Advent Penance Service

Readings: Romans 7:14-25; John 1: 35-39

pic advent reflection

St. Paul's instruction from his letter to the Romans this evening can seem a little confusing, I think. But the point that he is making is one that I think every Christian disciple can resonate with, at least a little. He says that he intends to do what is good, that he really wants to do what is good, that he knows doing what is good will give him ultimate happiness. But unfortunately, through the weakness of his humanity, that's not what happens. He doesn't do what is good, instead, he does wrong, he does what he hates, and this makes him frustrated and ultimately unhappy. This happens to disciples. Just because you know what to do doesn't mean that's what you'll end up doing. We are weak, sometimes doing what is right is just too hard, too exhausting, too inaccessible. We find ourselves struggling with the same sins over and over again, and it seems that we are just hopeless. I hope that you find that's the case for you, because I sure know I've been there often enough!

The ultimate question is the question Jesus asks the two followers of John the Baptist in this evening's Gospel: "What are you looking for?" St. Paul would say he was looking for the good. Maybe we might say we are looking for a peaceful life, or success, or whatever we think is good. But often enough, we settle for far less than the incredible good that God intends for us. We settle for having this or that trinket, or a promotion that takes us away from our families a few more hours every week, or a relationship that is not supportive of our relationship with Christ. We intend the good, but we settle for what we hate. When we do that, we diminish our capacity to receive the wonderful gifts God wants to give us. St. Augustine says, "Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?"

Pope Benedict uses that quote in his latest encyclical, Spe Salvi. He explains what St. Augustine means: "The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined" (Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 33). And what we are destined for is God himself, because God made us for himself. There is nothing in this world that will fill us up the way God will. And every time we settle for something that is less than God, we diminish our capacity for God that much more, and are that much more unhappy. We must, as His Holiness reminds us, purify our hearts of every evil, everything that takes us away from God. That's not an easy thing to do and it absolutely cannot be accomplished apart from a prayerful relationship with God himself.

And so we come before God tonight to ask for what is truly good. We ask for forgiveness and the grace to desire what is truly good. Pope Benedict says, "We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment-that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them (Spe Salvi, 33)."

And maybe that's the grace we'll receive tonight. Maybe we will stand before God and confess that there are times we've settled for a whole lot less than what he longs to give us. Maybe this Christmas we will have cleared away enough of the vinegar that Christ can be born in our hearts in a way that has not happened for a long time now. Maybe we will find that our desiring isn't a bad thing, and that we can fill up that desiring with the One who longs to satisfy our every longing.

We will still struggle with our desires, and the temptation to fill those desires poorly. It's the practice of prayer and the constant work of penance that can ultimately give us some victory over them. Because ultimately, the victory cannot be through anyone other than Christ. St. Paul recognizes that at the end of this evening's first reading. "Who will deliver me from this mortal body?" he asks. "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Jesus is our hope, he is the hope of reconciliation with God, he is the One through whom we will be filled up with what is good and what will make us ultimately happy.

One of my favorite Advent carols is "O Come, Divine Messiah." It reminds us that there will come a day when Christ will bring hope to its completion:

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

Dear Savior haste;
Come, come to earth,
Dispel the night and show your face,
And bid us hail the dawn of grace.

O come, divine Messiah!
The world in silence waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph,
And sadness flee away.

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