30 November 2008

Are you ready? Are you sure?

First Sunday of Advent: Is 63.16-17, 19b; 64.2-7; 1 Cor 1.3-9; Mark 13.33-37
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter: the time right before the arrival of an much anticipated divine revelation, a time when we make ourselves ready to be shown what God has to show us. Both Advent and Lent—though in profoundly different ways—prod us into remembering that not everything we can know about God and His will for us is knowable through argument, experiment, and rational deliberation. Yes, we are naturally graced in His image and likeness with every means we need to fine-tune our understanding of how we come to know, to sharpen the edges of what we know, to apply artfully, scientifically, technically the knowledge that we grow and harvest. But like children with little experience in the world of big things and predatory dangers—too ready to jump, so eager to do it on our own—we have to be shown, we have to be led to the show; however, what we need to know most is too bright, too sharp, so beautifully detailed and wondrously simple that to know it as it is would shock our natural apprehension, our graced comprehension, searing all our gifts of reason and will like food stamp baloney flash-fried in a hot buttered skillet. What we need is immeasurable holiness, Wisdom Himself. What we need to know of Wisdom is shown to us by Wisdom Himself. And like any adventure, like any enlightening quest we must be ready, fully prepared, wholly poised and trigger tight, at attention right on the blade’s edge set to see and hear and taste what Wisdom will expose to us. The days of Advent are the razor’s edge of the Incarnation, the blade against the skin of not-knowing-just-yet who comes to save us.

Though we are a month away from the solemnity of the nativity of our Lord, someone has already died for Christmas; or rather, someone has been killed at the beginning of another consumerist orgy before Christmas morning arrives. A stocker at Wal-Mart in Long Island, NY was trampled to death by shoppers rushing into the store to buy bargains. Every item bought in that Wal-Mart that day is an accessory to murder. What do we need to say about those who trampled him? Those who watched? Those who continued to snatch up the bargains? What a way for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord.

In some ancient pagan city long before the coming of Christ, this kind of human sacrifice might have been the perfect start to a holiday season of feasting and gift-giving, a raucous frolic of wailing and blood while waiting for the coming of a god in the flesh. Today, it is a headline. A link on Drudge. One of those news-of-the-bizarre items that we click on in order to watch the vid from Youtube, and then, bored with the shaky camera work and the lack of decent sound, we move on to the gossip about best-dressed or the least desirable relocation spot or top ten tips for knowing if he’s cheating on you. This man’s death is a passing moment, like a shampoo bottle over the laser-eye of the UPC scanner at the place of his death.

What do we need to know? Ask the question this way: what have we forgotten? We have forgotten too much. We have forgotten this: “You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever.” And we are afraid to ask this: “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” Why are we afraid to ask? Because we might hear this: “There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.” If this doesn’t freeze your blood, you aren’t paying attention. The Lord has something to show us. And we are not ready. What do we need to see? What does the Lord want to show us? Our guilt. Yes, our guilt. Do you think that showing us our guilt is unnecessary? Or maybe you think that showing us our guilt is somehow unloving or unforgiving or mean-spirited? Maybe it is. For now. But we need to see it nonetheless. Why? Because if we see our guilt, if we give a knowing nod to our guilt, we recognize that at our roots, from our deepest selves, we are good people. Have we forgotten this?

If so, Advent is here to remind us. What will you wait for this next month? The opportunity to break out the carols? The tree? The Santa Claus cut-out? Or will you wait to remember that you are a loved creature, wholly prepared and waiting, anxiously anticipating and sitting on the blade’s edge, poised to be shown your perfection? Think: who is coming? Who is it that comes in the name of the Lord to take flesh and bone in the womb of the Blessed Mother to be born and raised as a man and to live as a teacher of the truth of his Father’s mercy to his passion and to his death on the cross and his burial in a fresh tomb and his rising again from the grave? Who comes? For whom do you wait? You say, “I wait for the coming of the Lord!” Really? Do you? Do you really wait for the coming of the Lord? Or do you wait for the coming of Christmas? For the sales? The stampedes? The chaos?

For whom do you watch? We are children too small and too fragile to see and hear what comes. But we must. We must be ready. Having spent at least a month praying for the coming of the Lord, we must be wholly prepared, entirely ready to receive among us the Son in the flesh, our means of becoming all that we were created to be. Our waiting is not simply about doing a duty. Our waiting is about sharpening, polishing, shining, clearing out, and making ready—what?—our heart, our minds, our souls. Making room, creating space and time, shoving aside in order to pull in. He Who Comes to us is the Child of the Spirit of God, the flesh and bone of the Mother, the Word given hands and feet to walk and do among us. This is as much as we can see and hear and taste. And maybe not even this. Maybe with all the preparation, all the time before, all the time we have to make ready for the revelation, even so, even still, we are not wholly still, utterly set to take in, to absorb, to stand under the event—the coming of the Son in the flesh. Emmanuel. He is with us. Our God is with us. For our sake, He is returned.

Now what? Are you different? Have you changed? If not, why not? Why did you wait? Why did you bother? Is your God with you? If so, who are you? Who were you before; who are you now? If for you Advent is about Christmas, about Wal-Mart and the stuff under the tree, don’t bother. Guilt will mean nothing to you anyway. Long ago you accepted that you are bad person. If, however, you feel the guilt, you feel the separation from God, rejoice! Yes, rejoice! Because your guilt means that you have an inkling of He Who Waits with you, for you. You know you need to know him. And He knows that you want to. Advent is not a stepping stone to Christmas any more than Lent is leads naturally to Easter. Advent is that long space before that makes Christmas into a feast about Christ. Without that, without the waiting, Christ’s coming in the flesh is a predictable miracle, a practiced trick of magic and rehearsed belief.

Make ready. The pan is hot. The butter is melted. Are you ready to be fried?


  1. mrs. sullo8:30 AM

    '...like food stamp baloney flash fried in a hot-buttered skillet...'
    Lord, ha' mercy, yes! I wanna be fried!
    Right on, Father. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous11:52 AM

    Luke 12:49

    "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!"

    Luke 3:16 & 17

    "John answered them all, saying, 'I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.'"


    I really don't think that the majority of us Catholics - indeed, of us Christians as a whole - really grasp this.

    I suspect, however, that these verses of Sacred Scripture will be opposed by all the right - er, left - thinking people.

    Paul Primavera