It’s not yet Christmas, despite what festoons our city’s streets and shopping centers. It's Advent, the four-week preparation for Christmas. As we enter the season of gift giving, make sure God gets your best gift, which is your time in prayer and your heart in penance. Prayer and fasting soften the human heart. Indeed, Christmas softens the cold and hard city. More people greet each other with a smile and show a little more patience in the streets. I try to greet at least one stranger on the sidewalk every day. Sometimes I get a startled look, but most often I receive a joyful smile. Those smiles nurture my soul. It is the baby in Bethlehem, in the arms of his Mother, with Joseph behind her, with the ox and ass looking on, that help us believe in human warmth and divine love. Jesus came once, and He will come again. As St. Cyril writes of Advent: “We look beyond the first coming and await the second.” In fact, the readings for this first Sunday of the Liturgical Year put us on alert: God is underway toward us, like a great ship on the horizon, steaming into port. Let’s get ready!
His Second Coming
God does not reveal the day of that Second Coming to keep us awake. It is human nature to procrastinate, to get by with as little as possible. It’s like the man who prayed for a parking place: “Lord, if you find me a parking spot I promise I’ll go to church next Sunday.” Immediately a car pulls out of a spot in front of him and he says “never mind, Lord, I found one.” We do not think much about what we do not see, and our God is a hidden God. We eat and drink, we manage our businesses and our families, we “marry and are given in marriage,” without a thought of our first principle and final end. We think more about food and drink than about Jesus and Mary. We spend vastly more energy on finding a wife or husband than on finding eternal life. Consider how much time and money we Americans spend on our hair compared with the time and money we spend on the things of God. “They were eating and drinking,” Jesus says in today’s gospel, “marrying and giving in marriage, right up to the day Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” Christ’s Coming will roll over us on that day like a Deluge, so let’s be ready for it.
We prepare for Him by sanctifying everyday life. God offers us food and drink, marrying and giving in marriage, as sacraments, signs of His goodness and paths to eternal life. Food and drink, school and work, friendship and love, lead us either to heaven or to hell. Nothing in our lives is simply neutral. Those preparing for Christ continue to eat and drink, but not “in carousing and drunkenness,” as Paul writes. We marry and are given in marriage, but without “sexual excess and lust.” We go to work every day, but “without quarrelling and jealousy.”
St. Paul, in his usual bold manner, says that we should make “no provision for the desires of the flesh” as we await Christ’s return. Catholics used to practice at least a minimum restraint of the flesh every Friday, in union with Christ’s total sacrifice on that day. Most Catholics don’t know that canon laws still requires us to offer some form of penance on Fridays (canon 1250). This could be abstaining from meat, or keeping digital silence, or refusing to gossip at work. It might be attending Mass or praying the rosary on Friday, or writing a letter to grandma or cleaning your room. In our parish we receive Holy Communion on our knees as a small act of penance. In a healthier time, Catholics knew how to say no to the body’s desire for food and drink, for sex and violence. We can regain our innocence; we can rebuild the peaceful order of a disciplined Christian life by even a little consistent prayer and penance.
Let’s begin Advent, before the Christmas parties engulf us, with sanctifying prayer and penance. A group of exorcists has asked us to pray and fast this coming Friday, the First Friday of the new liturgical year, to make atonement for recent acts of idolatry in Rome, and to beg God’s mercy for corrupt Church leaders. On page two of our bulletin you will find five ways to offer penance this Friday, including three daily Masses. All penance must be done under the loving care of Our Lady. We want to fast neither too harshly nor too lightly. We should not fast merely to prove our willpower, nor to the point of disabling ourselves. We should not pray long hours from self-righteousness. Our Mother in heaven will rightly order our prayer and penance, guiding our hearts to her Son Jesus. All glory and praise to Him, forever and ever!