Five Steps to Better Mental Health – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent

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.

A Humorous Call to Confession

blog-1215Sometimes 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?

A Recipe for Readiness – A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent

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.

Sweet, Beautiful, Soul-Saving Joy – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent

This Sunday is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, based on the Introit for the day: Gaudete in Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete (Phil 4:4) (Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice). Today, this theme is developed most fully in the 2nd reading, which is from 1 Thessalonians. It also begins with the salutation and imperative, “Rejoice always.”

Let’s take a closer look at that reading and what is meant by the admonition to “rejoice.”

The text begins, Rejoice always. The Greek word translated as “rejoice” is χαίρετε (chairete). However, more is intended than merely rousing ourselves to some sort of the emotional state of joy or happiness. Note that the root word charis (within chariete) refers to grace. Hence chairete means to delight joyfully in and by God’s grace, to experience God’s favor (grace), to be conscious of and glad for His grace.

Because it is a work of grace, this sort of joy is more fully understood as serene, confident, and stable, a joy not rooted merely in the passing moods of our fallen human state.

The text continues further to identify three basic ways that our joy can become both stable and deeply rooted in our personality and psyche. In effect, the text does not merely instruct us to rejoice always, but tells us how this can be done. Let’s look at these three ways.

I. PERSEVERANCE IN PRAISE – The text says, Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Hence we see the first three foundations for rejoicing always. Let’s take them a little out of order.

Grateful (In all circumstances give thanks) Thanksgiving is an important discipline that trains our mind to focus on reality. We tend to be negative, perhaps due to our fallen nature, but the reality is that every day trillions of things go right while only a few go wrong. Now you may think that’s an exaggeration, but it’s not. Consider all the things that have to go right with every cell in your body. Add to that all the many things on this earth—indeed in the whole universe—that must be perfectly balanced in order for you and me to even be here at all, alive and flourishing. Trillions is not an exaggeration.

However, if we are not careful, we focus on the handful of things that go wrong each day. Mind you, some of them may feel serious at times (although usually they are not). Nevertheless, even the truly serious mishaps cannot negate the reality of the trillions of things that have gone right.

Giving thanks disciplines our mind to focus on our countless blessings. Some of the mishaps of a day can even be blessings in disguise.

Hence we are told to give thanks in all circumstances. Daily thanksgiving disciplines our mind to focus on the astonishing number of blessings. What you feed grows, so if the negative is fed, it will grow; but if the positive is fed, it will grow and become an important basis of stable joy in our life. Yes, give thanks in all circumstances.

Prayerful (Pray without ceasing) – Prayer is also a discipline of the mind. Paul does not mean to say that we should stay in a chapel all day long. He means that we should lay hold of the normal Christian life, which is to be living in conscious contact with God at every moment of our day. To the degree that we are consciously aware of God’s presence and in a dialogue of love with Him all day, our joy is deeper and becomes more stable. Thus we are able, by this ongoing sense of His presence, to “rejoice always.”

Spirit-filled (Do not quench the Spirit) – That such gifts (ongoing prayer and thanksgiving) are “God’s will for us,” means that God wants to give us these gifts. Hence, we should not quench the Spirit, which bids us to seek these things. Rather, we should heed His promptings and seek these gifts, even pester God for them. Too often we quench the Spirit by not taking seriously the promises He offers us in Christ Jesus. We are not convinced that the Spirit can give us a whole new life and can deepen our prayer and gratitude, so we don’t even ask. We also quench the Spirit by cluttering our lives with endless distractions, never sitting still long enough to listen to the small, still voice of God. If we fan into flame the gifts of God’s love, God the Holy Spirit will kindle a fire in us that will never die away. As the gifts of His love (including deeper prayer and constant thankfulness) take hold, our joy deepens and we can “rejoice always.”

II. PERSPECTIVE THROUGH PROPHECY – The text says, Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good.

First, the phrase “prophetic utterances” refers to Scripture itself. Scripture is a prophetic interpretation of reality. It describes the world as it truly is and sets forth a clear vision. It is an antidote to the muddled and murky suppositions of worldly thinking that at best grope in the darkness and at worst are deceitful and erroneous. We ought not to despise God’s Word in any way, but rather should accept it wholeheartedly. To the degree that we do so, we are assured of the ultimate victory of God, His truth, and His Kingdom. Our own victory is also set forth in the paschal mystery of God’s Word, wherein every cross, faithfully carried, produces for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (cf 2 Cor 4:17). This vision, this prophetic interpretation of reality, produces in us a serene joy that allows us to “rejoice always.”

“Prophetic utterances” also refers to the teachings of the Church, the words of the Fathers of the Church, and the teachings of the saints down through the ages. There is a great deposit of faith that has been carefully collected and lovingly handed down from apostolic times. The dogmas and doctrines of the faith are like the precious fragments gathered up by the apostles at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. For the Lord had told them that nothing was to go to waste. We, too, ought to seek out every instruction prophetically uttered by Mother Church, allowing nothing to fall to the ground.

The Fathers as well as the saints have left us wondrous testimony that we should neither despise nor ignore. They, along with the Church, utter wisdom and announce victory to every believer. In the laboratory of their own lives, they have tested the Word of God and found it to be true. Added to this number are many trustworthy people in our own time who teach us the Word of God. They include parents, priests, religious, and holy men and women who have inspired us. To the degree that we will let the Church and the saints teach us, along with trustworthy souls of our own time, to the degree that we do not despise these prophetic utterances, the foundation of our joy becomes surer and we can rejoice always.

III. PROGRESS TOWARD PERFECTION – The text says, Refrain from every kind of evil. May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.

The greatest source of sorrow in our life, the biggest killer of joy, is our sin. To the degree that we indulge it, our joy is sapped, but to the extent that we allow the Lord to deliver us from sin and make us more and more holy, our joy becomes deeper and more lasting. The words “holy” and “whole” are not far removed from each other. As we become more whole, more perfected, freer from sin, more holy and blameless, our joy deepens and we can increasingly “rejoice always.” God will do this for us if we are willing and if we ask Him.

Thus we see that the mandate, the exhortation, to “rejoice always” is far more than a command to whip ourselves up to an emotional high. Rather, it is a call to stable and serene joy rooted in prayerful gratitude, to a mind transformed by God’s truth and a growing holiness. Allow the promise of the Lord to be fulfilled in you. For He has said,

Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete (Jn 15:9-11).

This song says, “Joy, Joy, God’s great joy! Joy, Joy, down in my soul. Sweet, beautiful soul-saving joy. Oh Joy! Joy in my soul!”

The Fire Next Time – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

The second reading for Sunday Mass speaks to us of “the fire next time” and reminds us of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. In this homily I will focus on that reading, in which St. Peter reminds us of the passing that will come for us all one day.

Because Advent is a time to prepare, through prayer and repentance, we do well to heed this sacred teaching and warning. It is echoed by St. John the Baptist, 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 (about 2000 years!), the text tells us that this delay is so that as many of us as possible can be saved.

Notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. God’s patience should not be seen as an excuse for presumption, but, rather, a time for repentance. This is no time to be saying, “Later.” It is a time to be serious about repenting and about preparing to meet the Lord.

The Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), and refers not just to better behavior but also to a new mind. Our transformation is not merely external, but internal as well. 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. Conversion and repentance are the result of becoming 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. When He comes it will be

Sudden – The text says that the day of the Lord will come like a thief.

This image is quite a consistent with the one Jesus used for the Day of Judgment. However, this image should not be the future 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 not appropriate for us if we realize that all we have and all we are belongs to Him. 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, putting an end to it. To them, God seems to be a thief, as He “steals” what they consider theirs. They are badly misled.

For those 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 – The text speaks of the roaring heavens and of a fire that overwhelms; all will be dissolved by fire.

This 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 lights a fire within us in order to set us on fire, to bring us up to the temperature of glory. For those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.

The prophet Malachi speaks of the different experiences 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 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.” 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.

ShowingThe text says that all things will be revealed.

It would seem that this fire burns away the masks that 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). In the Gospel of Luke 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).

Even the just may wince at this, for all of us have a past; most would prefer that the past stay in the past. When I have visited “12-Step” meetings, I have sometimes seen people recount what they did when they were drinking. They seem to do so with little shame and much laughter, probably because they are sharing it with others who understand, who have also been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps, for the just, the “day of disclosing” will be like that.

For those who are unrepentant, though, imagine their embarrassment and fear as their secrets, sins, and past injustices are disclosed to those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. It’s 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 us to consider what sort of persons we ought 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. Although some final purifications (purgation) may take place, because the fire has been kindled in us and has already been fanned into a flame, we will be purified, not destroyed.

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 of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us; it will 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 God’s fiery judgment. While it may also signify a total destruction of all that now exists and a replacement of it by new heavens and a new earth, some argue that it means that the created world will instead be renewed rather than destroyed and replaced. This view is supported by other passages (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; the full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without spot or blemish; we will be at peace. Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, Hallelujah! God’s fire purifies that which is holy and burns away all else. God will restore all things in Christ!

 

The Second Coming and Its Stages

During Advent, as we continue to meditate on the Parousia (the Second Coming), we do well to allow our imaginations to be engaged in contemplating the glory that awaits those who are faithful, to meditate on the joy and ecstasy of the culmination of all things!

We must soberly admit our need to be ready by God’s grace, but if we are, what glories await us! The “great and terrible day of the Lord” will indeed be great for those who have allowed the Lord to prepare them.

I was stirred some years ago in reading a magnificent book by Jean Cardinal Danielou on angelology (an-GELL-o-gee), which is the study of angels. The book, The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church, is must reading (and a mere 114 pages long). It is packed with stirring and edifying accounts of the wonderful works of the angels, according to Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.

The final chapters, on the eschaton (the last things) and the Parousia (the Second Coming), are particularly magnificent. I would like to distill them here, adding some material and reworking it just a bit. However, the assembling of the material is fundamentally that of Cardinal Danielou. I hope you will be stirred with as much joy and zeal in reading this as I was in preparing it.

1. Sending forth the multitude of angels:

Scripture is replete with descriptions of the role of angels in the great Second Coming of the Lord. In the Gospel of Matthew there is a text that may refer to 70 A.D., but surely also describes the end of time:

Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:30-31).

The first epistle to the Thessalonians says,

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise … (1 Thess 4:16).

St Cyril describes the extraordinary magnificence given to the final judgment by the presence of the multitude of angels. He considers how the great depth and breadth of the spiritual world has been invisible until now, except to the eyes of faith. Suddenly, it is made manifest! He asks us to imagine the multitude of angels by considering the vast numbers of human beings who have ever existed, from the time of Adam to the present day, standing before the Lord Jesus. Then he asks us to consider that the angels are vastly more numerous than that, for they are the 99 sheep whereas humanity is but the one! As Daniel poetically says,

Thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A river of fire surged forth, flowing from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads stood before him (Dan 7:9-10).

Such a vision and such multitudes can scarcely be imagined.

2. Waking the dead (the angels are surely part of this):

The Second Sibylline Book, a Christian work, describes the archangels shattering the gates of death and raising up even the bodies of those who had been drowned in the sea or whom savage beasts had devoured (Sib, 2:214–235).

St. Ephrem speaks of the angels as waking the dead, saying,

Then the Lord will appear in the heavens like lightning with an unspeakable glory. The Angels and the Archangels will go on before his glory like flames of fire, like a mighty torrent. The Cherubim will turn their faces and the Seraphim will fly ahead crying out in fear: “Arise, you who sleep. Behold the bridegroom is coming!” Then the tombs will be opened and in the flash of an eye all the people will rise and behold the beauty of the Bridegroom.

St. Paul says that our bodies will rise, our bodies, but gloriously transformed:

He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:21).

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (1 Cor 15:42).

3. The Judgment by Christ and its execution by the angels:

Matthew 13 describes the angels as separating the wicked from the just:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mat 14:41-43).

Matthew 25 describes the angels as being with Christ when He takes His judgment seat:

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 (Matt 25:31-32).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of the angels leading the sinners away, body and soul, “in the full sight of the armies of heaven and they will be unable to escape.” But the angels are also uniting the just.

Matthew 13 describes the angels leading evildoers away:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who caused others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace (Mat 13:41-42).

St. Ephrem describes the angels leading the elect to paradise:

Then the angels will come together from all sides and take up the holy and faithful people into the glory of the clouds above, to their meeting place with Christ.

Origen speaks of the angels escorting the blessed to paradise:

When … we have begun to enter the holy place and pass on to the promised land, those who are really holy and whose place is the Holy of Holies will make their way, supported by the angels and unto the tabernacle of God … They will be carried on [the angels’] shoulders and raised up by their hands.

St. Paul seems to speak to the same glory when he writes to the Thessalonians:

The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

4. The final ordering of the Kingdom:

Of this final ordering, Scripture says,

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under [Jesus’] feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he [the Father] is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one (1 Cor 15:26-28).

5. After executing judgment, Jesus returns to His Father’s right, in the Holy of Holies:

He ascends there, now with all the members of His body (body and soul) joined to Him. He ascends to the throne as Unus Christus, amans seipsum (one Christ, loving Himself). Though co-equal to His Father in glory and majesty, He is delighted to hand over the Kingdom of His Body, the Church, to His Father, who is (as Father) the Principium Deitatis.

At this ascension, the Fathers ponder that the angels will make the same declaration, the heavens echoing with their cry:

 Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors; that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory (Psalm 24: 7-10).

6. The transformation of all creation:

The longing of creation for its share in the glorious freedom of the Children of God is prophesied through St. Paul:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it [because of our sins]. But the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:19-23).

And now it comes! Heaven and earth are united and creation receives its original glory and more, for the heavenly realities are now joined to the earth, beautifully restored and raised. Scripture says,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:1-5).

7. The Joy and rest of the angels:

Cardinal Danielou beautifully concludes,

On that day, the joy of the friends of the Bridegroom, [the angels] will be complete. They have led to paradise the souls of the just who are entrusted to them. They have kept watch over their mortal remains. But [for now] they still await the day in which the Bridegroom will come to look for his Bride, when her beauty is finally perfect, in order to lead her into the House of his Father for the eternal wedding feast (p. 114).

Of this magnificent beauty, St. Methodius says,

Oh dearly beloved, [the angels] burn to see the day of your marriage, all the angels Christ has called from heaven. They will come, O Lord, O Word, and they will carry with them mighty gifts, in their spotless robes.

Thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints (Rev 22:17; 20-21).

Five Brief Advent Meditations

The following are five Advent reflections that I prepared for catechumens and candidates in our RCIA program. (They are also available in PDF form here: The Season of Advent.)

Advent is witnessed by creation

Late autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors, then fade and fall. Shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. Vacations and the warmth of summer are distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and then pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has its delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the childlike excitement a winter storm can arouse. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, longing, and expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreaths and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our ongoing commitment to come out of the darkness into God’s own marvelous light (cf 1 Peter 2:9). There is a gospel song that says, “Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.”

Longing for salvation

Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a yearning for this Messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so a cry from Israel went up:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil … We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people (Is 64:1-7).

During Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come, yet we know that sin and injustice still have terrible effects on our lives and our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to set us free every day. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us; now we long for Him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of His glory.

Waiting for His sudden and second coming

Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. In the Nicene Creed, we say, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This truth flows directly from Scripture, which clearly teaches two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second, we cannot know the day or the hour that He will return. In fact, though some signs will precede His coming, the emphasis of Scripture is on the suddenness of the event.

  1. He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27).
  2. … with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth … (1 Th. 5:3)
  3. … in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet … (1 Cor 15:52)
  4. It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44)
  5. Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security” … (1 Th. 5:3)

Because this is the case, we must live in constant readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect on the necessity of our readiness. An old gospel song says, “Are you ready? Are you ready for the coming of the Lord?” Similarly, there is another gospel song that counsels, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!”

The fire next time

Some of the images of the last day, ones of judgment and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider, for example, this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).

Some of the imagery used here is reminiscent of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation. Notice the complete message of this passage and others like it: The heavens and the earth as we know them will pass away, but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heaven and a new earth,” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness.

An African-American spiritual summarizes the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter with these classic lines: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.” Here, too, our first reaction might be fear, but in the tradition of the spirituals, the fire referenced was a fire of justice and truth, which destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses it this way: “God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days, Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, Alleluia!” For the slaves, the day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, vindication, and deliverance. So it will be for us, too, if we are ready. W

What does it mean to be ready? It means to be living faithfully, holding on to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. It means to be living a holy life, a life of repentance. If we do this, not only do we have nothing to fear about the last day, we can eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)

Remember, repent, rehearse

All of these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent, and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come. He has called us to the obedience of faith and promised that He will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. We rehearse for His second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom He finds watchful and ready. In a sense, every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every Mass the following prayer is said: Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.

This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for His glorious return. Only He can deliver us, free us from our sin, and remove our anxiety about that day. Only He can give us joy and make us holy. We need only yield to His saving work.

This brings us back to where we started: yearning for our savior. To yearn for Him is to know how much we need Him, to seek His face and call upon His name constantly. Cry out with the Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)

Watch! A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent

The Sunday Gospel announces a critical Advent theme: While I want to comment primarily on the Reading from Isaiah, the Gospel admonition surely deserves some attention as well.

Too many today hold the unbiblical idea that most if not all people are going to Heaven. For weeks now we have been reading parables in the Gospels in which the Lord Jesus warns that many (possibly even most) are not headed for Heaven. There are the wise and the foolish virgins, the industrious and the lazy servants, and the sheep and the goats. Today’s Gospel features those who keep watch and those who do not.

Although many prefer to brush aside the teachings on judgment or the teaching that many will be lost, Jesus says, “Watch!” to all of us. In other words, we should watch out; we should be serious, sober, and prepared for death and judgment. We must realize that our choices in this life are leading somewhere.

Some try to tame, domesticate, and reinvent Jesus, but it is not this fake Jesus whom they will meet. They will meet the real Jesus, the Jesus who warns repeatedly of the reality of judgment and the strong possibility of Hell. The beginning of Advent is an especially important time to heed Jesus’ admonition and realize our need to be saved.

This leads us to the today’s 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. In the end, Isaiah reminds us of our dignity. Let’s look at each of these ailments in turn and then ponder our dignity.

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 gradually. It is relatively rare for someone to suddenly decide to reject God, especially if he was raised with some faith. Rather, what usually happens is that we just drift away, wander off course. It is like the captain of a ship who stops paying close attention. The boat drifts farther and farther off course. At first, no one notices, but the cumulative effect is that the boat is now headed in the wrong direction. The captain did not suddenly turn the wheel and shift 180 degrees; he just stopped paying attention and began to drift bit by bit.

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; many of them cannot point to a single incident or moment when they walked out of Church and said, “I’m never coming back.” More common is that they just gradually fell away from the practice of the faith. They missed Mass on Sunday here and 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 away.

The thing about drifting is that the further off course you get, the harder it is to get back on course. It seems like an increasingly monumental task 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. 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. Somehow it is “His fault” for letting us wander because He allows us to do it. It is true that God made us free and that 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.

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.

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, we are dismissive, even scoffing.

This tendency 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, not 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 weighed on a scale. What most moderns are really doing is more specific: rejecting God and the demands of faith. “Because we cannot see Him with our eyes, He is not there. Therefore, we may do as we please.”

Isaiah gives voice to the human demand to see on our own terms. We demand signs and wonders before 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. Many who did see miracles (e.g., the Hebrew people in the desert), saw but still gave way to doubt. Many who saw Jesus work miracles fled at the first sign of trouble or as soon as He said something that displeased them. Our flesh demands to see, but in the end, even after seeing we often refuse to believe.

Further, God does not usually do the “biggie-wow” things to impress us. Satan does overwhelm us in this way. God, however, is a quiet and persistent lover who respectfully and delicately works in us—if we let Him. It is Satan who roars at us with temptation, fear, and sheer volume, so that we are distracted and confused. More often, God is that still, small voice speaking in 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. We need a Savior, to give us a new heart and mind, attuned to the small still voice of God in a strident world.

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) here describes our deformed state in the following ways.

Unthinking – the text says that we are “unmindful” of God. Indeed, our minds are very weak. We can go for long periods so turned in on ourselves that we barely if ever think of God. Our thoughts are focused on things that are passing, while almost wholly forgetful of God and Heaven, which remain forever. It is so easy for our senseless minds to be darkened. Our culture has “kicked God to the curb.” There are even fewer reminders of Him today than there were in previous generations. We desperately need God to save us and to give us new minds. Come, Lord Jesus!

Unhappy – the text says of God “You are angry.” But we need to remember that the “wrath of God” is more in us than it is in God. God’s anger is His passion to set things right. God is not moody or prone to egotistical rage. More often than not, it is we who project our own unhappiness and anger upon God. The “wrath of God” is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state with 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, and scornful. We need God to give us a new heart. Come, Lord Jesus!

Undistinguished – the text says, we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people. We are called to be holy. That is, we are called to be “set apart,” distinguished from the sinful world around us. Too often, though, we are indistinguishable. We do not shine forth like a light in the darkness. We seem little different than the pagan world around us. We divorce, fornicate, fail to forgive, support abortion, contracept, and fail the poor in numbers indistinguishable from those who do not know God. We do not seem joyful, serene, or alive. We look like just like everyone 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, collectively speaking we have no passion for God. We get all worked up about politics, sports, the lottery, and television shows; but when it comes to God, many can barely rouse themselves to go to Mass, pray, or read Scripture. We seem to find time for everything but God.

Here, too, Isaiah gives voice to the human tendency to blame God. He says, 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 heart and our priorities are out of whack. We need a savior to give us a new heart, a 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. While Isaiah has given voice to our tendency to direct anger at and blame God, here he gives voice to another tendency of ours: turning in on ourselves.

Our good deeds are described as polluted rags. While they may be less than they could be, calling them polluted rags gives voice to our own frustration with our seemingly hopeless situation and our addiction to sin and injustice.

Ultimately, the devil wants us to diminish what little good we can find in ourselves. He wants us to be locked into a depressed and angry state. If we think there is no good in us at all, then we think “Why even bother?”

There is such a thing as unhealthy guilt (cf 2 Cor 7:10-11) and self-loathing that is not of God, but from the devil, our accuser. It may well be this that Isaiah articulates here. From such depressed self-loathing (masquerading as piety) we need a savior. Come, Lord Jesus!

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 mediate on that need.

Isaiah ends on a final note that takes the song from the key of D minor to the key of D major.

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 one. God has so loved us that He sent His Son, who is not ashamed to call us brethren.

We are not forsaken. In Advent we call upon a Father who loves us. 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 will fix and fashion us well. Help is on the way!