1st Sunday of Advent
Preached December 1, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Jesus Christ came once as Savior and he will come again as Judge. We prepare for Christ’s actual coming in judgment by receiving in faith the One who has already come as our Savior.
In the Advent season, we prepare for the commemoration of Christ’s coming as Savior in his birth in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, our preparation begins by recalling first that he will come as Judge, at an hour when we least expect, whether we are ready or not. One will be taken, another left. One will be saved, another lost.
This reminds us of the importance, here and now, of truly welcoming him into our life anew as our Savior. He is not just ‘my personal Savior’, he is the Savior of all mankind. We are not saved personally, except as belonging to a larger whole, the Body of Christ, the Church.
It is all very well and good to speak about Jesus as our Savior, but unless we understand the need for salvation, we will have little appreciation for the Savior.
Yes, we want salvation, we want to be saved from disease and poverty and we want to be saved from injustice, tyranny, oppression, we want to be saved so as to be free to live the life we want and do as we please. That is not the salvation that Christ came to bring us. Actually, he came to save us from the misery of doing as we please.
All this will be clearer if we go back to the beginning, to Adam and Eve. They were created in the grace of God, which means that they shared in God’s very life, living as his intimate friends. In addition to sanctifying grace, they possessed such perfect innocence, interior order in their souls, and dominion over their bodies, that they could live in each other’s presence, in the complete transparency of their nakedness, without any shame or need for shame. Finally, they lived in perfect harmony with the created world, over which they had been given dominion under God.
In sum, in Eden, there was perfection and peace in four hierarchical orders, the order of man to God, the interior order of the individual human person, the social order that begins in the relation of male and female, and finally the order of man over the whole creation.
St. Augustine defined peace as ‘the tranquility of order’; in Eden, before sin, there was perfect peace because there was perfect order. This order was not their supreme goal and destiny, but a preparation for perfect union with God in heaven, which would have been granted to them had they not fallen into sin.
Notice what happened. First, Adam and Eve disobey the divine commandment, thereby breaking their right relation to God, disrupting the first and most fundamental order, losing thereby the grace and friendship of God for themselves and their children.
Next, everything else falls into disorder.
They see that they are naked. In other words, they have been stripped of the clothing of divine grace, have lost their own personal innocence, the right order of their soul, and dominion of soul over body. Hence, they have become weak, vulnerable, and ashamed.
From this comes the disruption of their mutual relation as they cover their shame, hide from each other, and enter into the bitterness of mutual recrimination that has haunted human life ever since.
Finally, their relation with the created world, over which they were meant to exercise a benevolent dominion, was lost as they were cast out of the garden and had to toil and sweat to gain their bread from the midst of thorns and thistles.
In all this disorder resulting from sin, the relation to God and the interior order of the human soul is key.
Nevertheless, the modern world, at least since the so-called “Enlightenment”, but which would be better named ‘the dark ages’, has gone in the opposite direction. The modern world has sought to perfect the lower order of human relations and relationship to the created world, while rejecting the importance of the interior order of the soul and the relation to God, through grace, and the eternal destiny for which we were created. The goal has been to fashion a new earthly paradise in which people will have all their material needs met and will be able to do as they please, with no need to practice virtue; a world of justice, without men and women who are just.
This project was driven by the industrial revolution, which in the unrestrained drive for the conquest of nature, introduced all manner of disorder and injustice in human relationships, while wreaking havoc with the physical environment. This in turn has led to reactions of socialism, which opposes the social injustices brought about by industrialization, and environmentalism, which opposes the disorder in the physical environment. Yet, these twin reactions of socialism and environmentalism, because they derive from the same atheistic root as the darkness of the Enlightenment, are equally doomed to failure.
Both projects are doomed to failure because the evils of human injustice and the harm to the environment have their roots in the disorder of the soul that is alienated from God.
Salvation means the restoration of the right order of the universe, beginning in the soul of man in relation to God. Salvation requires, in the first place, that man be brought back to God by means of religion – the root meaning of the world ‘religion’ is ‘binding back’ or ‘rebinding’. Any old religion is not good enough; right religion, true religion, the religion willed by God is needed.
Jesus, the Savior, came to restore our relation to God through right religion, the worship in spirit and truth, which works to purify our soul and restores to us the gift of grace and our eternal inheritance. Through his death on the Cross, Jesus also offered to God the pleasing sacrifice, which he has given us to offer anew, in an unbloody manner, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Through his death on the Cross, Jesus made up for Adam’s sin and restored to us the gift of grace, which is now given to us through faith and baptism. Finally, he purifies our souls through the suffering of the Cross, in which we must voluntary share, and through the practice of virtue, in which we must follow his example, summed up in his self-gift upon the Cross.
In the measure that we return to God through the Cross and the Sacrifice of the Mass, in the measure that our inner life is purified by suffering and strengthened by the practice of virtue, in the measure that we are faithful to the life of grace, in that measure also will our social relations (on all levels) become more peaceful and just, and in that measure too will we learn how rightly to use created things in view of our eternal destiny.
That is the meaning of today’s 1st reading: Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths. Peace, the tranquility of order, must always begin with a return to God, through Jesus Christ, in the right worship of the true religion.
Nevertheless, this work of salvation will always remain imperfect so long as we remain in this life, in this passing world, and will not be brought to completion until Jesus returns, the dead are raised, the wicked are cast out in the judgment, and the whole world transformed by God’s power into a new heaven and new earth, in which justice dwells. (cf. 2 Pe 3:13) This new heaven and new earth already exists, is already brought to fulfillment, in the Blessed Virgin Mary, assumed into heaven.
In the meantime, while we pursue our earthly pilgrimage, and especially in this time of Advent, we must reject the evil spirit of the holiday season, the spirit of buying and partying. We need to take to heart the words of St. Paul that we have heard: let us throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy – not in all the disorder and confusion of a soul separated from God through sin – rather put on the Lord Jesus Christ – his grace and his example – and make no provision for the desires of the flesh that seek nothing beyond this passing world.
Now let me propose a practical challenge for the season of Advent, a challenge that if you take it up, will truly help you to prepare for Christmas in a spirit of silence and prayer.
Stop using social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.); stop watching videos, movies, and television; stop taking photos and filming videos. Keep to text and emails for needed communication only.
If you can’t stop these things altogether, then submit your use of them to a strict examination, cut out everything that does not help build up a life of faith, hope, and love, everything that is a distraction and weight upon the soul, put strict limits on the use of these media, like only during certain limited times of the day. We must throw these electronic devices from their thrones, cast them from their temples, and turn them into the limited tools they are. Do not let them be the sources of continual distraction that they have become.
What are you to do with the time? Pray and read Scripture or books that will build up your faith. Talk to your family members and friends. Visit the sick. Do not worry about boredom; learn to suffer boredom. We have become too dependent on constant sensory stimulation. A little boredom will actually do us good because it is the pathway to freedom from our addiction.
I don’t make a lot of promises, but I will be so bold as to promise that in the measure you are able to meet this challenge, precisely as an Advent practice, in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s birth, you will discover the interior holiness and joy of Christmas as never before.