First Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

advent1“He will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Does that sound familiar? Of course it does; it is from the first part of the Creed. Of that beautiful phrase, Pope Benedict says, “From the earliest times, the prospect of the Judgment has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life, as a summons to their conscience, and at the same time as hope in God’s justice” (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 41). This is a case of an important principle of theology, lex orandi, lex credendi-that is, the law of prayer is the law of belief-more or less, my Latin is not all that great! Basically it means that when we pray week after week, “He will come in glory to judge the living and the dead,” that’s exactly what we believe. We believe in a time that Christ will come in judgment to bring to light all those things that have been in darkness, to right every wrong, and, as the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer taught us just last week, to usher in “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”

So who cares? Who even believes that any more? And if we believe it, who’s to say we look forward to it with hopeful expectation? The words Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel are pretty ominous: “Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” The kind of dark, fearful vision of the Judgment day has inspired many ages of Christians, particularly Catholics, to look forward to that day with all the eager expectation of having a root canal without an anesthetic!

And, to be sure, there is something fearful about that day. The awesome power of God, on display in all God’s glory, will shine light into every dark corner of our world and of our lives, and surely much of it, perhaps even most of it, will be found wanting when compared to the greatness of God. A popular Christian song paints a picture of how it might be to stand in that presence:

Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine.
(Mercy Me, “I Can Only Imagine”)

We don’t like to think about such things normally. In some ways there’s a certain kind of apathy. If it’s not going to happen in the next ten minutes, then why do I have to worry about it? And the Church in recent times has been pretty lousy about teaching about the Judgment. We want to soft-pedal it so as not to scare people unnecessarily. We don’t talk about sin any more, we don’t want to clutter your hectic lives with Holy Days of Obligation and all those other pesky rules, and we’ve even renamed the gift of the Spirit from “Fear of the Lord” to “Wonder and Awe in God’s Presence.” We should apologize for that, because we’ve done you a disservice. You might as well cultivate a certain fear of the Lord now, because you will need it on that great Judgment Day. You absolutely will fear the Lord then; I guarantee it.

Well, Father Pat, what other good news do you have for us? Well, there are two sources of Good News I want to share with you today. The first comes from Scripture, the second comes from our Pope. Advent is a time of hope. Though the Judgment may inspire Fear of the Lord, that fear is the first stage of wisdom. Today’s first reading gives us hope to deal with that great and awesome day: “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.” We have not been left to deal with the time of Judgment without an anchor of hope. That anchor is the Church, the Lord’s mountain, that provides instruction in the ways of God and a kind of roadmap to follow in God’s ways. Because, let’s face it, our ultimate goal is to come through the Judgment Day and be in God’s presence for all eternity. God has given us the Church to show us how to get there.

And that gift of the Church is wonderful, but we must humble ourselves and slow ourselves down to take advantage of it. We absolutely have to stop thinking we know what’s best for our lives-both our temporal as well as our spiritual lives. Because the Church has two millennia worth of saints who have wrestled with the truth and been victorious over the world by joining themselves to Christ. We need to open our minds and hearts to the wisdom of a Church that is governed by the Holy Spirit and possesses a Truth that is eternal, irrefutable and able to bring us to salvation. Maybe this Advent that means that we will humble ourselves and come to the Sacrament of Penance for the first time in many years. Or maybe in the coming year we won’t miss Sunday Mass in favor of a soccer game, an opportunity to golf, or a really important project at work. Because as important and wonderful as these things may be, soccer, golf and work will not get you to heaven. They just won’t.

The second source of Good News is from Pope Benedict. I quoted him at the beginning of this homily, and that quote was from his new encyclical “Spe Salvi,” released just this past Friday. It’s a teaching on the theology of hope, a beautiful theme for Advent, and so I’ll be preaching on it all Advent long. “Faith in Christ,” His Holiness tells us, “has never looked merely backwards or merely upwards, but always also forwards to the hour of justice that the Lord repeatedly proclaimed. This looking ahead has given Christianity its importance for the present moment” (Spe Salvi, 41). Pope Benedict’s point throughout the encyclical is that we will not find hope in ourselves, in science, in politics, in soccer, golf or work. We won’t find hope in Oprah or Dr. Phil or anyone else. The only real hope we have is Jesus Christ, and he is all the hope we will ever need.

Even before Christ’s birth, the prophet Isaiah was able to look forward to this time of great hope. Centuries before Jesus was ever born, Isaiah foresaw a time when nations would “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” Those are words of hope that we desperately need in our world right now. At a time when violence is on the rise, and abortion clinics are built in our backyard, at a time when many of our country’s physical and monetary resources are being consumed by a difficult war, at a time when personal morality and responsibility are at an all-time low, we so need to hope in “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”

Take all those challenges, as well as difficulties in our own lives, and maybe these are all much scarier and more brutal than the Day of Judgment could ever be, especially when we have joined ourselves to Christ. Maybe the hope that Jesus brings this Advent and every day of our lives helps us to look forward with eager expectation to that Judgment Day when everything will finally be made right. It’s no wonder that even that fearful Day of the Lord cannot keep the Psalmist from singing, “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.”

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