In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is the second Sunday of the Advent season, which leads up to Chrsitmas – the day on which we celebrate the nativity (or the birth) of Jesus. “Advent” is from the Latin word which means “coming,” and all of today’s readings are oriented toward a coming time of deliverance, and the coming of the Deliverer. Underwriting the whole thrust of Advent’s narrative arc lies an unsettledness, a dissatisfaction about the state of affairs in the world from which God’s people yearn to be delivered. Our intuition tells us that things in the world are not as they should be, and we can extrapolate from the very perfection of the God we serve and with whom we aspire one day to be united, whose kingdom we hope to inhabit, that THIS is not yet it.
Such a disposition is behind the prophecy we heard this morning from Isaiah who speaks of withering grass and fading flowers, but also of the coming end of Jerusalem’s warfare, when “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together,” (Isaiah 40.5).
And likewise the fire in the belly of John the Baptist, about which the reading from Mark’s Gospel speaks, was kindled by a holy and all-consuming dissatisfaction with the status quo. “John the baptizer,” it says, “appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance,” (Mark 1.4) because of the impending Kingdom of God. John was the final prophet of the Old Covenant, in a long succession stretching back almost to creation itself. He stood as it were in the gloom of an imminent sunrise. “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” (vv. 7-8). Matthew and Luke add that, not only will he baptize us with the Holy Spirit, but with fire as well (Matt. 3.11 & Luke 3.16).
This frame of mind is like the frustration of an insomniac. One is made keenly aware of something familiar and good and deeply satisfying that remains just out of reach. And one’s awareness of it is made almost unbearably sharp precisely because of its nearness and absence. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote compellingly of this frame of mind, and of how fittingly Holy Church evokes it during Advent, during winter, and at the end of the year. It is a passage I have quoted before, and to which my mind is inexorably drawn back each year around this time:
“Such is the frame of mind which befits the end of the year; and such the frame of mind which comes alike on good and bad at the end of life. The days have come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life is well enough in its way; but it does not satisfy. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that ‘the night is far spent, the day is at hand,’ that there are ‘new heavens and a new earth’ to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will ‘soon see the King in His beauty,’ and ‘behold the land which is very far off.’ These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age, waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly, for the Advent of Christ.”
We have seen a pronounced discontentment with the status quo in our nation in recent weeks, surrounding the events in Ferguson, Missouri. You would need to have been living under a rock not to have been aware of it. It has consumed the attention of mainstream and social media, the custodians of our public discourse. Profound questions have been raised that touch on the very bedrock of free societies – questions about equality under the law, the presumption of innocence, rules of evidence, burdens of proof and so forth. And of course the perennial American questions surrounding issues of race and economic justice. I will not bore you with my opinions on these matters, except to say that our collective suffering seems to me to be a facet of God’s judgment on this nation for the horrendous evil of African slavery – one of three great evils perpetrated by our nation that, in my view, cry out to heaven for the vengeance that belongs to God alone – the other two being our historic treatment of American Indians, and of the unborn.
I will also say that I agree with those who see in our society – for all of its greatness and for all the very real and very precious freedoms that it has in fact secured for hundreds of millions of people – nevertheless a systemic prejudice against the poor and the weak (of various races). And I believe Christians are right to be dissatisfied by it. The question, though, is what to do with our dissatisfaction. And the answer is certainly not to riot, loot, and burn. Still less is it anything like the (very democratic) horrors that took place in the Place de la Revolution in Paris at the end of the 18th century – when the streets ran with blood.
The true answer, rather, is indicated by Scripture. The answer to systemic unrighteousness is personal righteousness. This is the answer propounded by John the Baptist, who preached REPENTANCE. The same answer is propounded by Jesus, who did not ask his disciples to fix their corrupt and corrupting society, but rather commanded them to become perfect (cf. Matthew 5.48).
God has already pronounced judgment on this world. On all of it. Protests and social reform and political action are insufficient and ineffectual from the eschatological perspective commended by Scripture. The only solution to this world’s problems is fire. Today’s epistle makes the point rather explicitly: “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… the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire!” (2 Peter 3.10f). But then it returns to the message of the prophets, of John the Baptist, and of our Lord himself. In answer to the question of what sort of persons we ought to be, in light of the coming fire, the answer is plain: “Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace,” (v. 14).
The world will go its way and God will mete out what is due to it. That is not our job. Our job is to become holy and, as St. Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends upon you, [to] live peaceably with all,” (Romans 12.18).
Where do you begin? It isn’t really all that complicated. Obey the moral teachings of the Gospel and the precepts of the Church. Repent. Who among us is without sin? Yet how many of us go to confession regularly? Attend mass and look for Jesus there. We don’t have to wait for the Day of the Lord to encounter him – and we dare not. He comes Sunday by Sunday, and indeed day by day, right here on this altar. Attend to the prayers of the mass, and really search for the face of the Lord in this context. He is coming! He is here! Here to be worshiped, loved, and obeyed – right here. And pray – diligently, daily, in a disciplined way. Recite the Psalms, read the Bible, recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Magnificat, the Angelus, the Church’s prayers. Don’t have a childish prayer life that is only active when you need something, or when you THINK you need something. Learn really to pray, not just to ask God for things, but to PRAY, to meditate on the mysteries of salvation, to seek the face of the Lord in stillness and silence. Pray daily on your own time, and with the Church. And always remember that prayer is as much (or more!) about LISTENING as it is about speaking.
One of the great 20th century divines of our tradition, Austin Farrer, sometime warden of Keble College, Oxford, elaborated on the connection between the world’s judgment and the personal holiness to which we are called. I will leave you with his words:
“Advent brings Christmas, [and] judgement runs out into mercy. For the God who saves us and the God who judges us is one God. We are not, even, condemned by his severity and redeemed by his compassion; what judges us is what redeems us, [namely] the love of God. What is it that will break our hearts on judgement day? Is it not the vision, suddenly unrolled, of how he has loved the friends we have neglected, of how he has loved us, and we have not loved him in return; how, when we came (as now) before his altar, he gave us himself, and we gave him half-penitences, or resolutions too weak to commit our wills? But while love thus judges us by being what it is, the same love redeems us by effecting what it does. Love shares flesh and blood with us in this present world, that the eyes which look us through at last may find in us a better substance than our vanity.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.