First Sunday in Advent – November 28, 2010 – St. John’s
Advent is a season of expectation, of anticipation. The word itself, “advent,” was used in ancient Latin to refer to the official visit of the Roman Emperor to a city, a triumphal entry, which thus becomes an image of what St. Paul calls “the blessed hope, the coming of the glory of our great God and Savior.” As one can imagine how a city would prepare for this rare event by sprucing things up, repaving roads, etc., so St. Paul wished his people to live in anticipation, that is, oriented toward a glorious future when God’s plan would be fully realized when Christ returns. We do not live our present lives, in other words, only by looking back to what God has already accomplished in Christ but also by looking forward to what is still to come.
One can sense this sense of expectation vividly in today’s second reading, from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It begins with the exhortation: “It is time for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first believed. Night is almost over; daylight is near.” By “salvation” St. Paul meant the completion of God’s work, and this both in itself and in us. That means on our part turning away from the sorts of deeds that people do at night, under cover of darkness: carousing and drunkenness, sexual excess and lust, jealous quarreling. He urges us to live as in the daylight, honorably, unafraid to let our deeds be seen by others, and particularly by God.
The passage reminds me of St. Augustine. Perhaps you know a little of his story. He was born in northern Africa of a Roman noble and his Berber wife, Monica, a Christian. He received a good education both in Africa and in Italy. His personal religious quest saw him for ten years accept the teachings of the Manicheans, a group that imagined that the universe was ruled by warring gods, one good and one evil. Augustine indulged in behavior typical of men at the time, including sexual activity, took a mistress, and fathered an illegitimate child. When he became dissatisfied with the Manicheans, his journey took him towards philosophy, and this, after a while, brought him to look again at Christianity, which he had been introduced to by his mother but had never accepted. He tells this whole story in his classic spiritual autobiography, Confessions.
In the eighth chapter of the work, he describes his turmoil when he became convinced intellectually that he must become a Christian but found himself still tied down by his addiction to sex. He said he experienced for himself what St. Paul, earlier in this Epistle, had described: “My inner self agrees with the law of God, but I see in my fleshly members another law at war with the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members.” Augustine has a striking metaphor for this state of internal division. He said it was like a person who knows he should get up out of bed, who even wants to, but is too sleepy to move. He writes, speaking to God: “I had no answer to make to you when you said to me, ‘Arise, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.’ Though at every point you showed that what you were saying was true, yet I, convinced by that truth, had no answer to give you except merely slow and sleepy words: ‘Soon’–‘In a minute’–‘Just a little longer, please.’ But ‘soon’ never came to the point of decision, and “just a little longer’ went on and on for a long while.” Surely we have all had this experience! St. Augustine even had the honesty to admit how dishonestly he used to pray when he would say to God: “‘Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!’ I was afraid you might hear my prayer quickly, and that you might too rapidly heal me of the disease of lust which I wanted to satisfy rather to suppress.” Perhaps we have also all had this experience!
One day, when this inner warfare reached a critical point, he heard a child’s voice repeating simple words: “Tolle et lege, tolle et lege“–”Pick up and read, pick up and read.” He picked up the book of St. Paul’s Epistles that he had been reading and the first words his eyes fell upon were the very ones we heard today: “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in jealous quarreling, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh in its lusts.” He says that he didn’t need to read any more: “At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.” He committed himself now wholeheartedly and enrolled himself for baptism. He would go on to become a bishop and by his preaching and writings became one of the most important thinkers not only of his age, but in the whole of Christian history.
It is a dramatic story, told dramatically. The experience it describes brought him unequalled insight into the personal drama that is human life as lived before God and it made him uniquely sympathetic to the struggle of people to free themselves from the chains of addictive sin. He never forgot what he had been, and so he never despaired of people who now were what he had been. He was seeking them, he said, because God had sought him, and found him.
Augustine’s experience helps us understand what St. Paul is urging us to do today: to wake up, to leave behind deeds best done in the dark, and to start living in the light of a new day. Each of us could consider whether there are not sins from whose chains we need to be freed. Consider the three types that St. Paul mentions: drunkenness and carousing–perhaps we are physically addicted to drugs or alcohol or cigarettes; sexual excess and lust: perhaps our addiction is to sex, to an improper relationship, to pornography; jealous quarreling: perhaps we are trapped in a rat-race of competition, of dog-eat-dog rivalries. If asked about any of them, perhaps we might find ourselves like what Augustine says he was, knowing what we should do, but as unable to do it as the sleepyhead is to get out of bed.
In one of his sermons, Augustine was urging people in his congregation to stop delaying their commitment to Christian faith and baptism. He imagines one of them saying, “Well, whenever I turn back to God, he will grant me his forgiveness.” Augustine replies: “Yes, indeed, when you turn back, he will give it, but when is that ‘when’ of yours? Why is it not today? Why not as you listen to me? … Why not today? Why not now?” Life doesn’t have a snooze button.