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.