and are prepared (pray God), the Lord comes not to take but to give. He comes to bestow and reward as we inherit His Kingdom.
Shocking - For the text speaks of the roaring heavens and of fire that overwhelms, and by it, all will be dissolved with fire.
Now here, too, the image, though shocking, should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost, as well as at our individual baptism and confirmation, the Lord lit a fire within us in order to set us on fire, in order to bring us up to the temperature of glory. Thus, for those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.
The prophet Malachi speaks of the twofold experience of the Day of the Lord in this way: “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that 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 wings. Notice therefore, that for some the Day is burning with wrathful heat, but for the Just, it is a sunny day wherein the Sun (Son) of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).
An old spiritual refers to this verse saying, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time. Thus God wants to get us ready by setting us on fire with His love and grace. If God is a Holy Fire then we must become fire ourselves in order to endure the day of His coming.
Showing – For the text says that all things will be revealed.
So it would seem that this fire burns away the masks many people wear, leaving them to be seen for what they really are. The Lord says, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). And again He says, There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (Lk 12:2-3).
Now even the just may wince at this, for all of us have a past and most would prefer that the past stay in the past. But I have sometimes seen, when I have visited 12-Step meetings, how many will recount vividly what they did when they were drinking. And they seem to do so with little shame and much laughter, for they share it with those who understand, those who have also been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps, for the just, on that disclosing Day it will be like that.
But for those who are among the unrepentant, imagine the embarrassment and fear as their secrets, sins, and injustices are disclosed to those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. A bad scene, really.
III. The PRESCRIPTION that is PROCLAIMED - The text says, Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire … Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.
The text asks rhetorically, “What sort of persons ought you to be?” In a word, the answer is “fiery.” God has lit a fire within us to purify and refine us. Hence, on that day when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. And though some final purifications (purgation) may take place, the fact that the fire has been kindled in us and has already been fanned into a flame, will mean purification, not destruction.
St Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purification rather than destruction in Hell: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his 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 man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).
So the prescription for us is to let God set us afire now so as to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire now of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us and permit us to endure the day of His coming and be spared the “wrath to come” (cf 1 Thess 1:10; Matt 3:7; Romans 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9) when God will judge the world and everything in it by fire.
IV. The PERFECTION that is PROMISED - The text says, But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
This text presents the possibility that the created world will not so much be destroyed as purified by this fiery judgment of God. While the text may also signify a total destruction of all that now is and a replacement of it by new heavens and earth, it is also argued that the created world will instead be renewed rather than destroyed and replaced. This view would correspond with other texts (e.g., Isaiah 11 and Romans 8). For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:20-21).
Whatever the answer to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a heaven wedded to earth in which the full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without spot or blemish and will be at peace. Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, hallelujah! And God’s fire purifies that which is holy, and burns away all that is lacking or unholy. God will restore all things in Christ!
The Dies Irae was originally written for the Second Sunday of Advent:
The video below was produced by the Archdiocese of Washington for our “Find the Perfect Gift” Christmas outreach. It is an attempt to refocus Catholics and non-Catholics on the truest and most perfect gift of Christmas, Jesus Christ. It also invites each of us to give the perfect gift, the gift of our very self to God and to one another.
The video illustrates well a problem that we can all have at Christmas: hectic, hurried lives, made even busier by “holiday” requirements and traditions. These traditions, beautiful though they are, sometimes backfire and become a kind of countersign to some of the songs we sing, which speak of all being calm and bright, heavenly peace, peace on earth, and so forth.
The video also shows a problem that has become worse in recent years with the “stovepiping” effect of technology, which allows us to live in our own self-designed but very separate worlds. Many of us walk about with ear buds in and barely notice the others around us. Others of us tune in to a very self-selected world of cable TV and/or Netflix. It is possible, as this video demonstrates, for people to live in the same house and yet inhabit different worlds.
Somewhere in the busy-but-isolated world of the household depicted here, is a member of the family who gets it right, and both finds and sings of peace. We all struggle to get it right and to find our proper center. Allow this video to give you a little vision of what the perfect gift is and what the perfect Christmas is. Gifts, parties, and yuletide joy are nice and have their places, but don’t miss the perfect gift!
For more information, you can click through at the link above, or visit this URL: www.findtheperfectgift.org.
Many people think of Advent merely in terms of pre-Christmas time: office parties, shopping, decorating etc. But in the Church, Advent is more a penitential period, a time of preparation for both the Christmas Feast and the Second Coming of the Lord. The purple vestments signal penance. The faithful are encouraged to go to Confession, and the liturgical texts and readings emphasize readying for the coming of the Lord.
The theme of preparation (and much of the season itself) is couched in the dramatic struggle between light and darkness. This makes sense (at least in the northern hemisphere, where the darkness deepens and the days grow shorter). In these darkest days, we light candles and sing hymns that speak of the light that will come: Jesus the true Light of the World. Let’s take a look at Advent in three ways.
I. The Symbols of Darkness and Light - Outside, there is a great drama of light and darkness unfolding before us. The light is giving way to darkness. Here in the northern hemisphere, the days are getting very short, and they’re going to get even shorter. In Washington, D.C. (where I live), it is dark by 5:00 PM. On cloudy days, it is nearly dark by 4:00 PM. My brothers both live farther north: one in St. Paul and the other in Seattle. It gets dark even earlier there. There’s even a famous saying (probably by Yogi Berra), “It’s getting late very early out there.”
For us who live in modern times, the drama is less obvious. It is little more than an annoyance, as we must switch on the lights earlier. But think of those who lived not long before us in an age before electrical lights. Perhaps it was possible to huddle near a candle, oil lamp, or fire, but in the end, the darkness put a real stop to most things. Neither work, nor reading, nor most forms of recreation could take place. Darkness was a significant factor.
Some years ago, during a widespread power outage, I was struck at just how incredibly dark it was outside at night without the streetlights and the lights emanating from homes. Frankly, it was hard to venture out. I lost my bearings quickly and stumbled over some simple things like a curb and a fencepost. We moderns just aren’t used to this. Once, I toured Luray Caverns in the nearby Shenandoah Mountains. At the bottom of the caverns, hundreds of feet down, they gathered us near the center of a large cave and shut off the lights. The darkness was overwhelming. It was an almost physical feeling. I felt a wave of slight panic sweep over me and was so relieved when the lights came back on. I wondered, “Is this what it’s like to be blind?” Yes, light is very precious.
And so, here in a “deep and dark December,” the light continues to recede. The spiritual impact of this drama of light is brought into the Church. Our hymns turn to images of light. The darker it gets, the more candles we light on the Advent wreath. In the darkest days of December, our Advent wreath is at its brightest. As Scripture says, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it … The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world (John 1:5, 9). An old prayer says, Within our darkest night you kindle a fire that never dies away.
As the drama of light and darkness outside continues, we arrive at December 21st and 22nd—the shortest, darkest days of the year. By December 23rd, the ancients could detect a slight return of the light. Now the morning star heralds something new, something brighter.
People, look East. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year …
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.
And then, on December 24th, in the middle of one of the longest nights of the year, the liturgy of Christmas begins: Christ is born and on December 25th a new light shines. From then on, the days get longer.
Yes, a great drama of light is unfolding before us. It is Advent. It is a time to recognize our need for the light and just how precious Jesus, the Light of the World, is. Ponder, in these darkest days, the beauty of the light. There are so many Advent hymns that set forth the dramatic images of light, darkness, and expectancy. They are too numerous to list here. However, click here if you wish to see some samples: Advent hymns that speak to the Light.
Of course, this external drama of light and darkness in nature is but a symbol of the great struggle between light and darkness in our world, our culture, our own hearts, and the hearts of all whom we love. It is the greatest drama of each of our lives. Will we choose to walk in the light or will we prefer the darkness? Our choice will determine our destiny. Judgment day is coming and we must be prepared by embracing the light of God’s truth and Jesus Himself, who is the Light of the World.
Thus, in Advent, we are summoned to understand how bad the darkness of sin really is, and we are warned to prepare for the coming judgment. Almost all the readings of the first two weeks of Advent speak to this theme of warning and readiness. The Dies Irae, which most associate with the Latin Requiem Mass, was actually written as a hymn for the Second Sunday of Advent.
Now, of course, some may protest such “negative” themes for Advent. But remember, if we aren’t aware of the bad news, then the good news is no news. Hence, this Advent reflection on the seriousness of the dark reality of sin is to prepare us for even greater joy at the birth of a Savior, who is the Light of the World and can lead us out of the dark tomb of sin into the wonderful light of grace.
Hence, the symbols of light and darkness point to a real drama and remind us to be sober and serious about the trouble we’re in, why we really need a savior, and how good it is to greet the Light of the World … IF we are prepared.
II. Our Stance to the Light and Darkness - Ultimately we are either facing the light and welcoming Him, or facing and in the darkness. These are the only two stances possible. There is no third way. Are you walking in the light or are you standing in the darkness?
This is Our Moral Stance. Scripture warns in many places about the two ways of light and darkness, and admonishes us to stand and walk in the light. Here are just a few:
- (Ro 13:11–14) Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
- (1 Th 5:1–11) But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
- (Mt 6:22-24) The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
- (2 Pe 1:19) And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
Thus, we are warned what time it is, that judgment draws ever closer, and that we must walk and stand with the light and not be like those in darkness. The Advent season acknowledges the reality of deepening darkness, and that we must all the more run to the coming light, Jesus. We must walk in the light of His truth as set forth in His word, in the teachings of the Church, and in creation. We must seek the enlightenment of the Sacraments and live in honesty, integrity, and mutual fellowship with the Lord’s Body, the Church. This is to be our moral stance: toward the light and away from the darkness.
This is Our Liturgical Stance - Since we are discussing the season of Advent, we might also do well to mention something of our liturgical stance as well. Over the past few decades, our liturgical stance has become muddled and somewhat incoherent. What used to be a clear stance of a community facing East, has become an increasingly closed circle, a sort of image of a community closed in on itself, singing of itself, and referring incessantly to itself in song and (self-)congratulatory applause. Until about 1965, the almost universal liturgical stance was of a community all facing one direction (liturgical East, symbolized by the Crucifix more than by the compass), and being led there by a celebrant who could see where he was going. The celebrant, as alter Christus, represented Christ leading his people to the Father in adoration and thanksgiving. The priest, as a man, stood at the head of the community looking for Christ to come again. Scripture quite frequently attests that God will come “from the East.” (Again, it is less a matter of the compass and more a matter of the community all looking toward the liturgical East, the Cross.) Looking to the East for God to come is no arbitrary notion of a primitive religion. It is well attested in Scripture and makes sense based on the fact that the East is where the light comes from. Physical light is a symbol of the True Light, who is our Lord and God, Jesus Christ. Here are just a few Scripture references:
- (Mt 24:27–28) For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.
- (Bar 4:36) Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God!
- (Eze 43:1–5) Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was like the vision which I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision which I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple.
- (Psalm 68:32-34) Sing to God, ye kingdoms of the earth: sing ye to the Lord: Sing to God, who mounts above the heaven of heavens, to the east. Behold he will give to his voice the voice of power: give ye glory to God for Israel, his magnificence, and his power is in the clouds!
This is not intended to be a full-length treatment of the “Ad orientem” question regarding the stance of the priest and the people. Here I only wish to note that our liturgical stance has become muddled. If it is true that our stance should be toward the Light, then why are we facing all sorts of different and “opposing” directions in the liturgy? Why do we not all face East together for the great Eucharistic Prayer, as we did for over 19 centuries? While it is fitting that the Liturgy of the Word be celebrated toward the people, it seems that the Eucharistic Prayer is more suitably proclaimed with the whole community (priests included) facing to the East—toward God—for it is to God that the prayer is directed and it is to God that the people are led in admiration, thanksgiving, and pilgrimage. The Advent hymn says it well: “People look East, the time is near!”
III. The Summons to the Light - Having laid out the great drama of light and darkness and heard that we should take a stand for and toward the light, we note that Advent also proclaims, through a series of biblical texts and prayers, a warning to those who either reject the light outright or just fail to prepare for it. Here are just a few biblical texts:
- (Ho 6:5) Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.
- (Mt 25:6–11) Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish maidens said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
- (Mal 4:1–2) For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.
- (Jn 3:16–21) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.
There is not sufficient time in this post to comment on each of these texts above except to say that they summon us to the light in a spirit of readiness, having first prepared ourselves by becoming accustomed to the light and the fire of God’s love. If we are not ready, the light will seem blinding and the fiery love unbearable, and we will recoil in wrath, rather then rejoice in wonder.
Pay attention to these Advent themes. It’s getting late very early these days. Consider this a warning from the natural world (the Book of Creation), which the Church picks up in her liturgy. Prepare the way of the Lord! Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand. Walk in the light! If we do, light, all glorious and unending, will be ours:
There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; 4 they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever (Re 22:3–5).
This is our future, IF we are faithful and allow the Lord to enlighten us now so that we can love the future light of ten thousand megawatts. Walk in the Light!
A blessed Advent to all.
I’ve often been impressed at the ability of the old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of very weighty matters like sin and judgment. And while we are here in the opening weeks of Advent, quite focused on the Second Coming of Jesus to judge the world by fire, we do well to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate this theme.
It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent to help recover an ethos of coming judgment, but in a way that is almost playfully bright while at the same time deeply soulful.
In a certain sense, the Spirituals are unimpeachable even by hypersensitive post-moderns who seek to shame the preacher for announcing the sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs, songs that helped accompany their work as well as their worship.
As such, they were written in the cauldron of great suffering. If any people might be excused from thinking that the Lord would exempt them from judgment day, it is surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it is those enslaved in the South. And yet the spirituals are almost wholly devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them to steal away to Jesus. They did not see themselves as exempt from the need to be ready.
If they, who worked hard in the cotton fields and endured the horrors of slavery, thought these texts applied to them, how much more do they apply to us, who recline on our couches and speak of our freedom to do as we please?
So let’s sample some of these lines from numerous spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:
1. 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.
2. Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!
3. Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven aint a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!
4. Where shall I be when the first Trumpet sounds, Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead, Oh where shall be when it sounds. How will it be with my poor soul, Oh Where Shall I be?
5. Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!
6. God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!
7. Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you!
8. Noah, Noah let me come in!
The Doors are fastened and the windows pinned! fast’ned an’ de winders pinned
Noah said, “Ya lost your track
Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!
9. Knock at the window knock at the door
Callin’ brother Noah
Can’t you take more?!
No said Noah cause you’re full of sin!
God has the key you can’t get in!
10. Well I went to the rock to hide my face
The rock cried out, no hiding place
There’s no hiding place down here
Oh the Rock cried I’m burnin too!
I wanna go to heaven just as much as you!
11. Oh sinner man better repent!
Oh you’d better repent
for God’s gonna call you to judgment
There’s No hiding place down there!
12. No signal for another train
To follow in this line
Oh sinner you’re forever lost
When once you’re left behind.
She’s nearing now the station
Oh, sinner don’t be vain
But come and get your ticket
Be ready for that train!
13. Sinner please don’t let this harvest Pass
And die and lose your soul at last.
14. My Lord, what a morning, When the stars begin to fall
You’ll hear the trumpet sound, To wake the nations underground
Looking to my God’s right hand,
When the stars begin to fall
You’ll hear the sinner moan, When the stars begin to fall
You’ll hear the Christian shout,
Oh, When the stars begin to fall!
Most of these songs are deeply scriptural and make serious appeals to the human soul, but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late. Others are more soulful, even mournful, in their pentatonic scale.
Given all the reticence to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), songs like these may help to reopen the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and children. They are a valuable resource.
I have attached to this post a brief treatment of the some of the scriptural roots of these spirituals. You can read that here: Eschatological Spirituals
I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the Last Judgment that is featured in the video below. Note that it is rich in biblical references. It is joyful—a real toe-tapper—and makes a serious point along with a wish: “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin Fare You Well!” First, the text (with phonetic spelling), and then the video:
I’m Gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Der’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,
Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!
Do you see dem coffins burstin,
do you see dem folks is risin’
Do you see dat fork of lightenin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder ?!?
Fare thee well, fare thee well!
Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire?!?
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ‘em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
Oh! Fare thee well po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well po’r sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!
There are many good version of this out on YouTube. I picked this particular one because the lyrics are easier to make out than in some other renditions. Enjoy!
Here are a few more spirituals. Listen especially to the verses.
During Advent, we read a lot from the Prophet Isaiah. Therefore, for my own meditation and yours, I offer the following reflection on Isaiah, the man and his message. Each of the issues with which he dealt is still with us to today, even though we live in a far more secular world than he ever could have imagined. Let’s consider key elements of his life, struggle, and message. If you would like to read a shorter mediation and already have a firm grasp on Isaiah’s life and teachings, you can skip down to the section below labeled in red: Lessons from Isaiah.
The Prophet Isaiah was born in 760 BC and is further identified as the son of Amoz (1:1). His name in Hebrew (Yeshayahu) means “Yah[weh] is Salvation.” And he lived this name well, insisting that Judah’s Kings and people trust only in God, make no alliances with foreign nations, and refuse to fear anyone but God.
He lived in the terrible period following the great severing of the northern kingdom of Israel (with its ten tribes) from the southern kingdom of Judah. In the period prior to Isaiah’s birth, the northern kingdom had known almost nothing but godless kings. Idolatry there had begun from the start, when the first king, Jeroboam, erected golden calves (of all things!) in two northern cities and strove to dissuade northern Jews from going south to Jerusalem (in Judah) to worship. Other ugly moments in the north featured King Ahab and the wicked Queen Jezebel, who advanced the worship of the Canaanite fertility god, Baal, and who persecuted Elijah and the few who sought to stay true to the faith of Abraham.
By the time Isaiah began his ministry (742 BC), the division was some 200 years old. Though living in Judah to the south, Isaiah both prophesied doom for the north and warned the kings of the south to rebuke wickedness and fears and to form no foreign alliances against the growing menaces to the north (Israel) and the east (Assyria). He warned of northern destruction here: In a single day the Lord will destroy both the head and the tail … The leaders of Israel are the head, and the lying prophets are the tail (Is 9:14-15). But his own Judah remained the focus of his concern and warnings.
Isaiah’s ministry in Judah and his mission spanned four Kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. It is likely that he was a cousin of King Uzziah, and this gave him both access and influence. His eloquence and influence also suggest that he had acquired a royal education. Little else is known of him personally.
Though the opening chapters of the Book of Isaiah describe the wickedness of the people of Judah and the need for their repentance and his ministry, Isaiah’s prophetic call seems to have begun in 742 BC, “the year King Uzziah died,” and is described in Chapter 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me” (Is 6:1–8).
While God accepts his offer, He warns that Isaiah’s message will be resisted. Isaiah asks, sadly,
“How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men, and the land is utterly desolate, 12 and the Lord removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned (Is 6:11–13).
Sure enough, the first 39 chapters of Isaiah describe a fiercely stubborn resistance to Isaiah’s calls. However, the prophesied destruction of the south would not occur until 587 BC, long into the future, due in part to some limited success Isaiah had in working with King Hezekiah at a critical moment.
The winds of war were blowing. Assyria was expanding and the ominous clouds of its destructive conquest were moving westward. Israel to the north joined in a coalition to fight Assyria and tried to strong-arm Judah to join, threatening invasion and overthrow of King Ahaz if there was no agreement. Let’s just say that Ahaz was anxious, and all of Judah with him—threats to the north, threats to the east, and the Mediterranean to the west. There was no real escape.
God dispatches Isaiah to Ahaz with the following message:
Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands … [who have] devised evil against you, saying, 6 “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabe-el as king in the midst of it,” 7 thus says the Lord GOD: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass (Is 7:4–7).
In other words, trust God. Make no alliances and do not give in to your fears! Stand your ground! God offers Ahaz a sign that a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, Immanuel (God is with us). But Ahaz cops a false piety attitude about not putting God to the test. Yet it is Ahaz who fails the test. Caving in, he sends tribute to Assyria and offers to become a vassal state.
In the end, this frees Assyria to concentrate on destroying Israel to the north. And while it can be argued that Israel’s wickedness brought her destruction, Ahaz helped seal the fate of fellow Jews in the north by his fearful and self-serving political calculations. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC. The survivors were carried off into exile. Farewell to the Ten Lost Tribes. Only Judah and the Levites in the south remained intact.
Though Judah was spared, the relief from threatening Assyria was to be temporary. Meanwhile, Ahaz’s Son, Hezekiah, became king (ruling from 715-687 BC). Here was a better king, more faithful, more trusting, and thus less fearful. He rid Judah of any elements of Canaanite religious practice and courageously broke free of the alliance with Assyria by 705 BC. He fortified Jerusalem (and his faith) for the backlash that was sure to come from Assyria.
Sure enough, in 701 BC, Assyria came to collect back-due tribute and to assert who was boss. Jerusalem was surrounded with troops, and her fate seemed sealed. But Isaiah summoned Hezekiah and Judah to courage:
33 “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, or shoot an arrow here, or come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege mound against it. 34 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. 35 For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” 36 And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies (Is 37:33–36).
The Assyrian survivors left and returned by the way they came. Their king, Sennacherib returned home and was killed by his own sons.
A fear rebuked brought Judah victory. Now perhaps people would listen to Isaiah and trust God rather than foreign alliances! Well, not so fast. Hezekiah, who had been ill but miraculously recovered, started to get awfully friendly with the Babylonians, then emerging as a power to the east. Faith and trust are surely difficult things, especially for a king.
Since it looked like another alliance was forming with a pagan state, Isaiah warned,
5 “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: 6 Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. 7 And some of your own sons, who are born to you, shall be taken away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” 8 Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days” (Is 39:5–8).
Hezekiah’s selfish response reminds me of an old saying of my father’s: “People disappoint.” Alliances and dalliances with foreign lands and a corresponding lack of trust in God would continue to plague Judah despite miracles against Assyria.
We know little of Isaiah’s final demise. According to an extra-biblical tradition (and hinted at in Hebrews 11:37), he died by being sawed in half by Hezekiah’s unfaithful son Manasseh. Isaiah was dead but, if the tradition is true, Manasseh answered to God.
Lessons from Isaiah –
- Despite often disappointing results, Isaiah never gave up. God told him to prophesy and so he did. Isaiah lived what he preached. He feared God, not man. He never thought twice about going up to kings and declaring to their faces, “Thus saith the Lord!” He was willing to rebuke and encourage people regardless of their standing.
- In the end, Isaiah’s message is remarkably clear: Do not fear! Clearly, fear leads all of us to a lot of foolish decisions, and it is through fear that the devil holds us in bondage (Heb 2:15). The solution to fear is trust in God. And even if we were to get killed, we would still win, for the martyr’s crown would await us. Do not fear!
- Why were foreign alliances so troubling to Isaiah? First of all, they manifested a lack of trust in the Lord: “Can God save us? Maybe, but in case He doesn’t come through, let’s make sure we have a plan B.” Hmm … not much faith there! But second, and related, the secular states of today were unknown at that time. People and nations were deeply religious. Alliances with foreign lands meant marriages to foreign queens as well as adopting the false religions of those nations and queens. Can someone say, “Jezebel?” Or how about Solomon and his 1000 wives and all their foreign gods? It was his folly that led to a divided Jewish nation and that introduced the wicked practices of the Baals and other Canaanite atrocities. Thus, these alliances manifested a lack of trust in God and introduced, inevitably, the adultery of “sleeping with” other gods.
- For us, an admonition is in order as well. As a Church, we ought to be wary of too many entanglements or “partnerships” with our increasingly hostile secular government. Many strings come attached to the federal and state monies we accept to serve the poor, give tuition assistance, etc. Many compromises are increasingly demanded of us. Sadly, certain sectors of the Church, especially certain universities, are caving in to the power and slavery of money and are compromising on same-sex unions and providing contraception (and even abortifacients) to employees through health care plans. Large blocks of federal money are currently administered by Catholic charity organizations, etc. These entanglements increasingly demand compromises of us, and it is only going to get worse. Beware! We need to shift back to using our own monies to care for the poor and to be willing to say no to money that demands compromises we cannot make. Serving the poor is important, but we cannot let even that become an idol. And frankly, if we are using mostly government money, can we really say that WE are serving the poor? Are we not, rather, administering a government program? A certain Pope we all know recently warned that the Church is not an NGO.
- Individual Catholics would also do well to be more leery about political alliances. Too often, we allow political views to trump our faith. Catholics need to be Catholics first, and be willing to denounce sin and evil no matter who perpetrates it or promotes it.
- Alliances are often dangerous things. Too easily do we slip into adultery with the world. Beware! Compromise is ugly, and adultery is a disgraceful betrayal of the Lord, whom we should fear and love.
- Do not be afraid!
Saint Isaiah, pray for us!
Most of you have seen the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which airs so frequently at this time of year. More on that in a moment. But for now, the word “wonderful” is most commonly understood to mean “really great.” But the word “wonderful” actually means “filled with wonder.”
Who among us can understand the incredible mystery of his own life? And not merely considered in itself, but also how it interacts with the lives of others and the events of this world? Why are we here now? Why do we meet and know the people we do? How does our life affect that of others, not just in the obvious ways but also the hidden ways unknown to us?
Imagine that one day you stayed late at work rather than taking your usual commuter bus. Your open seat caused two people to meet, who later married and had three children, one of whom will grow up to discover the cure for cancer. This is something you will never know, but God does. Maybe another day you drove a little slower than the driver in back of you wished, but your slower pace meant that your irritated tailgater was not in an intersection at just the moment he would have been killed in a horrible accident had he kept up his pace. I know you may think these are trivial examples, but consider the mystery of each moment and all the “alternate universes” that would result if even a small change took place in our actions!
Our lives are mysteriously intertwined. We have almost no idea how even the littlest things we do cause enormous ripples and chain reactions that affect dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people from moment to moment. What if I never wrote this post and you never read it but instead were reading something else right now (whether good or bad)? The possibilities are almost endless as to what might have happened had I not written and you not read.
God has us here in this place at this time for a reason. We have some very particular purposes in His plan and He alone knows them all. Try for a moment to appreciate your dignity in this regard. You play a critical part in a cascade of events that ripple from your life and your place in God’s plan. No one can take that place and your role is crucial to millions of subsequent transactions in God’s wonderful vision. Psalm 139 has this to say:
O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful. All my days were written in your book before one of them came to be (Psalm 139, selected verses).
The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an extended meditation on this topic. If, somehow, you have managed to miss seeing it at some point in your life, then you know what you must do! The protagonist of the movie, George Bailey, seeks to end his life, even going so far as to wish he had never been born. But an angel from Heaven takes him through the strange and sad “alternate universe” that would have resulted had he never been born. It is a world of terrifying loss for many, and George comes to discover the dignity and necessity of his life within God’s plan.
In God’s vision, no one can be said to be unnecessary or of limited importance. We have absolutely no way of knowing that. And given the intricacies of human interaction and the ripple effects thereof, we are pretty foolish if we think we have little importance. Rather, it seems we are quite essential.
Consider, too, an excerpt from an article I wrote a couple of years ago on the probability of us existing at all:
To say that we are contingent beings is a vast understatement. To say that someone or something is contingent is to say that the existence of same is not inevitable, but can only come about based on any number of previous things being true in a chain of being or causality. Hence, I would not exist if my parents had not existed and met. Further, they would not exist if their parents had not existed and met. And the chain goes back through generations. Thus, my existence here today depends upon a vast number of “meetings” going just right.
Consider some of the contingencies and requirements for your existence, as set forth by Ali Binazir. Some of the numbers are based on hunches, but if anything, they are on the conservative side. I am only reporting a small portion of his musings here. You can read his full article here: What are the Chances of You Being Born? and see how he comes up with these numbers.
So here are some of the probabilities of the events required for you to be born:
- Probability of boy meeting girl: 1 in 20,000.
- Now let’s say the chances of them actually talking to one another is one in 10.
- And the chances of that turning into another meeting is about one in 10 also.
- And the chances of that turning into a long-term relationship is also one in 10.
- And the chances of that lasting long enough to result in offspring is one in 2.
- So the probability of your parents’ chance meeting resulting in marriage and children is about 1 in 2000.
- The combined probability is now already around 1 in 40 million.
- Now things start to get interesting. Why? Because we’re about to deal with eggs and sperm, which come in large numbers. Each sperm and each egg is genetically unique because of the process of meiosis; you are the result of the fusion of one particular egg with one particular sperm. On average, a fertile woman has about 100,000 viable eggs. A man will produce about 12 trillion sperm over the course of his reproductive lifetime.
- Let’s say a third of those sperm (4 trillion) are relevant to our calculation, since the sperm created after your mom hits menopause don’t count. So the probability of that one sperm with half your name on it hitting that one egg with the other half of your name on it is 1/(100,000)(4 trillion)= 1/(105)(4×1012)= 1 in 4 x 1017, or one in 400 quadrillion.
- But because the existence of you here now on planet earth presupposes another supremely unlikely and utterly undeniable chain of events. Namely, that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age we must also go further presuming 150,000 generations going back to man’s origin.
- Well then, that would be one in 2150,000 , which is about 1 in 1045,000– a number so staggeringly large that my head hurts just writing it down.
- But let’s think about this some more. Remember the sperm-meeting-egg argument for the creation of you, since each gamete is unique?
- Well, the right sperm also had to meet the right egg to create your grandparents. Otherwise they’d be different people, and so would their children, who would then have had children who were similar to you but not quite you.
- This is also true of your grandparents’ parents, and their grandparents, and so on back to the beginning of human time. If even once the wrong sperm met the wrong egg, you would not be sitting here noodling online reading fascinating articles like this one. It would be your cousin Jethro, and you never really liked him anyway.
- That means that in every step of your lineage, the probability of the right sperm meeting the right egg such that the exact right ancestor would be created that would end up creating you is one in 1200 trillion, which we’ll round down to 1000 trillion, or one quadrillion.
- So now we must account for that for 150,000 generations by raising 400 quadrillion to the 150,000thpower: That’s a ten followed by 2,640,000 zeroes, which would fill 11 volumes of a 250-page book with zeroes.
- For the sake of completeness: (102,640,000)(1045,000)(2000)(20,000) = 4x 102,685,007 ≈ 102,685,000
- Probability of your existing at all: 1 in 102,685,000
Now there are some assumptions above that you may quibble with. I would certainly add in (sadly) some probabilities related to being aborted or miscarried. But even a simpler analysis yields astonishing numbers.
Not only are you and I contingent, we are very improbable! Yet here we are! Mirabile visu! (wondrous to behold).
Theologically, of course, we are no mere accident or happenstance. God has always known us, intended us, loved us, and planned for us.
The photo above is of yours truly. Sorry for the informality of the T-Shirt, but I was playing with my camera last year on a trip to Mexico and captured this photo of me in a thousand different and possibly alternate realities.
Enjoy this summary of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and remember that “wonderful” means “filled with wonder (and awe).”
In moral decline, both personal and cultural, the problem is that not only do we desire what is evil, we also stop desiring that which is good and holy. At the heart of desiring what is evil (or what is good, but to excess), are pride, greed, lust, and gluttony. Sloth and envy are more involved in no longer desiring what is good.
Sloth is a kind or sorrow or aversion to the good things God offers to us, involving everything from the life of prayer to virtues such as moderation, chastity, generosity, and forgiveness. Envy is sorrow or anger at the goodness or excellence that others manifest, because I take it to lessen my own standing. Thus the soul or culture that is in moral decline no longer desires what is good and even detests it.
No matter how you look at it, moral decline is an ugly business. Consider the following example of a cultural trend in which what is good (having children) is no longer desired by an increasing number in our culture. There was a column in the New York Post recently entitled More Women Choosing Dogs Over Motherhood. The article begins,
America’s next generation of youngsters should be called “Generation Rex.” If you’re wondering why playgrounds around the city are so quiet and dog runs are packed, a new report has an answer: More and more US women are forgoing motherhood and getting their maternal kicks by owning handbag-size canines … Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that a big drop in the number of babies born to women ages 15 to 29 corresponds with a huge increase in the number of tiny pooches owned by young US women … “I’d rather have a dog over a kid,” declared Sara Foster, 30, a Chelsea equities trader who says her French bulldog, Maddie, brings her more joy than a child. “It’s just less work and, honestly, I have more time to go out. You … don’t have to get a babysitter.” 
Well, you get the point. The article goes pretty much downhill from there.
One hopes that when these women get a little older they will think differently. However, even among the married, more (as many as 20%) are choosing the childless route. Last summer there was a Time Magazine cover story about “The Childfree Life” and the web edition of the article was subtitled “The American birthrate is at a record low. What happens when having it all means not having children?” The article begins,
[At] 50, Angela Scott [who is married 24 years and intentionally childless, says she] is more than fine: she’s fulfilled. And she’s not alone. The birthrate in the U.S. is the lowest in recorded American history. From 2007 to 2011, the fertility rate declined 9%. A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about 1 in 5 American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s … 
We have discussed here before the demographic harm caused by low birthrates. But if you want to read a thoughtful article from a Catholic demographer, see the CARA Blog Post. Among his observations, author Mark Gray writes,
The effects of fertility decline are not just limited to the state budget and care for seniors. A future of fewer people year-over-year will also be one of perpetual economic stagnation or recession for all. Currently it costs a middle class family $245,340 to raise a single child to the age of 18 in the United States. If a couple has two kids that’s close to half a million dollars they inject into the economy. A skeptic might say they would have just spent that money on something else if they had no children. Perhaps but as most parents know having a child can “encourage” you seek out more income out of necessity (e.g., dads, on average, make more than non-dads and the combined incomes of a mom and dad outpace a couple with no children). As I write Japan is again in a recession. Downturns and anemic growth have become the normal way of life there for decades and will be so for the foreseeable future until they begin to grow demographically again (innovations and exports have been insufficient).
For the purposes of this post, I would like to return to the opening point: moral decline consists not only in desiring what is wrong, but also in no longer desiring what is good. Here are a few additional reflections on the problem of no longer desiring what is good (in this case, new life and children).
I. Children are a very great blessing. This is not only the biblical tradition, but also the instinctive assumption of Western culture (and arguably every healthy culture). Until about 1950, children were sought in number, valued, and appreciated. Even in the 1960s it was common to speak of pregnancy and birth as “the blessed event.” By current standards, family sizes were large. In my youth of the 1960s, it was common for families to have four or five children. And many of my older parishioners (those in their 70s and up) came from families of twelve or more. This was not only normal, it was considered good.
Parents and extended families shared in the raising of children, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Getting married and having children was a central goal in life, a supreme blessing.
The Scriptures well attest that fertility was sought after. Children were considered a blessing and barrenness was one of the worst of curses.
- Genesis 1:27-28 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.
- Exodus 23:25-26 Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.
- Deuteronomy 7:12-14 If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the Lord your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb … You will be blessed more than any other people; none of your men or women will be childless, nor will any of your livestock be without young.
- Psalm 127:3-5 Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court.
- Psalm 128:1-4 Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him. You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Yes, this will be the blessing for the man who fears the Lord.
II. Only recently has having children come to be considered burdensome. And even more than burdensome, many people outright fear having “too many” children. I often see young couples, especially the woman, visibly cringe when I suggest that they consider having more than two children.
There are many cultural reasons we have arrived at this place, among them feminism, dual incomes, women wanting careers, modern economic realities, the move to urban vs. rural settings, the rise of the consumerist mentality, the expectation of a lavish standard of living, and the advent of retirement plans (children used to be your social security, since they cared for you in your old age). Much of this has resulted in a contraceptive mentality and an almost irrational fear of having children.
But the point here is that this is all rather new. Most of us who are fifty or older remember a time when this thinking was not the norm.
III. Whatever the “cultural and sociological roots,” all this has led us to a sinful rejection of one of God’s greatest blessings: children (life). And make no mistake, this sinful rejection of the good of children is itself the result of sin. Our sin, our desire for what is evil, has now led us collectively to no longer desire what is good, in this case children.
How has this come to pass? Morally speaking, lust has led to a darkened intellect and to disordered desires wherein we not only desire that which is evil, but also fail to desire that which is good. Our collectively sinful, promiscuous, and disgraceful attitudes toward marriage and sexuality have collectively darkened our intellects and led to a voracious appetite for sex (lust) as well as a fear of what we know to be the intrinsic fruit of sex: children.
In our darkened minds, we have separated what God has joined. Sex is meant to be joyfully and seriously tied to marriage and having children. In the contraceptive revolution we severed those ties, declaring that there was no necessary connection between having sex and having children. Yes, we separated what God intended to be joined: sex, marriage, and family.
So, we have sown the wind and now we reap the whirlwind … of pornography, sexually transmitted disease, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood, rampant divorce, abortion, the profound confusion that is the celebration of homosexual acts, and every bizarre “gender-bender” ideology our collectively darkened culture can devise.
Meanwhile, the very fruit to which sex is meant to be joyfully joined is increasingly seen as an outcome more dreadful than anything just mentioned. It is an outcome so horrible that many women are willing to ingest a kind of pesticide that dramatically alters the endocrine system, kills the spark of life in them, and attacks the normal and healthy function of their bodies. It is a result so frightening that men are willing to be gelded. And this leads us back to where we started: many women and couples would rather raise dogs than children.
The perversity of this outcome is difficult to overstate. Somehow I am reminded of Morticia Addams, the matriarch of TV’s Addam’s Family, who used to cut the roses off her rose bushes because she hated the beautiful blooms and preferred the thorns and half-dead look of barren rose bushes. (Thus, see above.)
And speaking of Morticia leads me to my last point.
IV. The Culture of Death - Low birthrates and childless couples are yet another outcome of what has fittingly been called the “culture of death.” In effect, this phrase, used frequently by both St. John Paul and Pope Benedict, describes a culture in which the death (or non-existence) of human beings is proposed as a “solution” to problems. The celebration of contraception as a “virtue” surely points to this mentality.
The myth of overpopulation has caused a lot of fears. Further, concerns about inadequate resources have also proven to be unfounded. The improper and/or inadequate distribution of resources (usually due to war and corruption) is problematic. But the death (or non-existence) of human beings is not the solution and in fact leads to other economic difficulties.
In the end, the “culture of death” is the result of sinfully selfish desires and fears. Jesus, while speaking of horrors to come in His own time, surely knew of our times as well and His words in this Lucan passage are prophetic of the current culture of death:
Luke 23:28-31 A large number of people followed him (on the way to Golgotha), 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?”
Yes, such are our times, when a great number cry out, “Blessed are the wombs that do not bear and the breasts that do not nurse!” And the “green wood” of Jesus’ innocence has surely given way to the “dry wood” that is the modern lack of appreciation for the beauty of life, marriage, and sexuality.
These are good times for dogs, not so good for babies. Morticia (a name that means death) would be pleased.
For it is too often the case that many today hold the unbiblical notion that most, if not all, are going to Heaven. But for many weeks now we have been reading parables in the gospels wherein the Lord Jesus warns us that some (perhaps many and possibly even most) are not heading for Heaven. There are wise and foolish virgins, industrious and lazy servants, sheep and goats; and today there are those who keep watch and those who do not.
And though many today like to brush aside the teachings on judgment or the teachings that some are lost, to those who do so and to all of us, Jesus says, Watch! In other words, watch out; be serious, sober, and prepared for death and judgment. Realize that your choices are leading somewhere.
Some have tried to tame and domesticate Jesus, but it is not the fake, reinvented Jesus that they will meet; it is the real Jesus, the Jesus who warns repeatedly of the reality of judgment and the strong possibility of Hell. At the beginning of Advent we do well to heed Jesus’ admonition and realize our need to be saved.
And that leads to the first reading from Isaiah, which rather thoroughly sets forth our need for a savior. Isaiah distinguishes five ailments which beset us, and from which we need rescue. We are drifting, demanding, depraved, disaffected, and depressed. But in the end, Isaiah reminds us of our dignity. Let’s look at each in turn.
1. Drifting – The text says, Why [O Lord] do you let us wander from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.
It is a common human tendency to wander or drift. It is a rarer thing for people to reject God all of a sudden, especially if they were raised with some faith. Rather, what usually happens is that we just drift away, wander off course. It is like the captain or pilot of a boat who stops paying close attention. Soon enough the boat is farther and farther off course. At first things are not noticed, but the cumulative effect is that the boat is now headed in the wrong direction. He did not suddenly turn the helm and shift 180 degrees, he just stopped paying attention and drifted … and then drifted some more.
And so it is with some of us who may wonder how we got so far off course. I talk with many people who have left the Church and so many of them cannot point to an incident or moment when they walked out of Church and said, “I’ll never come back here.” It is usually just that they drifted away, fell away from the practice of the faith. They missed a Sunday here or there and, little by little, missing Mass became the norm. Maybe they moved to a new city and never got around to finding a parish. They just got disconnected and drifted.
The funny thing about drifting is that the farther off course you get, the harder it is to get back. It just seems increasingly monumental to make the changes necessary to get back on track. Thus Isaiah speaks of the heart of a drifter becoming hardened. Our bad habits become “hard” to break, and as God seems more and more distant to us, we lose our holy fear and reverence for Him.
It is interesting how, in taking up our voice, Isaiah, “blames” God for it all. Somehow it is “His fault” for letting us wander, because He let us do it.
It is true that God has made us free and that He is very serious about respecting our freedom. How else could we love God, if we were not free? Compelled love is not love at all.
But what Isaiah is really getting at is that some of us are so far afield, so lost, that only God can find us and save us. And so we must depend on God being like a shepherd who seeks his lost sheep.
Thus, here is the first way that Isaiah sets forth our need for a Savior. And so, in Advent, reflecting this way, the Church cries out, “Come, Emmanuel! Come, Lord Jesus! Seek and find us for many of us are drifting.”
2. Demanding - The text says, Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
There is a human tendency to demand signs and wonders. Our flesh demands to see. And when we do not see in a physical way, we are dismissive, even scoffing.
This inclination has reached a peak in our modern times, when so many reject faith because it does not meet the demands of empirical science and a materialistic age. If something is not physical and measurable by some human instrument, many reject its very existence. Never mind that many things that are very real (e.g., justice, fear) cannot be measured on a scale. What most moderns are really about doing is more specific: rejecting God and the demands of faith. “Since we cannot see Him with our eyes, He is not there and thus we may do as we please.”
Isaiah gives voice to the human demand to see on our own terms. We first demand signs and wonders; then we will believe. It is almost as though we are saying to God, “Force me to believe in you,” or “Make everything so certain that I don’t really have to walk by faith.”
Many of us look back to the miracles of the Scriptures and think, “If I saw that, I would believe.” But faith is not so simple. For many who did see miracles (e.g., the Hebrew people in the desert), they saw but still gave way to doubt. Many who saw Jesus work miracles fled at the first sign of trouble or when He said something that displeased them.
Our flesh demands to see. But, in the end, even after seeing it usually refuses to believe.
Further, God does not usually do the “biggie-wow” things to overwhelm us. Satan does overwhelm us. But God is a quiet and persistent lover, who works in us respectfully and delicately—if we let him. It is Satan who roars at us with temptation, fear, and sheer volume, so that we are distracted and confused. God more often is that still, small voice speaking from the depth of our heart.
Thus the Lord, speaking through Isaiah, warns us of this second ailment: the demand for signs and wonders. Our rebellious flesh pouts and draws back in resentful rebellion.
Thus we need a Savior to give us new hearts and minds, attuned to the small, still voice of God in a strident world. And so in Advent, reflecting thus, the Church cries out, “Come, Emmanuel. Come, Lord Jesus! Calm our souls and let us find you in the small, daily things.”
3. Depraved - The text says, Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people.
The word depraved comes from the Latin pravitas, meaning crooked or deformed. It means to be lacking what we ought to have. Hence, the Lord, through Isaiah, describes our deformed state in the following ways. We are
A. Unthinking - The text says that we are “unmindful” of God. Indeed our minds are very weak and we can go for long periods so turned in on ourselves that we barely, if ever, think of God. Our thoughts are wholly focused on things that are passing, and almost wholly forgetful of God and Heaven, which remain forever. It is so easy for our senseless minds to be darkened. Our culture too has “kicked God to the curb” and thus there are even fewer reminders of Him than in previous generations. We desperately need God to save us and to give us new minds. Come, Lord Jesus!
B. Unhappy – The text says of God, you are angry. But, we need to remember that the “wrath of God” is more in us than in God. God’s anger is His passion to set things right. But God is not moody or prone to egotistical rage. More often than not, it is we who project our own unhappiness and anger on God. The “Wrath of God” is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. God does not lose His temper or fly into a rage; He does not lose His serenity. It is we who are unhappy, angry, egotistical, scornful, etc. We need God to give us new hearts. Come, Lord Jesus!
C. Undistinguished – The text says, we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people. We are called to be holy, that is, “set apart” and distinguished from the sinful world around us. But too often we are indistinguishable. We do not shine forth like lights in the darkness; we seem little different than the pagan world around us. We divorce, fornicate, fail to forgive, support contraception and abortion, fail the poor, etc., in numbers akin to secular people, who do not know God. We do not seem joyful, serene, or alive. We look just like “everybody else.” Our main goal seems to be to “fit in.” Save us, O Lord, from our mediocrity and fear. Come, Lord Jesus!
4. Disaffected - The text says, There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.
In other words we, collectively speaking, have no passion for God. We get all worked up about politics, sports, the lottery, TV shows, etc. But when it comes to God, many can barely rouse themselves enough to pray, go to Church, or read Scripture. We find time for everything else, but God can wait.
Here, too, Isaiah gives voice to the human tendency to blame God. He says (i.e., we say) God has hidden his face. But God has not moved. If you can’t see God, guess who turned away? If you’re not as close to God as you used to be, guess who moved?
Our hearts and our priorities are messed up. We need a savior to give us new hearts, greater love, and better priorities and desires. Come, Lord Jesus!
5. Depressed - The text says, All our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
One of the definitions of depression is anger turned inward. And while Isaiah has given voice to our tendency to direct anger and blame at God, here he gives voice to our other tendency: to turn on ourselves.
Thus, our good deeds are described as being like polluted rags. It may be true that they are less than they could be, but calling them polluted rags also expresses our own frustration with our seemingly hopeless situation: our addiction to sin and injustice.
Ultimately, the devil wants us to diminish what little good we can find in ourselves and to lock us into a depressed and angry state. If there is no good in us at all, then why bother?
There is such a thing as unhealthy guilt (cf 2 Cor 7:10-11) and a self-loathing that is not of God, but from the devil, our accuser. It may well be this that Isaiah articulates here. And from such depressed self-loathing (masquerading as piety) we need a savior. Come, Lord Jesus!
And so the cry has gone up: Come, Lord Jesus. Save us, Savior of the world! We need a savior and Advent is a time to meditate on that need.
Isaiah ends on a final note and key of the song shifts from D Minor to D Major. And that final note is our
6. Dignity - The text says, Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.
Yes, we are a mess, but a loveable mess. And God has so loved us that He sent His Son, who is not ashamed to call us His brethren.
We are not forsaken, and in Advent we call upon a Father who loves us. And our cry, Come, Lord Jesus is heard and heeded by the Father, who loves us and is fashioning us into His very image. God is able and He will fix us and fashion us well. Help is on the way!
Here’s a magnificent Advent hymn that expresses so beautifully the longing of the Church for her savior to come. The second verse says,
Zion hears the watchmen shouting,
Her hearts leaps up with joy undoubting!
She stands and waits with eager eyes.
See! Her Love from heaven descending,
Adorned with grace and truth unending.
Her light burns clear her star doth rise!
Now come our precious Crown,
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son
The video below features Mavis Staples and Johnny Lang. But they are singing the classic Bob Dylan song, “Serve Somebody.” The song is a sober reminder that no matter how big you or I may think we are, we have to remember that none of us is so powerful that, in the end, we won’t have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but we WILL serve somebody. The choice is ultimately ours as to whom we will serve, but we will serve. No matter how big or powerful we may think we are, we’re really just a speck of dust. And even if we rule, we rule a mere anthill. We will serve somebody, we just have to decide whom.
What makes the video so interesting is that we see in the audience four former U.S. presidents. Each of these men was at one time the leader of the most powerful nation in the world (at least until recently). But even each of them will serve somebody.
None of us are “all that.” We are all headed for the grave and we go to one kingdom or the other, to one service or the other. The only theological distinction I would make to the song is this: those who ultimately will serve the devil will also need to bend the knee to Jesus. The last time I checked, the Bible says,
Because of this, God greatly exalted Jesus and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11).
So although those in Hell will serve the devil, they will also have required of them an additional obeisance to the Lord.
You will serve somebody, whether you’re a president or just a mere local “high and mighty.” You will serve somebody … but whom?
Here are the words, then the video.
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief
You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name
You may be a construction worker working on a home
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome
You might own guns and you might even own tanks
You might be somebody’s landlord, you might even own banks
You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir
Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed
Before November ends and our consideration of the four last things (death, judgement, Heaven, and Hell) gives way to Advent preparations for the the great Second Coming that ushers in those things definitively, let us turn our attention to a short, often-overlooked summons to Heaven that takes place in every Mass. It takes place in a short dialogue just after the prayer over the gifts and before the singing of the Sanctus. It is called the “preface dialogue” and it is really quite remarkable in its sweeping vision and heavenly call.
- The Lord be with you.
- And with your spirit.
- Lift up your hearts.
- We lift them up to the Lord.
- Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
- It is right and just.
A fairly familiar dialogue to be sure. But to some extent, it fails to take wing because of the rather earthbound notion most moderns have of the Mass. Very few attending Mass today think much of the heavenly liturgy. Rather, most are focused on their parish Church, the priest in front of them, and the people around them. But this is NOT an adequate vision for the Mass. In the end, there is only one liturgy: the one in Heaven. There is only one altar: the one in Heaven. There is only one High Priest: Jesus in Heaven. In the Mass, we are swept up into the heavenly liturgy. There, with myriad angels and saints beyond number, we worship the Father through Jesus, with Jesus, and in Jesus. In the Mass, we are swept up into Heaven!
More so than “Lift up your hearts,” a better translation of Sursum corda is “Hearts aloft!”
What is the celebrant really inviting us to do? After greeting us in the Lord, he invites us to go to Heaven! But remember, the priest is in persona Christi. Hence, when he speaks it is really the Lord Jesus speaking, making use of the priest’s voice. And what does the Lord really say to us in the magnificent dialogue and preface that follows? Allow me to elaborate on the fuller meaning of this text:
“Let your hearts be taken up! Come and go with me to the altar that is in heaven where I, Jesus the great High Priest, with all the members of my body render perfect thanks to God the Father! You are no longer on earth, your hearts have been swept aloft into the great liturgy of heaven! Come up higher. By the power of my words you are able to come up higher! Since you have been raised to new life in Christ, seek the things that are above where I am at my Father’s right hand. Come up now and enter the heavenly liturgy. Hearts aloft!”
Consider this writing of Cardinal Jean Danielou, reflecting on some teachings from the Fathers about this critical moment of the Mass.
The liturgy of earth is a visible reflection, and efficacious symbol, of the heavenly liturgy of angels. This unity of the two worships is expressed by the liturgy itself in the Preface, where it invites the community of the Church (on earth) to unite with the Thrones and Dominations, the Cherubim and Seraphim, to sing the angelic hymn of praise, the Thrice-Holy. [St. John Chrysostom] says “Reflect upon whom it is that you are near and with whom you are about to invoke God–the Cherubim. Think of the ranks you are about to enter. Let no one have any thought of earth (sursum corda!) but let him lose himself of every earthly thing and transport himself whole and entire into heaven … ” (Chrysostom Adv, Anon., 4)
Elsewhere, Chrysostom remarks that the Gloria in excelsis is the chant of the lower angels. Even the catechumens are permitted to join in it. But the Sanctus is the chant of the Seraphim; it leads into the very sanctuary of the Trinity, and thus “it is reserved for the initiated, the baptized” (cf Chrysostom, Homily on Colossians 3:8).
The Chant of the Seraphim expresses holy fear. It expresses the awe felt by even the highest creatures in the presence of the Infinite, Divine Excellence. And this enables us to better understand the holiness of the Eucharist … (Jean Cardinal Danielou, The Angels and Their Mission, pp. 64-65).
Hence the Mass is never just the “10:00 am Mass at St. Joe’s.” It is the heavenly liturgy.
Until recently, Churches were designed to remind us that we were entering Heaven. As we walk into older churches we are surrounded by windows and paintings that depict the angels and saints. Christ is at the center in the tabernacle. And all the elements that Scripture speaks of as being in the heavenly liturgy are on display, not only in the building, but in the celebration of the liturgy: candles, incense, an altar, the hymns that are sung, the Holy, Holy, Holy, the scroll that is brought forward in the Book of Gospels, the lamb on the throne-like altar, the prostrations and kneeling of the saints before the Lord. All these things are described in the Book of Revelation’s depictions of the heavenly liturgy. None of these things are in our churches or the liturgy for arbitrary reasons.
Yes! We are in the heavenly realms and the heavenly liturgy and so we see and experience heavenly things. Hearts aloft!
This video I made some time ago shows forth traditional Church Architecture as a glimpse of Heaven. The Latin text of the music by Bruckner describes how the form of the Liturgy and even Church architecture is set forth by God, who first gave it in elaborate instructions to Moses on Sinai. Here is the text, with my translation:
Locus iste a Deo factus est (This place was made by God)
inaestimabile sacramentum; (a priceless mystery)
irreprehensibilis est. (It is beyond reproach)