Jesus said many paradoxical things. For example: Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mat 10:39). For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it (Mat 16:25).
The basic rule of life the Lord announces is that when we want something too much, or very insistently on our own terms, we can never possess it. Rather, it possesses us. Only when we let go of our obsessions are we free to enjoy the true gift the Lord is offering. Indeed, many of our insistent and worldly expectations become the cause of our resentments. Some of God’s greatest gifts come to us in unexpected ways.
C.S. Lewis wrote,
Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead …. Even in social life you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making …. Give up yourself and you will find your real self … [but] [y]our real self will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Christ (Mere Christianity Book 4, Ch. 11).
At Christmas we often think of gifts, what to give and what we will receive; but this misses the truest point of Christmas, which is to look upon our Savior, Messiah, and Lord. He became flesh to show us our truer self. In thinking of Him and looking to Him, we find our truest self. The truer self we find, though, may be very different from some of our grander, worldly notions. Indeed, those self-delusions must be lost, pruned away; they must die for our true self to be found.
We have to stoop low to find Christ; we must seek Him humbly, and look for Him in humble places. He is found in Bethlehem, a tiny village in the shadow of the great Jerusalem. Even there He is in no comfortable dwelling, but out in back, down at the lowest end, in a cave behind a house, a place where animals are kept. Having descended into that cave, we must stoop still further, peering down close to the ground into a manger, a feeding trough. There we see Him.
Yes, there He is, devoid of earthly glories but with heavenly light shining through Him! Seeing Him, we see ourselves. Having descended, dying to earthly notions of life, having “lost” our life, we find it; and we see our own truest glory on the beautiful face of Christ.
Scripture says,For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 4:6) And we, who with unveiled faces reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).
Here is the perfect gift, that we should decrease and He should increase; that dying to our own glories and shedding the masks we like to wear we can now reflect His glories.
Perhaps a picture will help. For this, we turn to the master of light and darkness in painting: Rembrandt. In his “Adoration of the Shepherds” (above right) see how Christ is the true source of light. His light is reflected on the faces of those around Him. This is our greatest glory and our perfect gift, to reflect the glory of the Lord with faces unveiled. To reflect this glory, the shepherds had to journey through the darkness, stoop down low, and die to their expectations of where a King should be born. In the darkness they see Him and they reflect His glory with unveiled faces. The greatest gift, the perfect gift of Christmas, is pictured here. They reflect not their glories, but His.
May the perfect gift of Christmas be yours, be mine, be ours.
As the end of Advent approaches, the Office of Readings features some final admonitions from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. On the one hand they console; on the other, they challenge us to remain firm.
Isaiah addressed a people in exile who still awaited the first coming of the Lord. Today, these texts speak to us in difficult times when, exiled from Heaven, we await His magnificent Second Coming.
Let’s look at these admonitions from the Lord (Isaiah 46:3-13), which were addressed to three different groups in ancient Israel. However, let’s apply them to three groups in our own times: the faithful remnant, the foolish rebels, and the fainthearted at risk.
To the Faithful Remnant – Hear me, O house of Jacob, all who remain of the house of Israel, my burden since your birth, whom I have carried from your infancy. Even to your old age I am the same, even when your hair is gray I will bear you; It is I who have done this, I who will continue, and I who will carry you to safety.
This is directed to the devoted, to the remnant, to those who remain after the cultural revolution in our times, to those sometimes discouraged and sorrowful over the infidelity of loved ones and of the world around them. To these (often the elderly among us who remember a more faithful even if imperfect time) the Lord first speaks.
In effect, He says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Who are the mournful? They are those who see the awful state of God’s people: not glorifying the Lord in their lives, not knowing why they were made, spending themselves on what neither matters nor satisfies. Yes, those who mourn shall be strengthened, and, as their sorrow has motivated them to pray and work for the kingdom, they shall be borne to safety.
Such as these, the faithful remnant, should never forget that God has carried them from the beginning, even in the strength of their prime. Now, reduced by age, they are still carried by the Lord. He has never forgotten them and will carry them to safety; their faith in difficult times will be rewarded.
To The Foolish Rebels – Remember this and bear it well in mind, you rebels; remember the former things, those long ago: I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is none like me. Whom would you compare me with, as an equal, or match me against, as though we were alike? There are those who pour out gold from a purse and weigh out silver on the scales; Then they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god before which they fall down in worship. They lift it to their shoulders to carry; when they set it in place again, it stays, and does not move from the spot. Although they cry out to it, it cannot answer; it delivers no one from distress.
The word “rebel” is from the Latinre (again) + bellum (war). In this context it refers to those who are forever at war with God and His plan for their lives. They foolishly forget His saving deeds. They imagine vain things: that there are other gods or entities that could save them. Even more foolishly, they craft other “gods” that they have to lift upon their shoulders to carry.
Many in our day act in the same way: always at war with God, His Church, and His plan. As G.K. Chesterton once noted, when people stop believing in God, it is not that they will believe in nothing but that they will believe in anything. Chesterton also wrote that when we break God’s big laws, we don’t get liberty; we get small laws. We transfer our trust away from God to false, crafted gods like government, or science, or the market. We hope that they will carry us, but we end up carrying the weight of these gods on our own shoulders. We carry this weight in the form of taxes, debt, and anxiety about everything in our health or environment (demanded by the increasingly politicized scientific and medical communities).
Science, the market, and government are not intrinsically evil, but they are not gods, either. They cannot deliver us from ourselves; only God can do that. To the many who rebelliously and foolishly persist with their “non-gods,” He says, “I am God; there is no other.”
To the Fainthearted at Risk – Listen to me, you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give to Israel my glory. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand, I accomplish my every purpose. I call from the east a bird of prey, from a distant land, one to carry out my plan. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it, and I will do it.
Among the faithful there are some who are at risk, who are nearly ready to give up. God encourages them, but also warns that His plan will stand whether or not they endure. Thus there is an implicit warning from Jesus here (and an explicit warning elsewhere) that we must persevere. Jesus says that because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved (Matt 24:12-13).
St. Augustine wrote,[God has] devised a plan, a great and wonderful plan … All this had therefore to be prophesied, foretold, and impressed on us as an event in the future, in order that we might wait for it in faith, and not find it as a sudden and dreadful reality (From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop (In ps. 109, 1-3: CCL 40, 1601-1603)).
God’s plan will stand whether or not we do. We must stand as well, even when we want to faint or fall back. Our love must not grow cold nor our strength fail. God has triumphed and Satan has lost. We must choose with whom we will stand.
The evidence of the present age does not seem to show this, but as Scripture reminds us,
Therefore, we do not lose heart … So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-17).
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 Jn 2:16-17).
Here, then, are some final instructions from the Lord this Advent, instructions for us who wait for Him: be faithful; the plan will come to pass. Do not be a foolish rebel, nor one of the at-risk fainthearted. Rather, be part of the faithful remnant. St. Paul says, Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved” (Romans 9:27).
The song performed in the clip below is entitled “Lord Help Me to Hold Out.”
What is the perfect gift? We tend to answer this question more in terms of what we want, but today’s Gospel teaches us that the perfect gift is what God is offering. One of the goals of the spiritual journey is to come to value, more than our latest desire, more than our perceived need—more than all else—what God offers.
In reviewing today’s Gospel, I am going to take a stance regarding St. John the Baptist that I realize is not without controversy. The Gospel opens with John (who is in prison) sending his disciples to Jesus with a strange question: “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” This is a strange question coming from the one who pointed Jesus out and spoke so powerfully of Him!
Many of the Fathers of the Church (e.g., John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Theodore of Mopsuestia) interpreted John’s question as a rhetorical one, designed to teach his reluctant disciples to follow Jesus.
I, however, would like to present a different interpretation: that John’s question is a sincere one, and manifests some puzzlement—even discouragement.
While some will take offense no matter how many disclaimers I provide, I still insist that I mean no impiety in my interpretation. It is a common biblical stance that even the greatest scriptural heroes are presented in very human terms. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the judges and prophets, on down to the Apostles are all depicted as humans who are imperfect from the start, who struggle to understand and have perfect faith. Some of them committed great sins—even including murder. One of the most powerful themes of the Bible is that God is able to work with imperfect, struggling human beings and draw them to great sanctity and great accomplishments.
And thus out of regard for that biblical tradition, I take today’s Gospel at what seems to me to be face value. If St. John is merely asking a rhetorical question, it seems odd that Jesus would not be aware of that. Instead, Jesus sends an answer back to John, asking him not to be scandalized (shocked) by the manner in which He goes about fulfilling Messianic texts.
I am not claiming that St. John is sinning or has failing faith; only that he, like all the prophets and patriarchs (and us), must sometimes struggle to understand God’s ways. Even Mother Mary, when Jesus was twelve and said that He must be in His Father’s house, did not understand what He was saying and had to ponder these things in her heart (cfLuke 2:50-51).
Today’s Gospel is best seen in three stages, as John the Baptist is encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification, to perfection; a journey to understand that the perfect is gift is not one of our own imagining but of God’s true offer. It is a Gospel that encourages us to find and appreciate the perfect gift.
Puzzlement –When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
This is a strange question given what St. John had already done!With delight, John had pointed out Christ as He approached, saying, Behold, the Lamb of God(John 1:29). With humble hesitation, John had baptized the One who would change everything. He encouraged his disciples to follow after the One who was mightier than he. So why this unusual question?
Is John puzzled? Is he discouraged?It’s hard to say. Some argue that John doesn’t really mean the question seriously; he is just encouraging his disciples to ask it. But that had not been John’s approach in the past.
So perhaps John is puzzled or even struggling to understand.Consider that John had been looking for a Messiah who would root out injustice, crush the wicked, destroy the oppressors, and exalt the poor and the oppressed. Recall his words from last Sunday’s Gospel:
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire(Mat 3:10-12).
John is now in prison, relegated there by a tyrant, an oppressor—the very sort of man John was sure that the Messiah would cut downand cast into the fire. Where was the hoped-for deliverance? Where was the exaltation of the lowly and the casting down of the mighty? Where was the axe being laid to the root of the tree? Jesus was not doing this sort of thing at all. Although He had some confrontations with religious leaders, His main work seems to have been healing the sick and summoning average people to repentance and faith.
So perhaps John’s question is genuine and he is puzzled or discouraged. The very one who had announced Jesus and pointed Him out when He came, sends his disciples to Jesus with a question: Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?
John was not wholly off-base in his expectation of a Messiah coming in wrath. There are many texts that spoke of it. Here are a few:
Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come. … Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it! … I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless. Therefore, I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger(Is 13:6-10).
Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by him(Nahum 1:6).
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2)
John had worked hard calling people to repentance in order to get them ready for the great and terrible dayof the Lord. John’s puzzlement is thus understandable; Jesus goes about healing and preaching, and instead of slaying the wicked, endures scorn and ridicule from those in power.
The perfect gift for John would be to see all injustice rooted out, to see the threshing floor cleared and the distinction between the wheat and the chaff made obvious, to see the wicked burned with fire and the righteous shine like the firmament. Like many of the prophets, John sensed that the perfect gift was this: let judgment run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream(Amos 5:24).
Of itself this is a good and biblical vision that will one day be accomplished. But at this point is it the perfect gift? Is it the gift that Jesus wants to offer? What is the perfect gift?
Purification–Jesus gives an answer to John’s disciples that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than those John had emphasized. The Old Testament texts that spoke of the Messiah were complicated and at times hard to interpret. While some texts spoke of His wrath toward the wicked and unjust, others spoke of His healing and mercy.
The differences in the description of the Messiah had a lot to do with the context, the audience, and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while John the Baptist was not wrong in his application of the wrathful and vindicating texts to the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more in terms of the Messiah’s second coming than his first.
Jesus thus gives the following answer to those sent by John:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
In this answer, Jesus stitches together many quotesand prophecies about the Messiah, mostly from Isaiah. For example, consider the following:
In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel(Isaiah 29:18-19).
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn(Is 61:1-3).
The dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall(Is 26:19).
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy(Is 35:5-6).
There is a need to purify our sense of what is best for God to do, to come to a better appreciation of the perfect gift.
To those who are disappointed in His lack of wrathful vengeance, Jesus says something quite remarkable: And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
Many of us have been hurt by others or have been deeply troubled by the fact that the wicked seem to prosper while the just struggle.When will God act? Why doesn’t He do something? It is very easy for us to be puzzled, discouraged, or even offended by God’s seeming inaction.
To all this Jesus simply says, And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
It is essential to accept Jesus’ teaching in order to have our sense of the perfect gift purified.Rejoicing in any other gifts than grace and mercy is very dangerous. Hoping for a wrathful punishment to be inflicted on the proud and all sinful oppressors, or wishing this upon individuals or even whole segments of the world, is very dangerous. The last time I checked, all of us are sinners.
Here, then, is the necessary purification in our thinking: God’s greatest gift is not the crushing of our enemies; it is His Son, Jesus.Heis the Perfect Gift.
Further, it is not Jesus’ wrath that is His greatest gift; it is His grace and mercy. Thatis the perfect gift from the Perfect Gift.Without Jesus and a whole lot of His grace and mercy, we don’t stand a chance.
Even John the Baptist,of whom Christ said, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist—even he needs lots of grace and mercy.
Perfection– And thus we see that the perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus. It is not the destruction of our enemies. It is not a sudden, swift ushering in of justice before God’s chosen time. The perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus, which all of us without exception desperately need.
In order to emphasize the absolute necessity of grace and mercy, and the perfect gift that they are, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks of St. John the Baptist:
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”
And thus St. John the Baptist is the best that this world has produced. But pay attention to what the Lord says next:
Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Do you see what grace and mercy can do?Do you see that they surpass any worldly excellence? The world can produce only human, worldly excellence. Grace and mercy produce heavenly excellence and make us like unto God. Without these gifts of God, we don’t stand a chance. John the Baptist needed grace and mercy; Mother Teresa needed grace and mercy. Grace and mercy are perfect and necessary gifts.
One day the perfect justice of God that we all seek will roll in. But unless and untilyou receive the perfect gift of grace and mercy through Jesus, you will not be able to endure the perfect justice of God. So until that time, it has pleased God to offer us the perfect gift of His Son, who by His grace and mercy will prepare us for that day.
If you are looking for the perfect gift this Christmas, look to Jesus.He alone can bestow the grace and mercy that we so desperately need. If even the holy St. John the Baptist was in need, how much more so you and I? Grace and mercy far exceed anything we can ask for or imagine.
Do you want to give the perfect gift to others?Then bring them to Jesus; bring them to Mass. Jesus awaits us in prayer, in the liturgy, in His Word proclaimed, and in the sacraments. Jesus is the perfect gift. The destruction of sinners is not the perfect gift; their conversion and salvation is.
Find the perfect gift this Christmas; find Jesus. Give the perfect gift this Christmas; give Jesus. Give Jesus the perfect gift this Christmas; give Him the give of your very self—the perfect gift.
Advent is a season of waiting, waiting for God to fulfill His promises. We know that most of His promises from the Old Testament were fulfilled magnificently by Jesus, but as St. Paul reminds, we have received but the first fruits of His work in our soul (cf Rom 8:23). The created world and our physical bodies still await the full implications of what He has done. We still await a new Heaven and a new earth where the justice of God will reside (cf 2 Peter 3:13). We still wait for that time when God will renew and restore all things in Christ and will vanquish Satan and his followers so that they can no longer cause harm.
There are times—times like these—when many may be discouraged. There are times when evil may seem to triumph and the victory of Christ seems far off. For indeed, we live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures.
As Advent progresses, however, there comes a word of encouragement from Isaiah, who is the main prophet of reference during this season. Addressed to the fainthearted, it is an unambiguous declaration that God is working His purposes out and that nothing in this world can prevent His plan from being fulfilled.
It is God who speaks through Isaiah. These words are highly worth reading out loud:
I am God there is no other. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it and I will do it. Listen to me you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give my glory to Israel (Isaiah 46:12ff).
Consider three conclusions for us to take to heart.
1. THE PLAN – In Heaven there is no panic, no puzzlement about what to do, just plans. God says this His plan will stand. The foolish and the self-described “wise and learned” of this world may well scoff and think they have found something greater than God’s wisdom and knowledge. Many secular people dismiss God as a myth or as irrelevant. The wicked may think they can mock God forever, but God’s plan will stand. The works of evil are going nowhere. Scripture says in Psalm 2,
The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” … Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling give homage to his Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Yes, God’s plan will stand, no matter the plans of man. Those who mock Him, or build Towers of Babel, or lead others to sin are going to be surprised; they will have to answer to God.
2. THE PARADOX –God speaks of the “fainthearted” as those who feel far from the victory of justice. He tells them that His justice is near and that it will not tarry.
God often accomplishes His purposes in paradoxical ways! Simply go to the foot of the cross to see that. What sort of King is this? What sort of triumph is this? Yet it is a masterful inversion of Satan’s scheme, a stealthy action. Just as Satan is doing his victory dance, Christ is emptying out Sheol.
Christ conquers by refusing Satan’s terms, by refusing to seek to impress the world on its prideful and vengeful terms. For indeed, darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Pride cannot conquer pride; only humility can do that.
The world demands that Christ become merely a bigger version of Satan: bold, brash, arrogant, and disobedient. It demands that Jesus fight the fight on Satan’s terms, using Satan’s techniques. Jesus will have none of it; He cancels Satan’s pride by humility and obedience. To the proud, the disobedient, and the boastful, the message still goes forth today: My plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose!
To the fainthearted goes the message that God’s justice is near, but we must also learn that it comes, paradoxically, through the cross. Just as the first victory came on the Sunday after Good Friday, so the second and final victory will rise in the wake of the cross. It will come—not on the world’s terms and not by Satan’s tactics but by the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. THE PERSPECTIVE –There are many today who like to announce that the age of faith is over, that God is but a myth and faith a superstition. People who speak like this know little of history.
For indeed, the Lord’s Church has been here for more than 2000 years, more than 5000 if you count the Old Testament years. During this time, empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, heresies and philosophies have waxed and waned. Self-declared enemies have said that they would bury the Church, but the Church read the funeral rites over them. Where is Caesar now? Where is Julian the Apostate? Where is Napoleon or Hitler or Stalin or the USSR?
When the Muslims wiped out the North African cradle of the Church, Europe lit up with converts from the barbarians. Just when two million Europeans walked out of the Church during the Protestant revolt, nine million entered in Mexico following the apparition at Guadalupe. Today, when Europe is largely divorcing itself from Christ, Africa has lit up again like a great wedding feast with a 7000% increase in the number of Catholics over the last fifty years.
People who say that the age of faith is over or that the Church is doomed have not read history. They lack perspective because they do not know God, whose plan will stand. That the powers of Hell will strive to destroy the Church is evident. That they will fail to prevail is revealed in Scripture (Matt 16:18) and has been shown through all these centuries now. When the current scoffers are dead and gone, the Church will still be here preaching the Gospel. The Lord does not guarantee that we will always be numerous, but we will be here for as long as the sun shall shine and until the Lord comes again.
To the fainthearted, the Spirit says, “Be strong. God’s plan will stand.” And so the Lord Jesus says, Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away (Lk 21:33). These are difficult days, even inside the Church, but the Lord is still the Head of His Body. God’s plan will stand.
Another great Advent hymn to discuss is “Wake, O Wake with Tidings Thrilling.” Its original German title is “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” which is more literally translated “Awake, a voice calls to us.” The hymn was written in 1599 by Philipp Nicolai, and concerns the Parable of the Ten Virgins. It is beautifully creative, painting a picture of joyful anticipation, as the groom finally arrives, and the joyful cry goes out to the bridesmaids to raise their torches high. The bride, of course, is Mother Church, the New Jerusalem, who joyfully looks for Christ, her groom, as He descends from Heaven in the glory of His Second Coming. Thus, the hymn also points to the following passage from the Book of Revelation:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” … I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given her to wear” (Rev 21:2-3; 19:7-8).
The hymn thus beautifully portrays the longing of the Church, the Bride. She looks and longs until she hears these words from Him:Surge amica mea, speciosa mea et veni! (Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!) (Song of Songs 2:10). Yes, her longing cannot be quenched until He comes again in all His radiant beauty and majesty. Until then, she looks, longs, and waits, until the number of her elect children is complete and she, in her fullness, will go to be with her spouse forever in the beatific glory.
Enjoy one of the great Advent hymns, “Wake, O Wake with Tidings Thrilling!” This particular translation (from the German) is wonderful; it is both biblical and artistic:
Wake, O wake with tidings thrilling; The Watchmen all the air are filling; Arise, Jerusalem, Arise! Midnight strikes, no more delaying; “The hour has come,” we hear them saying; Where are ye all ye virgins wise?
The bridegroom comes in sight Raise high, your torches bright! Alleluia! The wedding song swells loud and strong; Go forth and join the festal throng.
Zion hears the watchman shouting; Her heart leaps up with joy undoubting; She stands and waits with eager eyes! She her love from heaven descending; Adorned with truth and grace unending; Her light burns clear her star doth rise!
Now come our precious crown; Lord Jesus, God’s own Son; Hosanna! Let us prepare to follow there Where in thy supper we may share.
Yes, there is a great wedding feast in every liturgy, and its culmination looks to the glorious Second Coming of Jesus. This Christmas, look to your wedding garment, which the Lord gave you at baptism to bring unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. The Bridegroom comes! Let us go out to meet Christ the Lord (cf Matt 25:6).
Here is a performance of this great wedding song of Advent by the choir of Trinity College in Cambridge.
In modern times, we tend to link our notions of happiness and inner well-being to external circumstances and happenstance. We think that happiness will be found when the things of this world are arranged in the way we like. If we can just accumulate enough money and creature comforts, we think we’ll be happy and have a better sense of mental well-being.
Yet many people can endure difficult external circumstances while remaining inwardly content, happy, and optimistic. Further, many who have much are still not content but rather are plagued by mental anguish, anxiety, and unhappiness. Ultimately, happiness is not about good fortune or circumstances; it is an “inside job.”
St. Paul wrote,
For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want (Phil 4:11-12).
It is interesting to note that Paul wrote these words, as well as those of today’s second reading, from his jail cell! It’s not just a bunch of slogans.
In today’s second reading, Paul tells us the “secret” to his contentedness, to joy and mental well-being regardless of the circumstances. He gives us a plan that (if we work it) will set the stage for a deeper inner peace, a sense of mental well-being and contentedness that is not easily affected by external circumstances. Let’s review what St. Paul has to say as a kind of “five-point plan.” (I am indebted to Rev. Adrian Rogers for the alliterative list, though the substance is my own reflection.)
Here is the text of St. Paul’s “five-point plan” for better mental health:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you] (Phil 4:4-9).
Note that the final two sentences (shown above enclosed in [square brackets]) are not included in today’s liturgical proclamation, but I feel that they add to the overall picture so I include them here.
Step I. Rejoice in the Presence of the Lord – Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your moderateness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
Of supreme importance in the Christian life is requesting, receiving, and cultivating the gift of the Lord’s presence. We are too easily turned inward and become forgetful of God’s presence. To become more consciously and constantly aware of His presence is to be filled with joy and peace.
As an aside, note that the text mentions joy (χαίρω – chairoo) but also moderateness. The Greek word used is ἐπιεικὲς (epieikes), which means to be gentle, mild, forbearing, fair, reasonable, or moderate. Epieíkeia relaxes unnecessary strictness in favor of gentleness whenever possible. Such an attitude is common when one is joyful and unafraid. By contrast, an unbending and unyielding attitude often bespeaks fear.
There are of course times when one should not easily give way, but often there is room for some leeway and the assumption of good will. A serene mind and spirit, which are gifts of the presence of God, can often allow for this; there is an increasing ability to allow things to unfold rather than to insist on controlling outcomes and winning on every point.
The central point is that as we become more aware of God’s presence and thus more serene and less inwardly conflicted; we no longer need to shout others down or to win all the time. We can insist on what is true but can express ourselves more moderately and calmly. We are able to stay in the conversation, content to sow seeds rather than insisting on reaping every harvest of victory.
Cultivating a joyful sense of the presence of God and seeing the serenity and moderateness that are its fruits is a first step toward, and a sure sign of, better mental health and greater contentment.
Step II. Rely on the Power of the Lord– Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition … present your requests to God.
There are very few things as destructive to our mental health as worry. Worry is like sand in a machine. Not only does it hinder the workings of the machine, it damages it. Simply being told not to worry, though, isn’t very helpful. St. Paul is not simply saying, “Don’t worry.”
Paul has already laid groundwork for the diminishment of worry by telling us to cultivate a sense of the presence of God. When I was a young boy, my father left for the Vietnam War. During the year he was away, I spent many anxious nights worrying about a lot of things. As soon as my father returned, my fears went away. Daddy was home, and everything was all right.
To the degree that we really experience that God is near, many of our fears subside. My own experience is that as my awareness of God’s presence has grown, my anxieties have significantly diminished.
Paul also says that the power of God is only a prayer away. Here, too, I (and many others) can testify that God has a way of working things out. However, He may not always come when you want Him or handle things exactly as you want. When I reflect on my life, I can truly say that God has always made a way for me. None of my struggles and disappointments ever destroyed me; if anything, they strengthened me.
Whatever it is, take it to the Lord in prayer. Ponder deeply how He has delivered you in the past, how He has made a way out of no way, how He has drawn straight with crooked lines.
Let the Holy Spirit anoint your memory to make you aware of God’s saving power in your life and recall how God has delivered you. Because prayer is both effective and an ever-present source of power, these memories should provide serenity.
Prayer is the antidote. So much worry, which is a kind of mental illness, dissipates when we experience that God is present and that His power is only one prayer away.
So, the second step to better mental health is knowing by experience that God can and will make a way.
Step III. Remember the Provision of the Lord – … with thanksgiving …
Thanksgiving is a way of disciplining the mind to count our blessings. Why is this important? Because we become negative too easily. Every day billions of things go right while only a handful go wrong, but what do we tend to focus on? The few things that go wrong! This is a form of mental illness that feeds our anxiety and comes from our fallen nature.
Gratitude disciplines our mind to count our blessings. As we do this, we begin to become men and women of hope and confidence. Why? Because what you feed, grows. If you feed the negative, it will grow; if you feed the positive, it will grow. God richly blesses us every day; we need but open our eyes to see it.
Step three is disciplining our fallen mind to see the wider reality of our rich blessings. This heals us and gives us great peace and a serene mind.
Step IV. Rest in the Peace of the Lord – And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
As we begin to undertake these steps, our mental outlook and health improve. Gradually, serenity becomes a deeper and more stable reality for us. The text here says that this serenity will not only be present, it will “guard” (or as some translations say, “keep”) our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. In other words, as this serenity grows it screens out the negativity of this world and the demons of discouragement. Having this peace allows us to see the Lord; seeing the Lord deepens that peace—and the cycle grows and continues!
It has been my experience that the profound anxiety and anger that beset my early years has not only gone away but is unlikely to return given the serenity I now increasingly enjoy. I am guarded and protected increasingly by the serenity God gives.
Step V. Reflect on the Plan of the Lord –Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me—put it into practice.
A maintenance plan – As this serenity, this sense of well-being, comes to us, St. Paul advises a kind of maintenance plan wherein we intentionally and actively focus our thoughts and attention on what is godly, true, good, and beautiful.
What you feed, grows. While we may need to stay informed about the news of the world, beware a steady diet of the 24/7 news cycle. The media tend to focus on the bad news, on what is controversial and/or adversarial. If it bleeds, it leads. Too much exposure to that and you’re unsettled before you know it. Limit your portions of this and focus on the greater, better, and lasting things of God. Ponder His plan, His truth, His glory, and His priorities.
An old song says, “More about Jesus would I know, more of his saving mercy show, more of his saving fullness see, more of his love who died for me.”
Yes, more about Jesus and less about this world. How can we expect to maintain our mental health and serenity on a steady dose of insanity, misplaced priorities, adversity, darkness, chaos, and foolishness?
Do you want peace? Reflect on the Lord’s plan for you.
So, then, here are five steps to better mental health. It all begins with the practice of the presence of the Lord, calling on His power and being grateful for His providence, savoring His peace (which inevitably comes), and turning our attention more to the things of God and less to the things of this world.
Here’s to good mental health for us all! In times like these, we need to balance our sorrow with rejoicing in God’s ability to draw good from even the worst of circumstances.
Sometimes our pets teach us a lot about ourselves. The video below shows various dogs resisting the taking of a bath. Some hide; some go limp and become passive; others get feisty.
I see here a similarity with Catholics when they hear that it is time for Confession. Advent is an important time to go to Confession because we are preparing for the birth of our Savior. He is called Jesus (a name that means “God saves”) because He will save us from our sins. It would be a rather perfunctory and hollow Christmas without a preceding Confession, would it not?
And yet some Catholics, much like the dogs in this video, scamper away to hide. Others just look nervous and resist. Still others get hostile and say, “No way!”
This is just a fun way to say, “It’s time for Confession, time to wash our sins away!”
Enjoy this video. Dogs are so much fun, aren’t they?
As we begin the Advent Season, we are immediately drawn into its principal theme of preparation and readiness for the coming of the Lord. His first coming has already been fulfilled at Bethlehem, and while we should prepare spiritually for the coming Christmas Feast, these first weeks of Advent bid us to focus even more on His second coming in glory.
As the curtains draw back on the opening scene of Advent, we are warned by the Lord that He will come on the clouds with great power and glory and that we must be prepared. He says, “Beware … Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Today’s Gospel is taken from the Mt. Olivet discourse. The historical context in which the Lord was speaking was not the end of the world, but the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. For those ancient Jews, however, it was the end of the world as they knew it. The destruction of Ancient Jerusalem is also symbolic of the end of the world. The world will end for us either by our own death or by His coming to us in the second coming. Either way, the message is the same: Be ready!
With that in mind we do well to study this Gospel and heed its message, set forth in two stages.
DOUBLE VISION – The Gospel opens with a description of tribulations that are about to come on the land and two different reactions to it.
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.
Many will be frightened, shocked, bewildered, and dismayed when fixed points in this world such as the sun, moon, stars, and sea are shaken,
There is a second reaction that is prescribed:
But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.
Yes, it is a very different reaction, one of expectant joy and serene confidence. So, we see here a kind of double vision.
Some cry out with fear and say, “He is wrathful!” Others with faith say, “He is wonderful!”
To some He is frightening, to others He is fabulous.
To some these events are awful, to others they are awe-inspiring.
Some shout, “Horror on every side!” others sing, “Hallelujah to the King of Kings!
In order for us to celebrate on that day when the Lord shall come, there are prerequisites that must be met. That leads us to the next stage of this Gospel.
DIRECTIVE – The Lord goes on to instruct us in how to be ready for the great and terrible day of the Lord:
Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.
Notice that the Lord announces the effect (drowsiness) and then the causes (carousing, drunkenness, and anxieties of daily life). This is typical of ancient practice. In modern times, however, it is more common to speak of the causes and then describe the effects. Hence, we will proceed with our study in a slightly different order than that in which it was presented.
Cause 1: DEBAUCHERY – The Lord warns of the problem of “carousing.” The Greek word used is κραιπάλῃ (kraipale), meaning most literally the giddiness and headache caused by drinking wine to excess. More generally it means the excessive indulgence of our passions or living life to excess. Other translators render the Greek word as “dissipation,” referring to the general squandering and loss of resources resulting from excessive indulgence.
We, of course, live in times that make it easy to (over)satisfy our every need. At the market there is not merely bread, there are fifty different types of bread. Our oversupply and overindulgence are literally reflected in our bodies: obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease plague us.
It is not just food that is excessive; it is everything. We are excessively busy with the nonessentials of life. There are innumerable ways to occupy our minds. Our minds are so overstimulated that we cannot hear that “still, small voice.” Most people have a very short attention span due to this overstimulation. All day long the noise from the radio, mp3 player, TV, DVD player, CD player, PC, iPad, and cell phone compete for our attention. It jams our mind and breaks our union with Christ and even with our very self. Then there are the 24-hour news channels generating hype about even ordinary events: “Breaking news!” Our e-mail is flooded with junk mail and spam, offering false hopes and products and services we don’t really need. There are endless money-making schemes, lotteries, and sweepstakes. And oh, the sales: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, pre-holiday, post-holiday! It makes me think of the carnival hucksters calling, “Step right up!” It is worse than that, though, because it seems we cannot get away from it.
We spend, spend, spend and then borrow, borrow, borrow to support our spending. We need two incomes and 60-hour work weeks so that we can afford our lifestyle. Once we have acquired “the goods,” we’re never there to enjoy them. We sacrifice family on the altar of pleasure. We have an excess of everything except children, because they cost money and thus impede our ability to consume.
Even our recreation is excessive. Our weekends and vacations often leave us exhausted, disquieted, and unprepared for the coming week. A simple, quiet weekend, spent reflecting on God’s wonders or spending time at home with family? No way! It’s off to watch the myriad activities of our overscheduled children. The weekends meant for rest instead feature distinctly unrestful activities such as shopping, dancing in loud bars, watching football games, and drinking.
Yes, it’s all excess. It weighs us down, wearies us, costs a lot of time and money, and isn’t really all that satisfying anyway. It is dissipation. In the end, we are left with something like that headache and hung-over feeling of which the Greek word kraipale speaks. Up goes the cry anyway: “One more round!” Excess, dissipation, carousing; more, more, more!
Cause 2: DIVISIONS – The Lord warns of the “anxieties” of daily life. The Greek word used is μερίμναις (merimnais), meaning more literally “a part separated from the whole,” “that which divides and fractures a person into parts.” The human person, overwhelmed with excess, becomes incapable of distinguishing the urgent from the important, the merely pleasurable from the productive. On account of our overstimulation, our excess, we are pulled in many different directions. We can’t decide; our loyalties are divided and conflicting. We are endlessly distracted by a thousand contrary drives and concerns.
Anxiety is the condition of being overwhelmed and divided by many and contrary drives, demands, and priorities. Anxiety freezes and perplexes us. There is too much at stake and no central governing principle to direct our decisions. All of this overwhelms us and clouds our mind and heart. We are anxious about many things and cannot determine the “one thing necessary” that will order all of the details (cf Luke 10:42). The Lord lists anxiety as among those things that destroy our readiness to stand before Him with joy.
Cause 3: DRUNKENNESS – Here the Greek word used is straightforward: μέθῃ (methe), meaning drunk on wine. Why do we drink? We drink to medicate our anxiety. Overwhelmed by the excess that leads to anxiety (inner division and conflict) we drink to medicate our sense of being overwhelmed. Something has to soothe us. Instead of slowing down and seeking God, we drink. We anesthetize our mind. Alcohol is not the only thing we use. We use things, people, power, sex, entertainment, diversions, and distractions; all to soothe our tense, anxious mind.
This, of course, only deepens the central problem. All these things only add to the very problem that has disturbed us in the first place: the kraipale that is excess and dissipation. The solution is to get clear about our priorities, to seek God and allow Him to order our life. Instead of seeking a clear mind, however, we do the opposite and tune out. A little wine is a gift from God (cf Psalm 104:15) to cheer our hearts, but with excess, we go beyond cheer to dull our mind.
To be sober is to have a clear mind, one that knows and is in touch with reality and final ends. To be sober is to be alert, honest, and reasonable; to act in a way that bespeaks thoughtful and deliberate movement toward a rational and worthy goal. The sober person acts consciously and with purpose toward a unifying goal: being with God. St. Paul says, But this one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14).
Lacking the one unifying thing, torn apart within, and anxious on account of our excesses, we dull our mind with alcohol. The Lord calls us to clarity, but we retreat into insobriety. We are, in effect, “hung over” from indulging in the excesses of this world and then “medicating” the resulting inner divisions. Our minds go dull and we tune out.
The Effect: DROWSINESS – The Lord says, Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy. The Greek word used here is βαρηθῶσιν (barethosin), meaning “burdened, heavily laden, overcome, or weighted down.” Thus, we see that the effect that all the above things have is to weigh us down, to burden our heart. Laden with excess, divided by contrary demands, and medicating the stress with insobriety, our heart becomes tired and burdened. Our heart is no longer inflamed and animated with love. It has become weary, distracted, bored, and tired of holy things and of the Lord. Instead of being watchful in prayer, our heart sleeps on, weighed down in sin, excess, division, and insobriety. It no longer keeps watch for the Lord, whom it is called to love.
Yes, the world, and our sinful preoccupation with it weighs our hearts down. It captures our love and attention and we become drowsy toward spiritual things.
In the garden, the Lord asked the apostles to pray, but they had spent their energy that evening arguing with Jesus and debating among themselves about who was greatest. Divided within, they wanted Jesus, but they also wanted the world and its fame and power. Struck by the conflict and tension that Jesus’ words about suffering and dying brought, they were divided and anxious. So, they medicated themselves and tuned out. They likely had more than a few drinks of wine that night. Weighed down and exhausted by worldly preoccupations and priorities, their burdened hearts were too drowsy to pray; and so they slept. (Satan, however, did not sleep that night.)
Consider the words of Jesus to the Church at Ephesus: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (Rev 2:5-6). Jesus also warns, Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Mat 24:12). Yes, sinful indulgence divides and stresses us. Because it is too much, we tune out and dull our mind; thus, our heart grows cold, burdened, and heavy with sin. Heavy and weary, our heart goes to sleep, and we lose our first love. Jesus described the pattern: Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. This is the cycle.
What to do about this awful cycle?
The Directive: DUE DILIGENCE – The Lord says, Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.
The Lord does not describe this terrible cycle of debauchery (excess), division (anxiety), drunkenness (self-medication), and drowsiness (heavy hearts) merely to define the problem. Having diagnosed our condition, He prescribes the remedy of prayerful vigilance.
To be vigilantly prayerful is to be in living, conscious contact with God. It is to have our heart and mind focused on the one thing necessary (cf Luke 10:42), and thus to have our life ordered. With this order properly established, our excesses fall away, and the many associated anxieties and divisions depart. Once they are gone, we no longer need to medicate and soothe our anxious mind. This lightens our heart; its heaviness goes away. It is free to love and desire with well-ordered love.
Once we have set our sights on God through vigilant prayer, everything else in our life becomes ordered. Then, when Christ comes, He will not disrupt our world but confirm what we are already used to: Jesus Christ as the center and meaning of our life.
Through prayerful vigilance we can stand erect and raise [our] head because [our] redemption is at hand. Why? Because we are used to seeing Him and experiencing His authority. He thus comes not to destroy and usurp our disordered life, but to confirm and fulfill what has always been true for us: that Jesus is the center of our life.