The Day of Judgment
This first stage of Advent, from Dec 1-16, prepares us not for Christmas but for Jesus’ Second Coming and his Final Judgment. The readings and the prayers say nothing about a baby in Bethlehem; they speak rather of justice will be meted out to the wicked and mercy to the righteous. We’re not talking sleigh bells and Christmas trees but apocalyptic judgment and a world remade in the image of God. The prayer over the gifts, for example: “O Lord, since we have no merits to plead our cause, come, we pray, to our rescue…” And the Preface: “We watch for that day to inherit the great promise in which we now dare to hope.” The first reading: “Not by appearance shall he judge: he shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth and slay the wicked.” And the Gospel: “Repent, …you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Even now the ax lies at the root.” Trees that bear no fruit will be cut down and thrown into fire.
Certainly everyone fears judgment. Even in our “enlightened” and “liberated” society, or perhaps especially among people that ignore the existence of a Divine Authority, people sense that man’s injustice cannot go on forever. But if God is not my judge, then no one is my judge. So people avoid judgment in cases of obvious wrongdoing—they hire lawyers to contest simple traffic tickets and insist on their innocence in cases of even grave crime. You just need the right lawyer—remember the OJ Simpson case, or the many corporate fraud cases such as Enron and Worldcom. “I did nothing wrong” insisted President Clinton in the Monica Lewinski affair. You will hear people say “I left the Church because it is so judgmental.” “No one can impose their morality on me.” We all pretend that somehow we will escape judgment, and many go so far as to pretend that God and natural law do not even exist. But as one of my seminary professors said, “you can’t break the natural law; you can only break against the natural law.”
The Winnowing Fan
Advent, like Lent, is a season to prepare for the coming of Christ by confessing, and submitting to, his divine judgment. That judgment is fearsome, for it submits itself to no human appeal. That judgment is also our only hope, for it decisively corrects human error. There will come a day, the last of human history, when God will right this tilting ship. There will come a time when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb, and the child will play by the cobra’s den—when children will play next to buildings that were once abortion clinics. There will come a day when “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the water covers the sea.” That day will surely come, for God has promised it, and his promises are sure. But it will come only after the judgment, because divine mercy comes to us only through divine justice. Is Jesus a meek and mild baby in the lap of his maiden mother, Mary, or is Jesus a terrifying Judge coming on the clouds with fearsome power? He is both: for the faithful, Christ’s judgment is mercy; for the unfaithful, his judgment is swift and terrible justice.
We will all be threshed
“All Judea and the whole region” were rushing to John the Baptist by the River as they “acknowledged their sins.” God’s judgment is a threshing, a separation: he will separate wheat from chaff. The chaff he will burn and the wheat he will gather to himself, into his barn (heaven). John asserts that “His winnowing fan is in his hand….” A winnowing fan was a pitchfork that a farmer used to toss the mixture of wheat and chaff into the air, so that the wind could blow away the chaff while the heavier grain would fall to earth. It is said that a friend is one who separates wheat from chaff in the one he loves. And yet this separation, while a necessary dynamic of friendship painfully shakes us up.
God threshes every man, shaking out our sins like a man shakes out a dirty rug. He is doing that already, for purgatory begins now, in this life. Let God thresh and winnow you. “Take what he gives, and give what he takes, with a big smile,” in the words of Mother Teresa. A saint is simply one who submits herself to the threshing judgment of God, who does not resist when she is tossed about by divine providence, who allows herself to be purified of her chaff. Trust the Lord’s threshing of your life, for He knows what he is about.
The Immaculate Conception
Today is the patronal feast of our Nation, the Immaculate Conception, although we will celebrate it tomorrow so as not to displace a Sunday. Our Lady is the only daughter of men that did not need to be threshed, because she had no sin. And yet God did thresh her: he led her through trial, sorrow, confusion, and darkness. Like Jesus, she experienced the full weight of sin’s consequences, even though herself without sin. If even she patiently underwent this threshing, cannot we also patiently accept God’s disciplines in our lives? With her, we gladly offer difficulties, aches and pains, perplexities, weaknesses, and darkness. We allow God to winnow us, so that we may be gathered into his heaven with the Immaculata and all the saints, for he is the judge, the just judge, living and reigning forever and ever. Amen.
Advent looks forward, not backward
We have entered the Season of Advent and most of us are thinking of Christmas; in fact, I began my Christmas cards yesterday. But Advent is not about Christmas, at least in the Extraordinary Form readings; it’s about Christ’s Second Coming. The Epistle today clearly warns us to prepare ourselves, and the Gospel foretells a terrifying end of the world. The next three Sundays of Advent are less apocalyptic but no less focused on the Second Coming. They say nothing about the birth of the baby Jesus, nor do we hear any Messianic prophecies, as in the Ordinary Form readings. Advent, at least in the Extraordinary Form, is meant to focus us on the Second Coming of Christ, not his First Coming. What if Christ were to return to earth during this “Holiday Season.” Would we be ready for him? Would the world, which has removed the very name of Christ from Christmas, be ready for him? Here he comes, and there we are, waiting in line at Macy’s, or fuming with road rage on the way to the mall. If Christ knocked on your door an hour before your big Christmas party, would you let him in? “Honey, tell whoever it is to come back next week—I’ve got so much to do before the guests arrive!” I’m not forbidding Christmas parties, but let’s try to keep Advent in focus. Our priority during Advent, and Christmas, is not social fun, but prayer and Christian love and almsgiving, some measure of penance. Our Christmas parties and shopping and tinsel are fine, if we keep them within the authentic purpose of the liturgical season. The coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ is the guiding purpose of Advent.
People will die of fright
On the First Sunday of Advent, as I said, we hear of confusion and terror: the sea and the waves will roar; the powers of the heavens will be shaken. “Nations will be in dismay; people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming.” It is for these days that we must prepare, because they will surely come. At His First Coming, God came as a darling baby on the lap of his childlike mother Mary. At His Second Coming, Christ will come on the clouds with power and great glory, his authority fully manifest. “When these things begin to pass, look up, because your redemption is at hand.” We are preparing for our redemption, for we are not yet redeemed—it is “at hand,” it is near, but not yet here. God’s judgment on our lives, His sentence on our time, has yet to come. Everyone in this church today (especially me) could end up in hell, and it would be an unspeakable tragedy if even one of us were eternally damned. Advent calls us to keep this danger in mind during our Christmas parties and shopping adventures, but also to keep in mind the proximity of our redemption. Now is the time to prepare for judgment; now is the time to hope for redemption.
How do we keep a good Advent? Many Americans begin the “Christmas Season” with the new civic holiday we call “Black Friday.” The very name indicates a culture that was once Christian but has become the negative image of what it once was. Children of the light, St. Paul says, “throw off works of darkness.” If we’ve thrown Christ out of Christmas, then indeed it is a “Black Friday.” Do we prepare for Christ by eating and drinking? Again, St. Paul: “not in orgies and drunkenness, rather, make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” Folks, we are supposed to lose weight in this season, at least before December 25. But we do live in a time that ignores and despises the Word of God. Yet everything but the Word of God will burn in the universal fires at the end of human history.
There is a true Advent, and there is a false Advent. The false is the negative image of the true. The true Advent has gradually been turned upside down, and we don’t often stop to think about it. Christians are to practice deeper prayer, charity, and mortification in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Funny thing is, we mostly do just the opposite. We pray less and we eat more. We waste more money at Christmas on more banalities, precisely at the time the Church urges us to simplify, to spend less time and money on distractions. Let’s try to refocus, to direct that time and money this time of year on the things that last: on deeper prayer, on sacrificial and heartfelt charity. Advent is a time to remember the neediest, to give gifts without expecting a return.
In the end, Advent prepares us for our own death, and the death of our world as we know it. Deep down, we long for the death of all that is imperfect and sinful, so that we can enter into a new and perfect life. Death is hard, and more than anyone, we need our Blessed Mother at the hour of our death. Our mother brings us to birth, and God has ordained that she be with us at the hour of our death. If Advent points us to the end of all things and the beginning of a new Kingdom, then Our Lady must be a large part of Advent and Christmas. And indeed she is, on almost every Christmas card and still (Deo Gratias) on US Postal stamps. Even as we shop and have parties and write cards, let us bring Jesus and Mary to every Advent activity—a decade of the rosary or the Angelus and some real Christmas carols at every Christmas party—so that we will be prepared to meet Christ when he returns to earth.
Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, we call “Gaudete Sunday,” so called from the first word of the Introit or Entrance Antiphon for the Mass, which is also the Second Reading:
Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say it, Rejoice!... the Lord is near” (Phil 4:4).
The priest and the altar clad themselves in rose colored vestments to indicate the joy of these last two weeks before Christmas. The Prophet Zephaniah commands us in much the same words as St. Paul, “Shout for Joy, O Daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel!”
Joy in the midst of school massacres
We celebrate Guadete Sunday two days after a particularly terrible school shooting. First a young man killed his mother at home; then he went to the school and slaughtered 20 little children at their desks, along with some teachers; finally, he killed himself. This shooting was so sad that no one could speak of it on Friday afternoon without briefly faltering, without spontaneous tears. Even President Obama seems to have shed some genuine tears.
“What should we do?”
How can we rejoice in a world where sadness and horror leer at us from every corner? Many children of Sandy Hook school will never be able to trust anyone again, bearing the unconscious fear of someone appearing off the street to destroy them. And yet: the apostle insists that we “have no anxiety at all. The peace of God will guard your hearts.” The Prophet directs us: “fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!”
In the face of irrational, chaotic evil, many simply reject the Gospel as a fairy tale. Some express anger at this “opiate of the people” and seek to tear out manger scenes from public places. In the face of human and demonic evil, how can we rejoice?
Let’s turn to the Gospel: John is baptizing at the Jordan River, and everyone asks him: What should we do? He tells the rich person to share his wealth, the tax collectors to charge only what is fair, and the soldiers to stop extorting money. In other words, there are some things we can and must do to receive the Gospel joy. The joy of freedom from fear and sadness is not free. It cost God his only begotten Son; it will cost us too. We cannot simply follow the impulses of the flesh and expect freedom and joy.
First we must pray. Those who take the trouble to pray regularly—who go to Mass and confession often, who study the Scriptures, who make serious retreats—these radiate a deep, consistent joy. They are free men and women. In addition to prayer, we must practice justice and charity, as John the Baptist told the soldiers and tax collectors. In our time, the greatest injustices are committed against children and the elderly. What must we do to overcome the Culture of Death in the United States of America?
First, we must confront the fact that we kill not twenty but thousands of children every day through legal abortion. We can hardly expect people not kill children when our government subsidizes it under another name. We can’t sell folks a culture of death and expect them not to kill. Second, we must clean up the entertainment industry: the movies, television, and video games we pump out drip with blood lust and disrespect for the human person. The games we give our children train them to destroy. Third, we must defend the Judeo-Christian principles of our nation. Government schools have tutored our children in atheism, and most parents make no objection. Forty public schools have been attacked since we threw God out of them. Each school echoed a cry of despair from someone who couldn’t face a world without God.
We can rejoice, even today, indeed, in all circumstances. Let us turn to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Cause of our Joy, and imitate her purity.
The other day I joined a group of folks for Christmas caroling at an abortion clinic. It was cold. It was wet. It was depressing. A stream of young mothers entered an ugly building. Their expressionless faces belied the fact that they were carrying their own children in to be cut up and tossed into plastic bags for disposal. Within the hour, at least ten children would be destroyed.
The contrast between the Christmas carols and the abortion clinic struck me. “What Child is this, who laid to rest…,” we softly sang as the mothers loped into the clinic. “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed….,” we sang in perfect unison and harmony. The silver notes of “Silent Night” filled the parking lot as the mothers shut their ears, “Holy Infant so tender and mild—Sleep in heavenly peace.”
They were stopping their ears. A car pulled out of the lot, the windows tight shut, loud rap music pounding from within. The young lady at the wheel averted her eyes. We sang sweetly on. But not everyone sang. Rather than sing, some of the people called out to the fathers and mothers bringing their children into the clinic to die. “Hey, you. You’re a father. Take responsibility for your child!” Some, rather than sing, held up angry signs to cars passing by.
It seemed to me that we either sang or we frowned. There is certainly plenty to frown about. We pro-lifers have lost this war. No one is paying attention to us. America has re-elected the most pro-abortion president in history, who will appoint two or three Supreme Court justices. American Catholics are mostly pro-abortion, or at least refuse to defend human life. The media, the education system, the government—all the powers of this world are against us, and we have lost this war. There is no hope. So why am I standing out on this sidewalk?
And I realized: I am standing out on this sidewalk not to win a war, but to sing. I am not convincing anyone of anything—that is God’s work. My work is to sing of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. My job is to witness, and let God do the rest. And if I do not sing, I will despair. Christmas is a fact that secular advocates of death can change. A young mother, impoverished and unwed, gave birth to her child. It was the single decisive fact in human history. No one can change the fact of Life’s triumph in a world of death.
We can either give in to anger, or we can sing. Much better, especially during this Christmas season, to sing.
Joy of the Return
In another week most of us will return home for Christmas. How happy we are to come home to Mom and Dad, to our brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, to drive the old roads and return to our old room. So much of life is an exile from those we love, and few are the times of return.
Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, writes from exile in Babylon in our first reading.
“The Chaldeans took Jerusalem and burned it with fire,” he writes tersely. But, one day, God will bring us home, Baruch assures us. As once He led his captive people out of Egyptian slavery, so will He lead a second Exodus out from this Babylonian captivity. “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever….” For “God is leading Israel in joy, by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.”
We can picture the Jews in long caravans, returning to Jerusalem in 540 BC. They rebuilt the city, but it wasn’t long before foreign armies burned Jerusalem again, and many times after that. Jerusalem is still on fire—the earthly “city of peace” pounded by Hezbollah rockets and ripped apart by suicide bombers. We are still waiting for God’s promise of an Exodus out of our cities of blood and despair into his Land of rest and joy. When will he come to lead us home?
Advent: A penitential season: Prepare!
In Advent we recall the fact that He has already come, and He comes again every time we make the effort to follow him along The Way. It is the way of “penance,” of choosing His will over ours at every turn. Penance is not a dreary obligation, but the brisk decision to tighten our belts and set out upon the road that leads home. Advent is a penitential season, not as strict as Lent, but certainly a time for greater simplicity, prayer, and fasting. John the Baptist calls us to a “Baptism of repentance.” As we have loosened up on Advent penances over the years, we’ve lost much of the joy of the season. December 8, for example, is rarely a Holy Day of Obligation any more, and in skipping this Feast we miss out on the joy proper to Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. The time before Christmas has become a hollow shell of what it once was, a secular holiday that celebrates it knows not what. God offers us perfect joy, but perfect joy on earth is wrapped in simplicity, prayer, and penance.
St. John the Baptist emerges from the desert, from his long Advent of prayer and fasting. “Prepare the way” for Him, he cries out. Every valley must be filled in, every mountain made low, every crooked way made straight, and rough ways smooth. No doubt, he refers to those rough ways in which we treat our family members during Christmas vacation. He must have in mind those mountains of pride we display in classroom discussions. Perhaps he knows our crooked ways of pretense and deceit, and the gaping valleys of our laziness? John the Baptist tells us to get the earthmovers out, the bulldozers, the caterpillars. Build my Messiah a temple, and a road, fit for his majesty, appropriate to your own dignity. This is the joyful penance and the bracing work of Advent.
Students’ Christmas Vacation: Some practical suggestions
Before you go home, I offer two practical suggestions. First, pray that you not get into the usual arguments with family members. You are different than when they last saw you, and misunderstandings often arise. Pray the rosary and commit yourself to acts of cheerful humility and understanding love. Second, make a written plan for prayer and study during your three weeks: when and where you will pray, and when and where you will study? This side of the grave, there is no such thing as an absolute vacation. We bring our work with us, and we never abandon the asceticism of true prayer.
In the rest of Advent, I recommend you pray one rosary every day. It’s the least penance we can do. Bring Our Lady with you on Christmas Vacation, and you will always have the joy and the affection of Christ Jesus. Since this will be the last Sunday Mass for many of you at TAC before vacation, I wish you all a blessed and merry Christmas.
Homily: Advent, a preparation for the Coming of Christ
Extraordinary Form Homily, December 2nd, 2012, 1st Sunday of Advent
Not a Christmas Carol
Luke 21: 25-33 “People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
On this first Sunday of Advent, the Catholic Church, which invented Christmas, seems to squarely oppose the merry festivities gracing our living rooms and public squares since Thanksgiving. Do the Church’s chosen Scriptures speak of warm Christmas joy today? They do not. They bleakly foretell chaos, unparalleled distress, nations in dismay and people even dying of fright. Why does the Church try to ruin our Christmas parties with these scenes of cataclysm and catastrophe?
Because the Catholic Church, which invented Christmas, also invented Advent. And Advent is a preparation not so much for Christmas Day, but for the great Day of the Lord’s Second Coming. He came once as a little babe. He will come again upon the clouds in power and glory to judge the nations. And every eye shall behold him, yea, even them that thrust him through.
Which ought we to do during Advent? Prepare for Christmas parties that recall his First Coming, or prepare as He told us for His Second Coming? Only those who don’t believe in his First Coming would neglect to prepare for his Second Coming. And so we should prepare for both, but more seriously for the Second Coming. Holy Mother Church has designed Advent in two stages. Stage One, until December 16, trains our thoughts on Christ’s Second Coming. Stage Two, from December 17-24, prepares us to celebrate with appropriate joy Christ’s First Coming, so that we might be ready for the Second.
A Penitential Season
Romans 13:11-14 “Brothers: you know it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now … Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
Advent is a penitential season: not as strict as Lent, to be sure, but certainly a time of greater simplicity and prayer. Indeed, it is the “hour to wake from sleep—our salvation is nearer now,” than Advent 2011. St. Paul urges us to, “conduct ourselves properly—not in drunkenness and promiscuity, rivalry or jealousy.” How many “Christmas parties” reduce themselves to promiscuous drinking parties, ending with jealousy and fighting? Advent is the time to “put on the Lord Jesus, making no provision for the desires of the flesh.”
Why does Jesus warn us about the end of the world in the first place? To frighten us? No, to protect us from the emptiness those feel who put their hope in what can never afford lasting joy. Jesus states unequivocally that Heaven and earth will pass away. Everything one can buy at a store, every earthly love and friendship, even our own bodies, will pass away. It will blow away as a bit of dust in the wind. The earth itself, and the sun, the entire galaxy and known universe, will eventually pass away. Only Christ and his Word will not pass away. The Church seeks to spare us the bitter pain of disappointment. Yes, this life is good, but it is not a lasting good. We all need a lasting good, a joy that nobody can take from us. If we keep hoping in things that continue to fail us, we end up forging a prison of disappointment and bitterness around our earthly lives. Advent frees us from that prison by fixing our hope on the only one who will never fail us.
Year of Faith
We enter Advent in this Year of Faith. During the last Year of Faith in 1967, the Church wrote a creed, the Credo of the People of God. I end with a line from that credo: “Christ ascended into heaven whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead, each according to his own merits. Those who have responded to the love and compassion of God will go into eternal life. Those who have refused them to the end will be consigned to the fire that is never extinguished.”
Brothers and sisters, our lives are a long Advent, a preparation for the Coming of Christ. He will come for us either on the day of our death, or on the last day of human history. Everything we do in this brief time on earth should be directed toward attaining eternal life, and avoiding that fire that is never extinguished. In every Advent, we turn to Our Lady. She holds out the baby Jesus to us. He grasps us in his tiny hands, and leads us unfailingly into eternal joy.