First Sunday of Advent – November 28, 1971 – CNR
The readings today begin the celebration of the season of Advent. The reading from Isaiah expects the reign of peace when the word of the Lord comes from Jerusalem. The readings from Paul and from Matthew’s Gospel concentrate on the future-orientation which calls Christians to decide to live lives worthy of the light that is about to dawn. I thought there might be some point to reflecting on the reading from Isaiah.
Its language is familiar to us all, the noble description of the day when peoples “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” when “one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” I remember in high school being taught that this was a prediction of the reign of peace established by Augustus over the Roman Empire at the time when Christ was born. I don’t think that interpretation holds, but at least it is better than those interpretations that would spiritualize the words of Isaiah to refer to some kind of inner peace. The Old Testament hopes were concrete: they looked forward to prosperous harvests, good food, health, peace; and, if that is not the whole of life, it is nevertheless a good goal to strive for; and the Old Testament prophets never pretended that their faith or hope spoke of another realm from the one in which men live out their daily lives. They were unable to separate, as many suggest we must today, the “religious” and the “moral” from the “political” and the “economic” realities of their historical moments.
I bring this up because it seems to me that we Christians have claimed to be the heir of Isaiah’s promise, and that, if that is so, then we have a special obligation to work for peace. We have a transcendent relationship to God, it is true, one that is not affected by the direst of situations, suffering, war, even death. But still, war means death and suffering for thousands, even millions of peoples; it is a quintessential embodiment of the irrationality of sin. And the Christian cannot remain indifferent to such evil. Especially he cannot if it is his own nation that takes part in the war-making and the war-preparing, for it still is possible, I hope, for us to say that the government of this country is our responsibility.
It is not my part to point to specific proposals for us to champion, even if I could say that I knew them. But I think the commitment to peace requires us to open our eyes to see what is a fact in our world: an idiotic arms race which has already accumulated fifteen tons of explosives for every person on the planet, disproportionate defense-budgets, involvement in a war that no one bothers to defend anymore, indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, providing arms for a hundred different areas of the globe. Fewer Americans are dying in wars, it is true, but not fewer people; and American lives are not more precious than Vietnamese or Indian or Pakistani lives. War remains war, and death remains death.
The minimum we must do is wake up to the realities, and to make personal and political decisions on their basis. We have to permit ourselves to ask questions that concern our support of the government’s policies. We have to help create a climate which encourages critical reflection on our culture and society, which makes conscientious objection, for example, an option for which a man at need not apologize or because of which he need not fear accusations of effeminacy or cowardice.
Perhaps the language of peace which fills the Advent and Christmas liturgies should permit us to do some hard thinking about the chances of real peace today. The issues are almost hopelessly complex; but that is all the more reason to have as many people sensitive to them all as is possible. Paul says we have to live as children of the day that is about to dawn; if that day is the day of peace, then living in the daylight now means working for peace. The day of peace will dawn slowly, but it will not dawn at all if there are no slight, even if fleeting, first probings of light into the darkness.
First Sunday in Advent–December 1, 1974–CNR
We begin today the season of Advent. The simplest meaning of this season is that something is going to happen, or, better, that Someone is going to come. And that meaning has as its immediate corollary that we may live out of the future and not just out of the past, out of hope and not merely out of memory.
Such expectation is reflected in all three of our readings, and in each it promises victory. In the Gospel-reading, it promises victory over the bourgeois assumption that things shall never be different and that, therefore, our lives may adequately be described as “eating and drinking, marrying and being married.” In the reading of Paul, expectation of an Advent promises victory over the comfortable pessimism of night, the night of addiction to drugs or sex or rivalry. And in the reading from Isaiah, it promises victory over resignation to the inevitable, the notion that nation shall always rise against nation, and swords shall never become plowshares.
Common to all three attitudes is the view to which Qoheleth gave classic expression: The sun rises and the sun goes down; back it returns to its place and rises there again. The wind blows south, the wind blows north, round and round it goes and returns full circle. All streams run into the sea, yet the sea never overflows; back to the place from which the streams ran they return to run again What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:5-7,9).
Such boredom may sometimes be affirmed that clearly; more common, however, is the simple refusal to ask whether there is anything else, anyone else, any power or person beyond those persons and powers already within one’s history. That means locking ourselves in the immediate, the regular, the common, the manageable, collapsing the great unanswerable question that man himself is into the many questions we ask because they admit of answers. Karl Rahner recently called that view damnation, and I think he was right; it is what St. Paul called “a world without hope and without God” (Eph 2:12), without God because without hope.
Advent requires us to repudiate such poverty and cowardice of spirit. It recalls another people’s hope, its experience of its poverty and need, and the promise of its healing. It builds upon a victory already achieved in the One then longed for, the utterly new One who robbed even death of its inevitable victory. And it looks forward to the enduring presence and final power of that victory in our own lives, as individuals and as the Church.
This season invites us to recognize “the time in which we are living,” that it is the hour for us to wake from our sleep, and to begin living “honorably, as in daylight.” There is not one long night of things. Dawn breaks, but we need to be awake to see it.
First Sunday in Advent – December 2, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
You may have seen that on Friday Pope Benedict issued the second encyclical of his pontificate. His first encyclical was devoted to the love of God, his love for us and ours for him; the theme of the new one is hope, and one wonders whether there will be a third on faith, so that all three of the fundamental virtues of the Christian life are covered.
The document does not read like an ordinary papal encyclical; it is very much like the essays Joseph Ratzinger wrote as a university professor, with learned footnotes, and a notable lack of the Church-speak one often finds in such texts. I can’t say that it makes for the easiest reading, but it is well worth the effort to understand it. You can find it in English on the Vatican website, from which it is easy to download and print it.
Although the Pope himself does not make the link, it was fitting that the encyclical appeared so close to the beginning of the season of Advent, since hope is the virtue most appropriate to these days in which we prepare for the coming of Christ. Texts from prophets, especially from Isaiah, are read out that declare the hope of Israel. The Gospels gradually prepare us for their fulfilment in Christ. St. Paul articulates the hope of the early Church that God would complete the work of salvation begun in Christ.
That we are saved in hope is the Pope’s emphasis: that what God has already done for us in the death and resurrection of Christ grounds a confidence that there is no difficulty we can encounter that we cannot overcome. St. Paul called death “the last enemy,” one that we must all face one day. But if Christ endured our death and overcame it by his resurrection, then we need not fear any lesser or less certain enemy. If we can face even death confidently, then indeed nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
St. Peter wrote that we should be ready to give a reason for anyone who asks us to explain the hope that is in us. He thought Christians stood out from others by their hope particularly in the face of persecution. The American philosopher Josiah Royce thought that communities are defined as much by their hope for the future as by their memory of the past. I wonder if that is true of us; might it not be helpful if we asked ourselves: does hope define our Christianity as much as faith? What do we hope for? Have we any hope? Do we look forward to anything? Does some difficulty or burden weigh us down, smother our freedom, sap our joy? Depression is widespread in our society: Is not one of its marks that we do not expect anything, await anything, even want anything?
Well, then, perhaps this Advent can be a time for reflecting on what we expect out of life, out of the future, from God. God is not done with any of us yet, and we should not allow ourselves to think that he is. Every one of us can still advance in the life his grace makes possible, advance in love, advance in freedom, advance in joy. And one of the ways this can happen is by our taking the time to reflect on our hope, or our lack of hope, to try to find out in what areas resignation rather than hope reigns, to ask what we wish could be different in our lives and then begin to hope for it. We might then make it the object of our prayer, of specific prayer, or of a more general prayer: Lord, show me what you would like me to become? Open my eyes to see what I might yet be. Widen my mind. Loosen my heart. Deepen my joy. Free my freedom. Give me a future, Lord. Come ever and ever again to me. With such prayers we will indeed be celebrating Advent, awaiting in hope the coming of our God, and we can be sure that he will indeed come.
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 minorRoman 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.