The Lord’s coming is near. And though we have all been well taught that the word “Advent” means “coming,” there is the danger that we think that we are only passively waiting for Him to come. It is not just that the Lord is coming to us; we are also journeying to Him. In fact, as the Advent prayers in the Roman Missal instruct, we ought to run, not walk, and hasten to greet Him as He draws near.
This notion of running to meet God is set forth as a consistent theme in the prayers of the Roman Missal. Consider the following prayers and how the theme of our hastening to go out to meet God, even as He is coming to us, is set forth:
Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom (First Sunday of Advent).
Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company (Second Sunday of Advent).
Stir up your mighty power, O Lord, and come to our help with a mighty strength, so that what our sins impede, the grace of your mercy may hasten (Thursday of the First Week of Advent).
Grant that your people, we pray, almighty God, may be ever watchful for the coming of your Only Begotten Son, that, as the author of our salvation himself has taught us, we may hasten, alert with lighted lamps, to meet him when he comes (Friday of the Second Week of Advent).
May the reception of your sacrament strengthen us O Lord, so that we may go out to meet our savior, with worthy deeds when he comes, and merit the rewards of the blessed (Post-communion, Dec 22).
So, more than merely waiting passively, we should be running and hastening to meet the Lord.
The image of the prodigal son comes to mind. In this parable, the father sees his son and runs toward him. But at the same time, the son is hastening toward his father with contrition and hope. In the same way, we look for the Lord’s coming during Advent. But the Lord also looks for us to come to Him by faith. Like the prodigal son, we should consider our need for salvation. With contrition (have you been to confession recently?) we should hasten to meet our Lord, who by faith we know is coming to us.
Thus, we are not counseled to wait for the Lord in a passive sense, as though we were sitting around waiting for a bus to arrive. Rather, we are counseled to wait for the Lord in an active sense, in much the same way that a waiter in a restaurant waits on tables. Alert and aware, the waiter carefully observes the needs of the patrons in his care and serves them. Good waiters strive to avoid distraction and to do their job of serving well with an alert swiftness.
Notice, too, how the prayers above indicate what it means to run to the Lord. We should not run aimlessly or in circles. Rather, running to the Lord means
being engaged in righteous deeds (holiness) by God’s grace,
not being hindered by worldly preoccupations and distractions,
learning heavenly wisdom,
receiving the Lord’s mercy unto the forgiveness of our sins,
being alert and ready for the Lord’s coming, with the lamp of our soul trimmed (humble and purged of sin) and burning (alive with fiery love), and
being strengthened by the Eucharist, which is our food for the journey.
St. Paul also speaks of running:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I discipline my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor 9:24-27).
Are you running to meet the Lord or are you just waiting passively? Advent involves looking and waiting, but it also means running to meet the Lord, who is coming to us. Run, don’t walk, to the nearing Jesus!
The name of the piece in the clip below is Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina (Lord, make haste to help me). It was composed by Antonio Vivaldi and its series of eighth notes create the image of energetic, joyful running. Vivaldi loved to run a melody up and down the musical scale. In this piece he created a sense of running up and down the hills as we hasten to the Lord. (The video below goes on to include the Gloria Patri.) Just try not to tap your toe during the first and third movements of the Vespers of Vivaldi in G Major!
Part of the genius of the African-American spirituals is their ability to treat serious themes such as the final judgment in a creatively compelling manner that steers a middle course between unproductive fear and prideful presumption. Some of them are even playful: “I would not be a sinner. I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die!” Another spiritual says, “Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe. If you don’t watch, he’ll slip it on you!” Yet another warns with love, “In that great gettin’ up morning, fare you well, fare you well! Oh, fare you well poor sinner, fare you well!”
Some of the early African-American hymns from the late 19th century also draw heavily on this tradition. One such hymn is “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?” by Charles P. Jones (1865-1949). The hymn consists in applying the question “Where shall I be?” to a litany of biblically based descriptions of the Second Coming of Jesus, when He will judge the world by fire. Each verse is steeped in rich, biblical tradition. Together, they provide us with a series of good Advent reflections, all rooted in the essential Advent focus of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus.
When I sing it along with my congregation each Advent, I am reminded of the familiar themes of another masterpiece: the ancient “Dies Irae.” That hymn is also richly biblical and I have written about it on the blog in the past (HERE).
Let’s look at each line of “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds.” I provide some biblical background for each line.
Here is the hymn in toto, followed by a line-by-line analysis, including biblical references and some brief commentary. Since this is a long post I have made it available here as a PDF: Where will you be when the first trumpet sounds. You can listen to the hymn in the video at the bottom of the post.
When judgment day is drawing nigh,
Where shall I be?
When God the works of men shall try,
Where shall I be?
When east and west the fire shall roll,
Where shall I be?
How will it be with my poor soul:
Where shall I be?
O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds,
O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?
When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead?
O where shall I be when it sounds?
When wicked men His wrath shall see,
Where shall I be?
And to the rocks and mountains flee,
Where shall I be?
When hills and mountains flee away,
Where shall I be?
When all the works of man decay,
Where shall I be?
When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll,
Where shall I be?
Shall from God’s angry presence roll,
Where shall I be?
When all the saints redeemed shall stand,
Where shall I be?
Forever blest at God’s right hand,
Where shall I be?
1. When judgment day is drawing nigh, Where shall I be?
A.Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door (Matt 24:32-33). B.Do not grumble … The Judge is standing at the door! (James 5:9) C.Here I am! I stand at the door and knock (Rev 3:20). D.If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping (Mk 13:36). E.For, in just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay (Heb 10:37). F.While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape (1 Thess 5:3). G.Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!” (Rev 10:5-6) Comment: Judgment day is drawer nearer and nearer for us all. With each beat of our heart the moment edges closer. Are you ready for the Day of Judgment? What are you doing to get ready? The “Dies Irae” says, “Day of wrath and doom impending, Heaven and earth in ashes ending …” Do not delay your conversion to the Lord. The Lord has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:19-20).
2. When God the works of men shall try, Where shall I be?
A. Their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15). B.For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done (Matt 16:27). C.And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds (Rev 20:12). D.God will repay each person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger (Rom 2:6-8). E.But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). F. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-11). Comment:We will not be saved by our deeds but we will be judged by them, for the veracity of saving faith is made manifest by its work. As Jesus attests, The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil (Matt 12:35). Hence, our works shall be tried by God. That is, they shall be judged by the Lord Jesus, to whom we must render an account. The “Dies Irae” says, “Lo the book exactly worded, wherein all hath been recorded, thence shall judgement be awarded.”
3. When east and west the fire shall roll, Where shall I be?
A. Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays (Mal 4:1-3). B.For behold, the LORD is coming forth from His place. He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under Him And the valleys will be split, Like wax before the fire, Like water poured down a steep place (Micah 1:3-4). C. By the wrath of the LORD Almighty the land will be scorched and the people will be fuel for the fire; they will not spare one another (Isaiah 9:19). D.For behold, the LORD will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the LORD will be many (Is 66:15-16). E.By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly … But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (2 Peter 7, 10-12). Comment: The only way to survive on the day of fire is to be fire yourself. Let God set you on fire with love and bring you up to the temperature of glory. Let God send tongues as of fire to enkindle in you the fire of His love.
4. How will it be with my poor soul: Where shall I be?
A. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? “And if it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good (1 Peter 4:17-19). Comment:While we can have confidence for the day of salvation, this confidence cannot be in our own ability. It must rest in the grace and mercy of God. We are all poor sinners, beggars before God. The “Dies Irae” says, “What for I fail sinner pleading, who for me be interceding, when the just are mercy needing?”
5. O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?
A. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Cor 15:52). B.Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Matt 24:30-31). C.For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16). D.The Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south (Zech 9:14). Comment: The trumpet summons all to judgement, some to glory and others to wrath. But all must come. This is an appointment that all must keep! The “Dies Irae” says, “Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth, Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth, all before the throne it bringeth.”
6. When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? O where shall I be when it sounds?
A. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt (Dan 12:1-2). B.And [The Father] He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment (Jn 5:27-29). C.For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Cor 15:52). Comment: Where will you be? Will you be with the righteous or with the wicked, with the Saint or the aints? Everyone will rise, but to entirely different realities. Where shall I be?
7. When wicked men His wrath shall see, Where shall I be?
A. “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them” (Mal 4:1). B.By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:7). C.The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18). D.You formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest (Eph 2:2-3). E.You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:9-10). Comment: Are you getting this? The Day of Judgment is going to be bad for the wicked. They will experience God’s wrath. And what is God’s wrath? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sin in the presence of God’s holiness. It is like fire and water coming together. They cannot coexist; there is a fundamental conflict and one has to give way. So it is with sin in the presence of God—no can do. Only Jesus can give us the capacity to stand before God’s utter sanctity. Only Jesus can rescue us from the coming wrath. The “Dies Irae” says, “When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded: Call me with thy saints surrounded.”
8. And to the rocks and mountains flee, Where shall I be? When hills and mountains flee away, Where shall I be?
A. As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us! and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26-31) B.Men will go into caves of the rocks And into holes of the ground Before the terror of the LORD And the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble (Is 2:19). C.Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17) Comment: You can’t run from God because He’s already there. There will be no escape, no postponing the Day of Judgment.
9. When all the works of man decay, Where shall I be?
A. Each man’s work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15). B.But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up (2 Peter 3:10). C.Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down” (Matt 24:2). Comment: All things of man shall pass away, including all our works. Only what we do for Christ will last. Jesus says, You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you (Jn 15:16). Only what you do for Christ will last. All other works will decay.
10. When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll, Where shall I be? Shall from God’s angry presence roll, Where shall I be?
A. Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies … the mountains will be soaked with their blood. All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves (Isaiah 34:1-4). B.The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night (Rev 8:12). Comment:The “Dies Irae” says, “Death is struck and nature quaking, All creation is awaking, To its judge and answer making.” Come on now, if even the stars are struck and must answer, who are we to make light of judgement?
11. When all the saints redeemed shall stand, Where shall I be? Forever blest at God’s right hand, Where shall I be?
A. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness (Mal 3:2). B. Wherefore … having done all to stand, Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints (Ephesians 6:10-18). C. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’” (Matt 25:31-33). Comment: The Dies Irae says, “With thy sheep a place provide me, From the goats afar divide me, To thy right hand do thou guide me. When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded: Call me with thy saints surrounded.”
Yes, it’s quite a song, so rich in biblical allusion! Like the “Dies Irae,” it references many scriptures quite vividly and creatively. And like so many of the spirituals, it is able to combine them in ways that are almost celebratory. The hymn is usually sung in an upbeat manner; in my parish we clap hands as we sing.
At the end of the day the question remains: Where shall I be? Will I be among the righteous in glory, or among the sinful and unrepentant in Hell? Where, poor sinners that we are, shall you and I be? Thanks be to God for His grace and mercy, which help us to stand a chance.
But as with all offers of God, grace and mercy are accessed only through repentance.
This song, like the more ancient “Dies Irae,” could not be more clear: we are hastening to the Day of Judgment, a day about which to be sober and ready. Are you ready? Where shall you be when the first trumpet sounds?
The very first reading for Advent in the Office of Readings of the Breviary is a text from Isaiah Chapter 1. As such, it sounds a kind of keynote for the season, which is penitential in tone. In effect, the reading sets forth the need for a savior, as it vividly describes our sinful condition. We’ve got it bad and that ain’t good. But praise the Lord, there is a doctor on the way. His name is Emmanuel; His name is Jesus, which means “God saves.”
Let’s look at this keynote reading of Advent in five stages.
I. Distant Sons– Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for the Lord speaks: Sons have I raised and reared, but they have disowned me! An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood. Ah! sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children! They have forsaken the Lord, spurned the Holy One of Israel, apostatized (Is 1:2-4).
At the heart of most of our troubles is that we have distanced ourselves from God. Sometimes this is through forgetfulness rooted in a dullness of mind. Culturally in the West we have moved God to the periphery by an increasingly strident secularism. We are distant children. Collectively speaking, we have disowned our Father: the God who made us and who enables us to do everything we have done.
In so doing, we are cutting ourselves off from the very source of our power and achievement. This, of course, is the height of foolishness. Consider a fan that has just been unplugged. At first the blades continue to spin and the fan may “think” that all is well. But gradually the blades move more and more slowly. Eventually, they stop completely. It is this way with us as well.
Most of us believers are rightly concerned that our culture, having been unmoored, is becoming just as God described faithless ancient Israel: a sinful nation laden with wickedness, evil, and corruption. No age of this “paradise lost” has ever been sinless, but increasingly we cannot even get consensus on the most basic moral issues: that killing infants in the womb is wrong, that homosexual acts are disordered, and that promiscuity is unhealthy for the body and the culture. Even the most rudimentary understanding of biology shows that a life in the womb is a human baby and that homosexual acts are not meant to be (the parts don’t fit and the full purpose of sex is impossible). And clearly promiscuity brings disease. And this is just the biological evidence. Even a high school biology student can figure out that these practices are misguided.
But so deep is our confusion, that even the most obvious aspects of things evade us as we get lost in our rationalizations and foolish attempts to justify what we know, deep down, is wrong. Yes, unplugged from God, we get a little slow in our thinking.
The Lord goes on to compare His distant children to oxen and donkeys. Yes, even they are smarter than some of us, for they know their owner and who feeds them. Are you and I smarter than a donkey or an ox? There is a reason our nativity sets usually feature a donkey and a cow. They were there for the birth of Christ, but we had no room for him in the inn.
So the first reason we need a savior is that we tend to stray from God. And having strayed, we get lost in more ways than one. God has to come find us, just as in the garden when the first couple sinned He went through the Garden calling, “Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9) So now He seeks us, His distant children.
II. Disease-Struck – Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot to the head there is no sound spot: Wound and welt and gaping gash, not drained, or bandaged, or eased with salve(Isaiah 1:5-6).
This is a bad situation. The Lord says simply, “There is no sound spot.” The damage caused by sin is enormous and the Lord describes it sickening terms: wounds; welts; and horrifying, pus-filled, gaping gashes.
We tend to make light of sin, but God does not. St. Paul put things more bluntly and tersely: “You were dead in your sins” (Eph 2:1).
But making light of our sins we stand there and continue to get struck; we continue to rebel. We ignore the body count of abortion, the toll that divorce and promiscuity take on children, the high price of greed, and the foolishness of casting aside God and His wisdom.
As God describes it, our stance is unreasonable and just plain stupid. We rebel, glory in evil things, and assert a false notion of freedom. But God says to us that if we could only see ourselves as He does, we would be sickened: gaping wounds and foul discharge.
Jesus said to Sister Faustina, You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror. … But because you are such great misery I have revealed to you the whole ocean of my mercy (Diary II. 718).
Here, then, is the second reason we need a savior: Our sins and stubbornness have made us wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev 3:17). We cannot save ourselves. Only with grace and mercy do we stand a chance. We need more than an angel; we need a savior.
III. Desolate Scene – Your country is waste, your cities burnt with fire. Your land before your eyes strangers devour, [a waste, like Sodom overthrown]—And daughter Zion is left like a hut in a vineyard, Like a shed in a melon patch, like a city blockaded. Unless the Lord of hosts had left us a scanty remnant, We had become as Sodom, we should be like Gomorrah (Is 1:7-9).
Ruined cultures eventually produced ruined cities and plundered landscapes. You don’t think it can happen today? Throughout the age of the Church, empires have risen and fallen, countries have come and gone, and powerful coalitions have gathered and fallen apart. None of them thought that they would collapse either. But they are all gone. Where is Rome? Where is the Napoleonic Empire? Where is the USSR? It was once said, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Now it does. The Church alone, by Christ’s promise, is indefectible. And she, too, needs often-severe purifications.
In the Bible the usual focus was on land, crops, and buildings. In our age, we speak of “economies.” But no matter what we call it, we cannot have strong economies or unless we are strong, true, consistent and disciplined. Our moral decline produces a decadence (from the Latin for “to be fallen down”) and a laziness.
We are even too lazy to have children. And thus the text above speaks of “strangers devouring your land.” Once-Christian Europe is soon to become a Muslim caliphate. Hagia Sophia became a mosque; will the great cathedrals of Europe go the same way?
In America the situation is more complex. Thankfully, most of our immigrants are Catholic Christians. But it does seem clear that our years of being an economic and political leader among the nations is fading; the thinning soil of our culture can little longer sustain the taller growths. Our economy has been stagnant for at least a decade now, and unemployment is shockingly high. There’s no telling where it will end up, but things don’t look very vigorous right now.
And here is the third reason we need a savior: to save us from the mess we’ve made and reinvigorate us with the things that make for healthy families, healthy communities, a healthy culture, and a healthy Church. We need rebuilding, reinvigoration, restoration, refocusing, and reformation.
IV. Disconnected Sacrifices – Hear the word of the Lord, princes of Sodom! Listen to the instruction of our God, people of Gomorrah! What care I for the number of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; In the blood of calves, lambs and goats I find no pleasure. When you come in to visit me, who asks these things of you? Trample my courts no more! Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me. New moon and sabbath, calling of assemblies, octaves with wickedness: these I cannot bear. Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load. When you spread out your hands, I close my eyes to you; Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow (Is 1:10-19).
Even our worship lacks integrity. That which is supposed to glorify God and bring forth in us a holy obedience has become lip service. God seeks hearts that are humble, docile, loving, and repentant. We cannot buy Him off by just singing hymns, saying a few prayers, or attending Mass. These things, good though they are, are meant to effect a conversion in us that makes us more loving of both God and neighbor, less violent, more just, more merciful, more generous to the poor, and more holy. Our worship should effect change in us such that we cease doing evil and learn to do good, we strive for justice, we address injustice, and we defend and help the poor.
An additional problem with our worship today is that God has become almost an afterthought. Much of our liturgy is self-centered, self-congratulatory, and anthropocentric (rather than theocentric). We are “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.” While the Mass should focus on God and summon us to humility and joy before Him, too often it seems more an exercise in pride and self-congratulation. We are very narcissistic, even in a communal setting.
God cannot be pleased with all of this. Even if our worship is rightly ordered, we are not going to buy God off. God wants an obedient heart more than sacrifice. Sacrifice without obedience is a sham.
This is the fourth reason we need a savior: We need God to restore our integrity and give us a new heart. We are “dis-integrated,” in the sense that pieces of our life that should be together (e.g., worship and obedience, liturgy and healing) are not. Too often our worship does just the opposite of what it should. Instead of drawing us more deeply into the love and obedience of God it becomes the very occasion of keeping God at a distance and seeking to placate him with superficial gestures. This makes our worship an insult and a lie. God doesn’t mince words in the passage above when He says how displeased He is with this.
We need God to give us a new heart, one that loves Him as well as the people and things that He loves. Only then will our worship will truly reflect the heart that God seeks: a loving, humble, and generous heart.
V. Desire to Save – Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Is 1:18-20).
God says that we should get started. Let the healing begin! And all the people must say,
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until you, O Lord, the Son of God appear.”
The following are five Advent reflections I prepared for catechumens and candidates in our RCIA program. (They are also available in PDF here: The Season of Advent.)
1. Advent is witnessed by creation – Late autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors, then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. Vacations and the warmth of summer are distant memories, and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and then pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has its delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the childlike excitement a winter storm can arouse. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, longing, and expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreaths and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our ongoing commitment to come out of the darkness into God’s own marvelous light (cf 1 Peter 2:9). There is a gospel song says, “Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright.”
2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this Messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so a cry from Israel went up:
O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil … We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people (Is 64:1-7).
In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come, yet we know that sin and injustice still have terrible effects on our lives and our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to set us free every day. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us; now we long for Him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of His glory.
3. Waiting for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This truth flows directly from Scripture, which clearly teaches two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second, we cannot know the day or the hour that He will return. In fact, though some signs will precede His coming, the emphasis of Scripture is on the suddenness of the event.
He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27).
… with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth … (1 Th. 5:3)
… in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet … (1 Cor 15:52)
It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44).
Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security” … (1 Th. 5:3)
Since this is the case, we must live in constant readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect on the necessity of our readiness. An old gospel song says, “Are you ready? Are you ready for the coming of the Lord?” Likewise, there is another gospel song that counsels, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!”
4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgment and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider, for example, this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).
Some of the imagery used here is reminiscent of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away, but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heaven and a new earth,” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American spiritual summarizes the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter with these classic lines: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.” Here, too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses it this way: “God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days, Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, Alleluia!” For the slaves, the day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, vindication, and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is to be living faithfully, holding on to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this, not only do we have nothing to fear about the last day, we can eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All of these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent, and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come. He has called us to the obedience of faith and promised that He will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. We rehearse for His second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom He finds watchful and ready. In a sense, every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every Mass the following prayer is said: Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for His glorious return. Only He can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only He can give us joy and make us holy. We need only yield to His saving work.
And this brings us back to where we started: longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for Him is to know how much we need Him. To long for Him is to constantly seek His face and call upon His name. Cry out with the Church, “Come, Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)
This song says, “My Lord is getting us ready for that Great Day, who shall be able to stand? … Sinners will be running on that Great Day … Better get ready … Who shall be able to stand?”
As the Advent season begins, we are immediately drawn into its principle theme of preparation and readiness for the coming of the Lord. The first coming of the Lord 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 the Second Coming of the Lord in glory.
Thus, as the curtains draw back on the opening scenes 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, 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. As we saw two weeks ago, the historical context in which the Lord was speaking was not that of the end of the world, but of the destruction of the Temple and of 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. Whatever the personal context will be for us, the message is the same: be ready!
Let’s study this gospel in two stages, and then heed its message.
I. DOUBLE VISION – The gospel opens with a description of tribulations that are about to come on the land. But in that description there is a twofold reaction that is described. Note first the tribulation that is described and then the first of two reactions that are intertwined with 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.
The political powers will be confused and in dismay. Fixed points in this world such as the sun, moon, stars, sea, and land will be shaken. This will cause many to be frightened, shocked, and bewildered. And thus is described the reaction of one group of human beings.
But not all human beings react in this way. There is a second reaction that is prescribed and described:
But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.
Yes, this a very different reaction: one of expectant joy and serene confidence. And 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!”
Thus, there is the dread of the defeated and the delight of the delivered.
Of those who experience dread, other Scriptures say,
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:7).
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)
Of those who experience delight, other Scriptures say,
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)
Come, O Lord! (1 Cor 16:22)
Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book (Rev 22:7).
He who is coming will come and will not delay. My righteous will live by faith….we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved (Hebrews 10:37, 39).
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Rom 8:37).
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. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall (Malachi 4:1-2).
Yes, it is a kind of double vision: two very different experiences of the same reality. The difference, as we shall see, is that between sin and grace, and with which “army” we have allied ourselves.
As an example of this “double vision,” consider the Civil War. As with any war, the issues leading up to it were complex, but it is simply not possible to remove from the mix the egregious injustice and sin of slavery. As the Northern troops swept (often ruthlessly) through the South there were some who saw only destruction and conquest. But there were others who saw something very different. An old spiritual from the time said,
Oh the slave folk say, “Ho! Ho!
And the master says, “Oh No!”
And it must be now that the kingdom’s coming
In the year of Jubilo!
So for some, it was the definitive end to power and the South they knew. To others, it meant vindication and freedom.
In order for us to celebrate on that day when the Lord comes, there are prerequisites that must first be met. And that leads us to the next stage of today’s gospel.
II. DIRECTIVES– The Lord continues on, instructing 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.
And herein the Lord gives us five basic directives of things to avoid and practices to adopt in order that we be ready and able to greet Him in all His glory. Notice that the Lord announces the effect (drowsiness) and then the causes. 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.
1. DEBAUCHERY – In the text, the Lord warns of the problem of “carousing.” The Greek word used is κραιπάλῃ (kraipale), which refers to the giddiness and headache caused by drinking wine to excess. More generally it means the excessive indulgence of all of our passions, or of living life to excess. Other translators render this word as “dissipation,” referring to the general squandering of resources that results from overindulgence.
We, of course, live in times in which our every need is (over)supplied. There is much opportunity for excess. 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, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease plague us.
And 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, PC, iPad, and/or cell phone vies for our attention. It jams our mind and breaks our union with Christ and even with our very self. And 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!” But it is worse than that because it seems since we cannot get away from it.
We spend, spend, spend and then borrow, borrow, borrow to support our spending. We need two incomes and a 60-hour work week so that we can afford our lifestyle. And 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, 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. But up goes the cry anyway: “More! One more round!” Excess, dissipation, surfeiting, carousing; more, more, more!
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.” And thus we see the human person, overwhelmed with excess, 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). This is anxiety and the Lord enumerates it as among those things that destroy our readiness to stand before Him with joy.
3. DRUNKENNESS – Here the Greek word use is very straightforward: μέθῃ (methe), meaning drunk on wine. But why do we drink? Frankly 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. We need something to soothe us. And instead of slowing down and seeking God, we drink. We anesthetize our mind. And it is not only alcohol that 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. For 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. But instead of seeking a clear mind, 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.
4. 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.” And thus we see that the effect that all of 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 heart 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. And so they medicated it all 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; so they slept. (But Satan 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. Since it is too much we tune out and dull our mind, and 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 are we to do about this awful cycle?
5. 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 Lk 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.
Once we have set our sights on God through vigilant prayer, everything else in our life becomes ordered. And 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.
The Feast of Christ the King (celebrated yesterday) signals the end of the liturgical year. This coming Sunday marks the beginning of Advent and a new liturgical year. Perhaps then we do well to prepare by taking a look ahead just past Thanksgiving.
Many people think of Advent merely as being “pre-Christmas” time: office parties, shopping, decorating, and baking. But in the Church, Advent is more a penitential period, a time of preparation for both the Christmas Feast and the Second Coming of the Lord. The purple vestments signal penance. The faithful are encouraged to go to Confession, and the liturgical texts and readings emphasize readying for the coming of the Lord.
The theme of preparation (and much of the season itself) is couched in the dramatic struggle between light and darkness. This makes sense (at least in the northern hemisphere, where the darkness deepens and the days grow shorter). In these darkest days of the year, 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. Here in Washington, D.C. 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 in this vein (probably by Yogi Berra), “It’s getting late very early out there.”
For us who live in modern times, the drama is less obvious. It is little more than an annoyance, as we must switch on the lights earlier. But think of those who lived not long before us in an age before electric lighting. 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 impediment.
Some years ago, during a widespread power outage, I was struck at just how incredibly dark it was outside at night without the streetlights and the lights emanating from homes. Frankly, it was hard to venture out. I lost my bearings quickly and stumbled over some simple things like a curb and a fencepost. We moderns just aren’t used to this. Once, I toured Luray Caverns in the nearby Shenandoah Mountains. At the bottom of the caverns, hundreds of feet down, the tour guide gathered us near the center of a large cave and shut off the lights. The darkness was overwhelming. It was an almost physical feeling. I felt a slight wave of panic sweep over me and was relieved when the lights came back on. I wondered, “Is this what it’s like to be blind?” Yes, light is very precious.
And so here in a “deep and dark December,” the light continues to recede. The spiritual impact of this drama of light is brought into the Church. Our hymns turn to images of light. The darker it gets, the more candles we light on the Advent wreath. In the darkest days of December, our Advent wreath is at its brightest. As Scripture says, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it … The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world (John 1:5, 9). An old prayer says, Within our darkest night you kindle a fire that never dies away.
As the drama of light and darkness outside continues, we arrive at December 21st and 22nd—the shortest, darkest days of the year. By December 23rd, the ancients could detect a slight return of the light; the morning star began to herald something new, something brighter.
People, look East. The time is near Of the crowning of the year … People, look east and sing today: Love, the guest, is on the way.
And then, on December 24th, in the middle of one of the longest nights of the year, the liturgy of Christmas begins: Christ is born and on December 25th a new light shines. From then on, the days get longer.
Yes, a great drama of light is unfolding before us; it is Advent. It is a time to recognize our need for the light and just how precious is Jesus, the Light of the World. In these darkest days, ponder 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 samples: Advent hymns that speak to the Light.
Of course, this external drama of light and darkness in nature is but a symbol of the great struggle between light and darkness in our world, our culture, our own hearts, and the hearts of all whom we love. It is the greatest drama of each of our lives. Will we choose to walk in the light or will we prefer the darkness? Our choice will determine our destiny. Judgment day is coming and we must be prepared by embracing the light of God’s truth and Jesus Himself, who is the Light of the World.
Thus, in Advent, we are summoned to understand how bad the darkness of sin really is, and we are warned to prepare for the coming judgment. Almost all the readings of the first two weeks of Advent speak to this theme of warning and readiness. The Dies Irae, which most associate with the Latin Requiem Mass, was actually written as a hymn for the Second Sunday of Advent.
Now, of course, some may protest such “negative” themes for Advent. But remember, if we aren’t aware of the bad news, then the good news is no news. Hence, this Advent reflection on the seriousness of the dark reality of sin is to prepare us for even greater joy at the birth of a Savior, who is the Light of the World and can lead us out of the dark tomb of sin into the wonderful light of grace.
Hence, the symbols of light and darkness point to a real drama and remind us to be sober and serious about the trouble we’re in, why we really need a savior, and how good it is to greet the Light of the World … IF we are prepared.
II. Our Stance to the Light and Darkness – Ultimately we are either facing the light and welcoming Him, or facing and in the darkness. These are the only two stances possible. There is no third way. Are you walking in the light or are you standing in the darkness?
This is Our Moral Stance. Scripture warns in many places about the two ways of light and darkness, and admonishes us to stand and walk in the light. Here are just a few:
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 Pe 1:19).
Thus, we are warned what time it is, that judgment draws ever closer, and that we must walk and stand in the light and not be like those in darkness. The Advent season acknowledges the reality of deepening darkness, and reminds us that we must all the more run to the coming light, Jesus. We must walk in the light of His truth as set forth in His Word, in the teachings of the Church, and in creation. We must seek the enlightenment of the Sacraments and live in honesty, integrity, and mutual fellowship with the Lord’s Body, the Church. This is to be our moral stance: toward the light and away from the darkness.
This is Our Liturgical Stance. – Since we are discussing the season of Advent, we might also do well to mention something of our liturgical stance as well. Over the past few decades, our liturgical stance has become muddled and, I would argue, somewhat incoherent. What used to be the clear stance of a community facing East has become an increasingly closed circle, a community closed in on itself, too often singing of itself and referring to itself in song and self-congratulatory applause. We have discussed these problems often here on this blog. Until about 1965, the almost-universal liturgical stance was of a community all facing one direction (liturgical East, symbolized by the crucifix more than by the compass), and being led there by a celebrant who could see where he was going. The celebrant, as alter Christus, represented Christ leading His people to the Father in adoration and thanksgiving. The priest, as a man, stood at the head of the community looking for Christ to come again. Scripture quite frequently attests that God will come “from the East.” (Again “East” is less a matter of the compass than of the entire community looking toward the liturgical East, the Cross.)
Looking to the East for God to come is not the arbitrary notion of a primitive religion. It is well-documented in Scripture and makes sense based on the fact that the East is where the light comes from. Physical light is a symbol of the True Light, who is our Lord and God, Jesus Christ. Here are just a few references from Scripture:
For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man (Mt 24:27–28).
Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God! (Bar 4:36)
Afterward he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was like the vision which I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision which I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple (Eze 43:1–5).
Sing to God, ye kingdoms of the earth: sing ye to the Lord: Sing to God, who mounts above the heaven of heavens, to the east. Behold he will give to his voice the voice of power: give ye glory to God for Israel, his magnificence, and his power is in the clouds! (Psalm 68:32-34)
This is not intended to be a full-length treatment of the “Ad orientem” question regarding the stance of the priest and the people. Reasonable people differ on this matter in terms of what to do today. I only wish to note that in many ways our liturgical stance has become muddled. If it is true that our stance should be toward the Light, then why are we facing all sorts of different and “opposing” directions in the liturgy? Why do we not all face East together for the great Eucharistic Prayer, as we did for over 19 centuries?
While it is fitting that the Liturgy of the Word be celebrated toward the people, it seems that the Eucharistic Prayer is more suitably proclaimed with the whole community (priests included) facing to the East—toward God. For it is to God that the prayer is directed and it is to God that the people are led in admiration, thanksgiving, and pilgrimage.
The Advent hymn says it well: “People look East, the time is near!”
III. The Summons to the Light – Having laid out the great drama of light and darkness and heard that we should take a stand for and toward the light, we note that Advent also proclaims, through a series of biblical texts and prayers, a warning to those who either reject the light outright or just fail to prepare for it. Here are just a few biblical texts:
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. 2 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 post to comment on each of the texts above except to say that they summon us to the light in a spirit of readiness, having first prepared ourselves by becoming accustomed to the light and the fire of God’s love. If we are not ready, the light will seem blinding and the fiery love unbearable, and we will recoil in wrath, rather 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, then light, all glorious and unending, will be ours.
There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; 4 they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever (Re 22:3–5).
This is our future, ifwe are faithful and allow the Lord to enlighten us now so that we can love the future light of ten thousand megawatts. Walk in the Light!