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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic tradition sees evidence here of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. To be sure, many other questions are raised by this resolution. Why would two people get married and then live as virgins? Were such arrangements common at that time? (It would seem not.)

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

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

Protestants and others who deny Mary’s perpetual virginity have some thinking to do. Mary’s question is neither meaningless nor naïve. It is a true question with a true context and it ought to be respected as at least pointing to her virginity even if it does not prove it.

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

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

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

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

Consider this magnificent passage from Isaiah:

I am God there is no other. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand. I accomplish my every purpose. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it and I will do it. Listen to me you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give my glory to Israel (Isaiah 46:12ff).

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

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

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

Late Advent Messages from God to His People

The Prophet Isaiah, by Lorenzo Monaco (1405-10)

As the end of Advent approaches, the Office of Readings features some final admonitions from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. On the one hand they console; on the other, they challenge us to remain firm.

Isaiah addressed a people in exile who still awaited the first coming of the Lord. Today, these texts speak to us in difficult times when, exiled from Heaven, we await His magnificent Second Coming.

Let’s look at these admonitions from the Lord (Isaiah 46:3-13), which were addressed to three different groups in ancient Israel. However, let’s apply them to three groups in our own times: the faithful remnant, the foolish rebels, and the fainthearted at risk.

To the Faithful RemnantHear me, O house of Jacob, all who remain of the house of Israel, my burden since your birth, whom I have carried from your infancy. Even to your old age I am the same, even when your hair is gray I will bear you; It is I who have done this, I who will continue, and I who will carry you to safety.

This is directed to the devoted, to the remnant, to those who remain after the cultural revolution in our times, to those sometimes discouraged and sorrowful over the infidelity of loved ones and of the world around them. To these (often the elderly among us who remember a more faithful even if imperfect time) the Lord first speaks.

In effect, He says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Who are the mournful? They are those who see the awful state of God’s people: not glorifying the Lord in their lives, not knowing why they were made, spending themselves on what neither matters nor satisfies. Yes, those who mourn shall be strengthened, and, as their sorrow has motivated them to pray and work for the kingdom, they shall be borne to safety.

Such as these, the faithful remnant, should never forget that God has carried them from the beginning, even in the strength of their prime. Now, reduced by age, they are still carried by the Lord. He has never forgotten them and will carry them to safety; their faith in difficult times will be rewarded.

To The Foolish Rebels Remember this and bear it well in mind, you rebels; remember the former things, those long ago: I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is none like me. Whom would you compare me with, as an equal, or match me against, as though we were alike? There are those who pour out gold from a purse and weigh out silver on the scales; Then they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god before which they fall down in worship. They lift it to their shoulders to carry; when they set it in place again, it stays, and does not move from the spot. Although they cry out to it, it cannot answer; it delivers no one from distress.

The word “rebel” is from the Latin re (again) + bellum (war). In this context it refers to those who are forever at war with God and His plan for their lives. They foolishly forget His saving deeds. They imagine vain things: that there are other gods or entities that could save them. Even more foolishly, they craft other “gods” that they have to lift upon their shoulders to carry.

Many in our day act in the same way: always at war with God, His Church, and His plan. As G.K. Chesterton once noted, when people stop believing in God, it is not that they will believe in nothing but that they will believe in anything. Chesterton also wrote that when we break God’s big laws, we don’t get liberty; we get small laws. We transfer our trust away from God to false, crafted gods like government, or science, or the market. We hope that they will carry us, but we end up carrying the weight of these gods on our own shoulders. We carry this weight in the form of taxes, debt, and anxiety about everything in our health or environment (demanded by the increasingly politicized scientific and medical communities).

Science, the market, and government are not intrinsically evil, but they are not gods, either. They cannot deliver us from ourselves; only God can do that. To the many who rebelliously and foolishly persist with their “non-gods,” He says, “I am God; there is no other.”

To the Fainthearted at Risk Listen to me, you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give to Israel my glory. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand, I accomplish my every purpose. I call from the east a bird of prey, from a distant land, one to carry out my plan. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it, and I will do it.

Among the faithful there are some who are at risk, who are nearly ready to give up. God encourages them, but also warns that His plan will stand whether or not they endure. Thus there is an implicit warning from Jesus here (and an explicit warning elsewhere) that we must persevere. Jesus says that because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved (Matt 24:12-13).

St. Augustine wrote, [God has] devised a plan, a great and wonderful plan … All this had therefore to be prophesied, foretold, and impressed on us as an event in the future, in order that we might wait for it in faith, and not find it as a sudden and dreadful reality (From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop (In ps. 109, 1-3: CCL 40, 1601-1603)).

God’s plan will stand whether or not we do. We must stand as well, even when we want to faint or fall back. Our love must not grow cold nor our strength fail. God has triumphed and Satan has lost. We must choose with whom we will stand.

The evidence of the present age does not seem to show this, but as Scripture reminds us,

Therefore, we do not lose heart … So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-17).

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 Jn 2:16-17).

Here, then, are some final instructions from the Lord this Advent, instructions for us who wait for Him: be faithful; the plan will come to pass. Do not be a foolish rebel, nor one of the at-risk fainthearted. Rather, be part of the faithful remnant. St. Paul says, Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved” (Romans 9:27).

The song performed in the clip below is entitled “Lord Help Me to Hold Out.”

Best Advent Hymn! I Wonder If You’ve Ever Heard of It

dec8-blogFor my money, the best Advent hymn ever is Veni Redemptor Gentium (Come Redeemer of the Nations), written by St. Ambrose in the 4th century. It is more widely known by the title “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth.” Sadly, it is not often sung in Catholic parishes today. Most Catholics I’ve asked have never even heard of it.

One of the beautiful things about the ancient Latin hymns is how richly theological they are. Not content to merely describe an event, they give sweeping theological vision and delve into its more hidden mysteries.

Here we are in Advent and Jesus is coming. Get ready! Well, yes, but He’s not just coming; He’s redeeming, dying, rising, ascending, and reigning at the Father’s right hand! But how can you squeeze all of that into an Advent hymn? Well, just below you can read the text and see.

Full vision – For now, ponder the theological point that hymns like this make: no act of God can be reduced merely to the act in itself. Everything God does is part of His sweeping master plan to restore all things in Christ, to take back what the devil stole from us. Too often we see the events of our redemption in a disconnected sort of way. But it is all really one thing and the best theology connects the dots. It is not wrong for us to focus on one thing or another, but we must not forget that it is all one thing in the end.

Without this reminder, we can easily develop a kind of myopia that overemphasizes one aspect of redemption at the expense of others. In the 1970s and 1980s it was “all resurrection all the time,” but no passion or death.

Christmas, too, has its hazards. We get rather sentimental about the “baby Jesus” but miss other important aspects of his incarnation. The passion and death are present in His birth into homeless poverty, the swaddling clothes, the flight into Egypt, and so forth. The Eucharist is evident in His birth at Bethlehem (House of Bread) and His being laid in a manger (a feed box for animals). His glory as God and His ultimate triumph are manifested in the star overhead and the angels’ declaration of glory! You see, it is all tied together, and the best theology connects the dots.

With that in mind, I present this wonderful Advent hymn, so seldom sung in our Catholic parishes. It can be sung to any Long Meter (LM) tune but is usually sung to its own melody (“Puer Natus”). You can find this melody in the index of most hymnals. I provide below only the English translation, but both the Latin and the English are available in this document: Veni Redemptor Gentium. I think the poetic translation reprinted below is a minor masterpiece of English literature and hope that you’ll agree. Enjoy this sweeping theological vision of the mystery of Advent caught up into the grand and fuller vision of redemption.

Among the theological truths treated in this brief hymn are these: His title as Redeemer, His birth to a virgin, His inclusion of the Gentiles, His sinlessness, His two natures in one person, His incarnation at conception, His passion, His death, His descent into Hell, His ascension, His seat at the Father’s right hand, His divinity and equality with the Father, His healing and sanctification of our humanity so wounded by sin, His granting us freedom and eternal life, His renewing of our minds through the light of faith, and His opening of Heaven to us.

Not bad for a mere seven verses! St. Ambrose, pray for us!

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come manifest thy virgin birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The Virgin’s womb that glory gained,
Its virgin honor is still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

From God the Father he proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds;
Runs out his course to death and hell,
Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.

O Equal to thy Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud, eternal Son, to thee
Whose advent sets thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.

This video below gives you an idea of what the tune for Veni Redemptor Gentium sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different from what is shown above, but the tune is perfect. Just try not to dance as it is sung!

Arise and Go Home – A Mid-Advent Reflection on What Our Savior Offers

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

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

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

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

Return – The Lord tells him to go home. In other words, make your journey back to God, back to your true home in the heart of the Father. Sin had separated us from God and driven a wedge between us, but now the veil in the Temple has been torn from top to bottom. Through Jesus, we have access to the Father. Like prodigal sons, we are now heading home. Look off in the distance—it is the Father, running to us to greet us! By offering forgiveness for our sins, Jesus has opened the gates of Heaven and restored us to a right and just relationship with His Father. If we accept this gift and celebrate it regularly, our return is well underway; it is just over the next hill (Calvary). Just beyond is the heavenly Zion. I rejoiced when I heard them say, “Let us go to the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1).

Look for Christ in Advent and Do Not Be Dismayed

Wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.”

During Advent we are reminded to look to Christ and ask for His presence in our life so that we can become deeper, brighter, and richer by His grace. One of our unfortunate tendencies is to be dismayed by the world around us. We must be soberly aware of both the events and conditions in our world—sober, not drunk with excessive attention on 24/7 news feeds.

In our spiritual lives, too, we ought to be careful not to become consumed with lesser things and end up “majoring in all the minors.” We should be soberly grateful for signs and wonders such as the Shroud of Turin, the miraculous Tilma of Guadalupe, and the approved apparitions of our Lady. Special appreciation was given this past year to Our Lady of Fatima and to how presciently she set forth the struggles of our current age. Our Lady of Akita (Japan) also spoke very accurately to the current travails in the Church.

Here, too, sober gratefulness does not mean being drunk with an excessive preoccupation with the details of apparitions, miracles, and messages. Indeed, our Lady’s most basic message always boils down to this: Listen to my Son and do whatever He tells you. The basic meat and potatoes, the pure wine of the Christian, is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to look to Him, listen to Him, and judge everything by what He has taught us through His apostles in the New Testament and the teachings of the Church.

St. John of the Cross gives the following advice in a passage we read in this week’s Office of Readings:

Under the ancient law prophets and priests sought from God revelations and visions which indeed they needed, for faith had as yet no firm foundation and the gospel law had not yet been established. Their seeking and God’s responses were necessary. He spoke to them at one time through words and visions and revelations, at another in signs and symbols. But [these] were either partial glimpses of the whole or sure movements toward it.

But now that faith is rooted in Christ, and the law of the gospel has been proclaimed in this time of grace, there is no need to seek him in the former manner, nor for him so to respond. By giving us, as he did, his Son, his only Word, he has in that one Word said everything. There is no need for any further revelation.

This is the true meaning of Paul’s words to the Hebrews when he urged them to abandon their earlier ways of conversing with God, as laid down in the law of Moses, and set their eyes on Christ alone: In the past God spoke to our fathers through the prophets in various ways and manners; but now in our times, the last days, he has spoken to us in his Son. In effect, Paul is saying that God has spoken so completely through his own Word that he chooses to add nothing … he has now said everything in Christ.

Therefore, [to] anyone who wished to question God or to seek some new vision … God could then answer: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; hear him. In my Word I have already said everything. Fix your eyes on him alone for in him I have revealed all and in him you will find more than you could ever ask for or desire (St John of the Cross, the Ascent of Mount Carmel Lib 2, cap. 22).

This, then, is the substantial food of teaching and understanding: Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, ascended and reigning; the Lord of history and of all that is.

This, too, is the truest message of our Lady: Listen to my Son if you seek blessings; if you fail to listen to Him, expect nothing but disaster—one you bring upon yourself.

During Advent this salutary reminder continues: Look to Christ. Let Him be born into your life. Listen to Him and allow Him to grow within you. Although He may come to you as an infant, He seeks to draw you to maturity. Be sober but not dismayed by the roaring and raging of this world. Christ has already conquered.

 

Walking Toward the Light in Advent

Many people think of Advent merely in terms of pre-Christmas activities: office parties, shopping, decorating, and so forth. In the Church, though, Advent is something of a penitential period, a time of preparation for both the Christmas Feast and the Second Coming of the Lord. The purple vestments represent penance. The faithful are encouraged to go to Confession and the liturgical texts and readings emphasize readying for the coming of the Lord.

The theme of preparation (and much of the season itself) is couched in the dramatic struggle between light and darkness. This makes sense (at least in the northern hemisphere, where the darkness deepens and the days grow shorter). In these darkest days, we light candles and sing hymns that speak of the light that will come: Jesus, the true Light of the World. Let’s take a look at Advent in three ways.

I. The Symbols of Darkness and Light – Outside, there is a great drama of light and darkness unfolding before us. The light is giving way to darkness. Here in the northern hemisphere, the days are getting very short, and they’re going to get even shorter. In Washington, D.C. (where I live) it is dark by 5:00 PM. On cloudy days, it is nearly dark by 4:00 PM. My brothers both live farther north: one in St. Paul and the other in Seattle. It gets dark even earlier there. There’s even a famous quote (attributed to Yogi Berra), “It’s getting late early out there.”

For us who live in modern times, the drama is less obvious. It is little more than an annoyance, as it means that we must switch on the lights earlier. But think of those who lived not long before us in an age before electrical lights. Perhaps it was possible to huddle near a candle, oil lamp, or fire, but the darkness put a real stop to most things. Neither work, nor reading, nor most forms of recreation could take place. Darkness was a significant factor in their daily lives.

Some years ago, during a widespread power outage, I was struck at just how incredibly dark it was outside at night without the streetlights and the lights emanating from homes. Frankly, it was hard to venture out. I lost my bearings quickly and stumbled over some simple things like a curb and a fencepost. We moderns just aren’t used to this.

Here in a “deep and dark December,” the light continues to recede. The spiritual impact of this drama of light is brought into the Church. Our hymns turn to images of light. The darker it gets, the more candles we light on the Advent wreath. In the darkest days of December, our Advent wreath is at its brightest. As Scripture says, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it … (John 1:5).

As the drama of light and darkness outside continues, we arrive at December 21st and 22nd—the shortest, darkest days of the year. By December 23rd, the ancients could detect a slight return of the light.

Then, on December 24th, in the middle of one of the longest nights of the year, the liturgy of Christmas begins: Christ is born and on December 25th a new light shines. From then on, the days get longer.

Yes, a great drama of light is unfolding before us. It is Advent. It is a time to recognize our need for the light and just how precious Jesus, the Light of the World, is. Ponder, in these darkest days, the beauty of the light. There are so many Advent hymns that set forth the dramatic images of light, darkness, and expectancy. They are too numerous to list here, but here are some examples if you are interested: Advent Hymns That Speak to the Light.

II. Our Stance to the Light and Darkness – Ultimately we are either facing the light and welcoming Him, or facing the darkness. These are the only two stances possible. There is no third way. Are you walking in the light or are you standing in the darkness?

Scripture warns in many places about the two ways of light and darkness, admonishing us to stand and walk in the light. Here are just a few:

  • Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Ro 13:11-14).
  • But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him. Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing (1 Th 5:1-11).
  • The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Mt 6:22-24)
  • And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Pt 1:19).

Thus, we are warned what time it is, that judgment draws ever closer, and that we must walk and stand with the light and not be like those in darkness. The Advent season acknowledges the reality of deepening darkness and that we must all the more run to the coming light, Jesus. We must walk in the light of His truth as set forth in His word, the teachings of the Church, and creation. We must seek the enlightenment of the Sacraments and live in honesty, integrity, and mutual fellowship with the Lord’s Body, the Church. This is to be our moral stance: toward the light and away from the darkness.

III. The Summons to the Light – Having laid out the great drama of light and darkness and heard that we should take a stand for and toward the light, we note that Advent also proclaims, through a series of biblical texts and prayers, a warning to those who either reject the light outright or just fail to prepare for it. Here are just a few biblical texts:

  • Therefore, I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light (Ho 6:5).
  • ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish maidens said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (Mt 25:6-11).
  • For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings (Mal 4:1-2).
  • For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God (Jn 3:16-21).

There is not sufficient time in this brief post to comment on each of these texts except to say that each summons us to the light in a spirit of readiness, having first prepared ourselves by becoming accustomed to the light and the fire of God’s love. If we are not ready, the light will seem blinding and the fiery love unbearable; we will recoil in wrath rather than rejoice in wonder.

Pay attention to these Advent themes. It’s getting late very early these days. Consider this a warning from the natural world (the Book of Creation), which the Church picks up in her liturgy. Prepare the way of the Lord! Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Walk in the light! If we do, light, all glorious and unending, will be ours:

There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever (Re 22:3–5).

This is our future, if we are faithful and allow the Lord to enlighten us now so that we can love the future light of incomprehensible brightness. Walk in the Light!

A blessed Advent to all.

Run to Jesus! An Advent Reflection

adventThe Lord’s coming is near. And though we have all been well taught that the word “Advent” means “coming,” there is the danger that we think that we are only passively waiting for Him to come. It is not just that the Lord is coming to us; we are also journeying to Him. In fact, as the Advent prayers in the Roman Missal instruct, we ought to run, not walk, and hasten to greet Him as He draws near.

This notion of running to meet God is set forth as a consistent theme in the prayers of the Roman Missal. Consider the following prayers and how the theme of our hastening to go out to meet God, even as He is coming to us, is set forth:

  1. Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom (First Sunday of Advent).
  2. Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company (Second Sunday of Advent).
  3. Stir up your mighty power, O Lord, and come to our help with a mighty strength, so that what our sins impede, the grace of your mercy may hasten (Thursday of the First Week of Advent).
  4. Grant that your people, we pray, almighty God, may be ever watchful for the coming of your Only Begotten Son, that, as the author of our salvation himself has taught us, we may hasten, alert with lighted lamps, to meet him when he comes (Friday of the Second Week of Advent).
  5. May the reception of your sacrament strengthen us O Lord, so that we may go out to meet our savior, with worthy deeds when he comes, and merit the rewards of the blessed (Post-communion, Dec 22).

So, more than merely waiting passively, we should be running and hastening to meet the Lord.

The image of the prodigal son comes to mind. In this parable, the father sees his son and runs toward him. But at the same time, the son is hastening toward his father with contrition and hope. In the same way, we look for the Lord’s coming during Advent. But the Lord also looks for us to come to Him by faith. Like the prodigal son, we should consider our need for salvation. With contrition (have you been to confession recently?) we should hasten to meet our Lord, who by faith we know is coming to us.

Thus, we are not counseled to wait for the Lord in a passive sense, as though we were sitting around waiting for a bus to arrive. Rather, we are counseled to wait for the Lord in an active sense, in much the same way that a waiter in a restaurant waits on tables. Alert and aware, the waiter carefully observes the needs of the patrons in his care and serves them. Good waiters strive to avoid distraction and to do their job of serving well with an alert swiftness.

Notice, too, how the prayers above indicate what it means to run to the Lord. We should not run aimlessly or in circles. Rather, running to the Lord means

  1. being engaged in righteous deeds (holiness) by God’s grace,
  2. not being hindered by worldly preoccupations and distractions,
  3. learning heavenly wisdom,
  4. receiving the Lord’s mercy unto the forgiveness of our sins,
  5. being alert and ready for the Lord’s coming, with the lamp of our soul trimmed (humble and purged of sin) and burning (alive with fiery love), and
  6. being strengthened by the Eucharist, which is our food for the journey.

St. Paul also speaks of running:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I discipline my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor 9:24-27).

Are you running to meet the Lord or are you just waiting passively? Advent involves looking and waiting, but it also means running to meet the Lord, who is coming to us. Run, don’t walk, to the nearing Jesus!

The name of the piece in the clip below is Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina (Lord, make haste to help me). It was composed by Antonio Vivaldi and its series of eighth notes create the image of energetic, joyful running. Vivaldi loved to run a melody up and down the musical scale. In this piece he created a sense of running up and down the hills as we hasten to the Lord. (The video below goes on to include the Gloria Patri.) Just try not to tap your toe during the first and third movements of the Vespers of Vivaldi in G Major!

Preparing our Hearts for Mystery in Advent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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