26 November 2016

THE Final Exam

1st Sunday of Advent (2016)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic/OLR, NOLA

The prophet, Isaiah demands that we “walk in the light of the Lord!” St. Paul urges us to “throw off the works of darkness!” And our Lord warns us to “stay awake!” Walk in the light. Throw off darkness. Stay awake. Sounds like someone is studying for final exams! Or maybe pulling an all-nighter on year-end tax preparation. But, we know, that today is the first Sunday of Advent – our season of waiting – so walking in the light, throwing off darkness, and staying awake are all imperatives for preparing ourselves to welcome the birth of the Christ Child a month from now. Why do we need to prepare? If you are at all like me while waiting, your attention lags. You get anxious. Twitchy and frustrated. You begin to wonder if the cashier is napping. Or if the guy at the head of the line is trying to order lunch in Swahili. While waiting, I begin to experience myself as the center of the universe. I am the only one with important things to do and important people to see. I am busy, rushed, running late. IOW, my pride comes raging to the surface, and the possibility that I am being taught some humility only makes me angrier. With pride comes serious temptation to sin. The spirit of Advent is right behind me, whispering, “Walk in the light. Throw off darkness. Stay awake.”

If I manage to resist punching the spirit of Advent in the face, I take a deep breath and imagine myself walking in the light. There are no shadows. Not even my own. No dark places. Nothing not shining with the light Christ offers. “Walking in the light” can sound a little too much like a Star Wars proverb. But it's the biblical way of saying “live with the Lord,” “follow His commands,” “walk the path of righteousness.” We can prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child by getting up in the morning and going to bed at night with a single prayer on our lips: “Lord, you are my light; make me your light to the world.” If we see and hear ourselves as conduits for Christ's light, as a means of shining out Christ's light to the world, then we can more easily resist pride and the temptations pride entertains. Waiting becomes more than just a trial in patience. Waiting becomes our way of bearing witness. Just being still in Christ and letting him convert us into his peaceful presence – no words, gestures, or signs from us. Just Christ radiating out. Scripture calls this “countenance.” One's bearing – encouraging, patient, peaceful. If we are in Christ, then there can be no darkness in us. Our countenance is Christ.

If Christ is our countenance – our manner of appearing and being in the world – then we have already thrown aside the works of darkness. The phrase “works of darkness” always makes me think of the many sci-fi/fantasy novels I've read over the years. I immediately see Dark Lords and Evil Knights ravaging the land for power. Paul is thinking a little smaller here. The works of darkness he urges us to throw off are the works of our disordered passions – rivalry, promiscuity, drunkenness, and jealousy. Not exactly the rioting armies of Orcs from Mordor but nonetheless all fatal to our relationship with Christ. Every work of darkness, every act willed from a disordered passion twists the human person toward folly, turning him or her into a fool. We become used to sin; we come to see and hear disobedience to the Father's will as normal; and, finally, we run out of time, and God honors our faithlessness by faithfully allowing us to live apart from Him forever. While we wait on the birth of the Christ Child, while we walk humbly in his light, the works of darkness appear as stains, as shadows on our Way. We can overthrow these dark works by turning again and again to Christ. In the sacrament of confession, in personal and public prayer, and in works of charity. We can stay with Christ by staying awake in his spirit.

When Jesus warns us to “stay awake,” he means to warn us against spiritual complacency, against the bad human habit of “feeling secure” while living outside the will of his Father. We may feel secure in our homes, our jobs, our personal relationships, but we are not truly secure until we are “awake in Christ,” until every aspect of our lives is fully alive to the reality and power of Christ to bring us to the Father. It's one thing to know about Christ; it's another to know him. It's one thing to love the idea of Christ; it's another to love him. Being “awake in Christ” means being fully, actively conscious that you and all that you have belongs to Christ – as your freely offered gift to him. When we take his yoke and follow his Way, we become his. Wholly owned, if not always wholly operated. By walking in the light and throwing off the works of darkness, we can be both wholly owned and wholly operated by Christ and therefore always awake to his coming, always awake and waiting on his coming again. Advent is our time to wait on his birth at Christmas and to anticipate his coming again at the end of the age. He comes once to free us and again to judge us. Sitting on the judgment seat, he may ask you: “Did you walk in the light? Did you throw off the works of darkness? Did you stay awake?” These are your questions for the season of Advent. Prepare your answers well. . .this will be The Final Exam.

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